CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online): In a teaching on the Church as the Body of Christ, given during his Wednesday audience of June 19, 2013, Pope Francis made an inspiring, personal and extemporaneous comment. It revealed what his life work has revealed for years. Throughout his service as Priest, Father, Bishop and Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, this man of God clearly hears the passionate Prayer of Jesus Christ:
"I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me." (John 17:21)
Here are his recent heartfelt words: "Divisions among us, but also divisions among the communities: evangelical Christians, orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, but why divided? We must try to bring about unity. Let me tell you something, today, before leaving home, I spent 40 minutes more or less, half an hour, with an evangelical pastor. And we prayed together, seeking unity."
"But we Catholics must pray with each other and other Christians. Pray that the Lord gift us unity! Unity among ourselves! How will we ever have unity among Christians if we are not capable of having it among us Catholics, in the family, how many families fight and split up? Seek unity, unity builds the Church and comes from Jesus Christ. He sends us the Holy Spirit to build unity!"
The commitment to unity of Pope Francis steps right into the trajectory of his two predecessors, Blessed John Paul II and His Holiness Benedict XVI. The sincerity of his quest for healing the divisions between Christians is expressed in both word and his deed. The comfortable way in which he shared from his heart that he had prayed with an evangelical Protestant pastor before giving his Wednesday Catechesis made my heart leap.
I have spent years praying and working with evangelical protestants and orthodox Christians, co laboring in the trenches of the culture on the great challenges of our neo-pagan age. I am so very happy to have the Pope make it so clear that this is part of our task, our call and our mission.
For those who have followed the selection of Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope, this will be is no surprise. One of his evangelical friends from Argentina, protestant evangelist Luis Palau, was straightforward and enthusiastic about his friendship and prayer with Francis.
His interview with Christianity Today, given the day after the Pope was selected, is well worth the read for anyone wondering where the Pope is headed as he steps into this trajectory of his predecessors and responds to the imperative of healing the divisions among Christians.
A wonderful emerging scholar and leader among evangelical Protestants in the United States, Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School, just wrote a piece for the same publication which is a must read. It is entitled, Our Francis, Too: Why we can enthusiastically join arms with the Catholic leader.
George writes: "Francis succeeds two men of genius in his papal role. John Paul II was the liberator who stared down communism by the force of his courage and prayers. Benedict XVI was the eminent teacher of the Catholic Church in recent history. Francis appears now as the pastor, a shepherd who knows and loves his sheep and wants to lead them in love and humility. The new Franciscan moment is the season of the shepherd. Catholics and evangelicals are the two largest faith communities in the body of Christ. Without forgetting the deep differences that divide us, now as never before we are called to stand and work together for the cause of Christ in a broken world."
Of course, Pope Francis had already shown us his heart for healing divisions. On March 20, 2013, he spoke these words to delegates of the Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West:
"Let us all be intimately united to our Savior's prayer at the Last Supper, to his invocation: ut unum sint. We call on the merciful Father to be able to fully live the faith that we have received as a gift on the day of our Baptism, and to be able to it free, joyful and courageous testimony. The more we are faithful to his will, in thoughts, in words and in deeds, the more we will truly and substantially walk towards unity."
The Gospel proclaims that in and through Jesus Christ, authentic unity with God - and through Him, in the Spirit, with one another- is the plan of God for the entire human race. The Church is the way to that unity. For the Church to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus effectively, she must be one. It was not the Lord's plan that she be divided. It is His Plan that she be restored to full communion.
I am one of many who called Benedict XVI the Pope of Christian Unity. He placed the full communion of the Church at the forefront of his Papacy. This was clear in his overtures toward our Orthodox brethren, whom we recognize as a Church and whose priesthood and Sacraments we recognize. It was evident in his outreach to the separated Christians of the Reformation communities of the West.
On the 4th anniversary of the death of Blessed John Paul II, Benedict reminded us of John Paul's passionate commitment to the full communion of the Church. That teaching is summarized in the Encyclical Letter "May they be One" (Ut Unum Sint).To be Catholic is to enter into the prayer of Jesus for the Unity of His Church, and to make it our own, in word and deed.
In Benedict XVI's first message as the successor of Peter he signaled his commitment to this unity: "Nourished and sustained by the Eucharist, Catholics cannot but feel encouraged to strive for the full unity for which Christ expressed so ardent a hope in the Upper Room. The Successor of Peter knows that he must make himself especially responsible for his Divine Master's supreme aspiration. "
"Indeed, he is entrusted with the task of strengthening his brethren (cf. Lk 22: 32). With full awareness, therefore, at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter's current Successor takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty."
Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church is rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. All who are validly Baptized already have a form of imperfect communion. We are invited to make the prayer of Jesus for full communion and visible unity our own in the way we relate to other Christians. We need to show the love so evident in the words and witness of Benedict, John Paul and Francis.
We should learn and use the language of communion which the Catholic Church now encourages. Blessed John Paul II wrote in his encyclical letter on unity: "It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters."
"Again, the very expression "separated brethren" tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion linked to the baptismal character which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions."
"Today we speak of "other Christians", "others who have received Baptism", and "Christians of other Communities". The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as "Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes" There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ."
John Paul also wrote concerning the urgency of building good relationships with other Christians:
"Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message. Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant".
"This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion, but is a manifestation of Christ himself. Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: "Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth. In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved."
I fully embrace the Catholic teaching that the fullness of truth is found within the Catholic Church. Because of that I also carry an immense burden to see the Prayer of Jesus in John 17 answered. There is a vital connection. Into a world that is fractured, divided, wounded, filled with sides and camps at enmity with one another, the Catholic Church is called to proclaim, by both word and deed, the unifying love of a living God.
Of all Christians, Catholics have the highest obligation to work toward authentic Christian unity. There is an adage in the Gospels which has application in this arena, "To those to whom much is given, much more will be required" (Luke 12:48). If the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church, that should not make us haughty, but humble!
Triumphalism is not the way toward Christian unity. One of the most difficult obstacles in making progress toward the visible unity of the Church is the reticence of some Catholics to accept the leadership of the Magisterium, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the clear teaching of the Catholic Church on its priority.
Let us take our lead from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as we consider the disunity among Christians, and how we will respond. These paragraphs are found in the section entitled "Wounds to Unity":
"817 In fact, "in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame." The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism - do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.
818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."
819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity."
820 "Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time." Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: "That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me." The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit."
Let us pray and work with all of our hearts for the healing of divisions among Christians and the full communion of the Church. Let us pray for Pope Francis as he leads us along the the way. May They Be One!