January 20, 2017


Our ecumenical Pope Francis

We are in the middle of the ecumenical celebration of the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” It began on Jan. 18 and concludes on Jan. 25. It’s an international celebration, co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches.

It was called the Church Unity Octave when it was begun 109 years ago by Father Paul Wattson. He was an Episcopalian in 1908, but entered into full communion of the Church and his cause for canonization is in process. He’s a Servant of God, the first step in the process.

The theme this year is “Reconciliation—The Love of Christ Compels Us” (2 Cor 5:14). Pope Francis used the quote in 2013 in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Popes have promoted ecumenism ever since the Second Vatican Council promulgated its “Degree on Ecumenism” in 1964, and it’s difficult to say that Pope Francis does it more than, say, St. John Paul II. But it seems that Pope Francis uses every possible opportunity to encourage good relationships among communities of Christians.

He did that long before his election as pope. In Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became friends with Marcelo Figueroa, who was director of the United Bible Society in Argentina. They worked together on biblical projects, including 31 television programs in which they and Jewish Rabbi Abraham Skorka discussed social problems in the light of Scripture.

Figueroa left the United Bible Society to work for Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina, and then followed him to Rome when the cardinal was elected pope. Today, still a Protestant, he is director of the Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther prepared 95 theses, or theological statements, and posted them on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Lutherans began the commemoration of that event on Oct. 31, 2016, in Lund, Sweden. Pope Francis was there for the commemoration. (So was Figueroa.)

It was not a celebration, but certainly the pope’s participation in this event was historic. In his talk that day, he said, “As Catholics and Lutherans, we have undertaken a common journey of reconciliation.” He said that the event presented “the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.”

The meeting also marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical dialogue that began in Lund in 1967. This dialogue, the pope said, “confirmed our desire to advance toward full communion.” That, however, seems to be a long way away.

Pope Francis has also met frequently with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. He obviously would love to heal the separation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that began in 1054.

This past Nov. 30, the feast of St. Andrew—who founded what became the Church in Constantinople—the pope sent a special “big embrace” to Patriarch Bartholomew and “this cousin Church.” In a letter to the patriarch, the pope praised the way Catholics and Orthodox have begun “to recognize one another as brothers and sisters and to value each other’s gifts, and together have proclaimed the Gospel, served humanity and the cause of peace, promoted the dignity of the human being and the inestimable value of the family, and cared for those most in need, as well as creation, our common home.”

Although the pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople have been close, there was always a problem with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox Church. On Feb. 12, 2016, Pope Francis had a cordial meeting with Patriarch Kirill when they were both in Cuba. They met for two hours and issued a joint declaration pledging to “walk together.” We haven’t heard anything more about this relationship since then.

Pope Francis was with Patriarch Bartholomew last August in Assisi to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the First World Day of Prayer for Peace that St. John Paul II convened in 1986.

Our pope is widely admired by other religious leaders, who look to him for leadership. Let’s pray for greater religious unity.

—John F. Fink

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