Pope Francis first met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in the Holy Land on May 25. That encounter in the region of Jesus’ birth also paved the way for the two heirs of Peter and Andrew to pray in the Vatican for peace between Israel and Palestine. Spirit-led gestures!
Some observers were cynical that the two Christian leaders met with Israel’s Jewish President Shimon Peres and Palestine’s Muslim President Mahmoud Abbas only to pray separately, not together. Nonetheless, their June 8 peace prayers were addressed to the same God, God is one, though invoked by varied names. And the four believers prayed for peace. As admitted by President Peres, “The two peoples – Israelis and Palestinians – still are aching for peace.” President Abbas reciprocated by praying that the Holy Land be made “a secure land for all believers.”
In addition to his own prayer and words of welcome, Pope Francis thanked the Eastern Church leader, Patriarch Bartholomew, for attending the prayer event at the seat of the Western Church. On the next day, in an interview with the Spanish-language “La Vanguardia,” the pope spoke of the momentum of ecumenism. “Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has made efforts to become closer and the Orthodox Church has done the same,” he explained. “It is not conceivable that we Christians are divided, it’s a historical sin that we have to repair,” he added.
The focus on the “historical sin” of division came up again in papal discourse just one week later. This time, the pope was meeting with Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, who was in Rome for an event marking Anglican-Catholic collaboration. The head of the worldwide Anglican communion expressed a desire for full communion between the two Churches. The pope spoke of their shared history, which includes, not only cooperation, but also division. “We cannot claim that our division is anything less than a scandal and an obstacle to our proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to the world,” the pope said after the two men prayed in silence.
“Our vision,” he further noted, “is often blurred by the cumulative burden of our divisions and our will is not always free of that human ambition which can accompany even our desire to preach the Gospel as the Lord commanded.”
The encounter echoed a similar event in the Vatican, way back in 1960. It was a historic meeting between the predecessors of Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby. Pope Saint John XXIII was meeting then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Geoffey Fisher. It was the first time the world’s Catholic leader met with the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
“John XXIII, the Official Biography,” says that the Vatican’s overcautious L’Osservatore Romano newspaper had used the smallest possible print type to downplay Dr. Fisher’s visit. Enduring curial fears with great charity, the pope had said, “Not everyone here understands these things: they want perfection or nothing!” According to Archbishop Fisher’s taped biography, the pope had shown even greater magnanimity as he listened to the Anglican leader. Quoting from his 1959 encyclical, “Ad Petri Cathedram” (toward the See of Peter) the pope had exclaimed how he looked forward to the time “when our separated brethren would return to the Church.”
“Not return, Your Holiness,” the Anglican head had interjected.
“Not return? Why not?” the pope queried, reportedly.
“None of us can go backwards,” said Archbishop Fisher, adding, “we are all running on a parallel course, but we are looking forward until in God’s good time our two courses come and meet.”
While we continue to live in such hope, November 21, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism and the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches. Yet, “God’s ‘s good time” still continues to be “blurred” by what Pope Francis called “the cumulative burden of our divisions.” And as the pope very realistically noted, human ambition seems to thwart God’s good time too, just as it thwarts the peace that humans long for.
It all calls for prayer, more prayer and togetherness in prayerful action as we await the Lord’s healing manna of consociation.