Chapel Talk, Bethany College, April 20, 2016
Since I am a Catholic, I thought it would be good to speak a bit about Pope Francis and his ecumenical endeavors. I am not concerned so much about praising the man, though I do admit to admiring him, but about looking at the relevance and importance of ecumenism.
I wanted to begin by pointing to an important distinction whose relevance may become clearer by the end of my talk today. That is the distinction between ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. Ecumenism is the discussion within the household of Christians; the term derives from Greek οἰκουμένη , which means “the whole inhabited world”. Or more precisely, the entirety of the household of Christians (in this case). We sometimes forget the metaphor of God’s church as a household, as a building in which resides a family. This is the root meaning of oikos in the New Testament.
Does ecumenical work involve Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and others? No, traditionally ecumenism is among Christians. Interfaith endeavors of one kind or another are thought to be different by nature because the commonality of God’s household is not that inclusive.
One more point before I look at Francis work: ecumenism is not universally loved by Christians. Every denomination tends at some point to be exclusivist, and at some point its members may become antagonistic to efforts to build bridges to other groups, especially if it is perceived that essential beliefs are thought to be compromised.
Ecumenism can be weakened not just be its enemies, but by those who say that all denominations are the same, that differences don’t amount to anything important. If that is true, then it is really pointless to engage in ecumenical discussion because there is no need to build bridges. Christianity is one big bowl of jello where each group is indistinguishable from the next.
Pope Francis, like all popes, defends the heart of Catholic teaching. He has consistently refused to modernize doctrines. His approach to ecumenism has been distinctively different, because he has not focused primarily on doctrines, but on other issues.
If we take a look at his various major ecumenical meetings in the last few years we can get a glimpse of this.
In May of 2014, Pope Francis became only the fourth pontiff to visit the Holy Land. It was, as he said, a pilgrimage of prayer. Among the highlights of that trip was his meeting with the head of 300 million Greek Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I Patriarch of Constantinople. The significance of such a meeting cannot be underestimated. The two communities had mutually excommunicated each other in 1054, and ensuing crusades did not endear the European Christians to the Greek Christians, since, among other things, the Europeans killed thousands of Greek Christians along with Muslims in the effort to retake Jerusalem.
The theological issues involved had already been studied for a number of years prior to this, and the mutual excommunication had been lifted in 1965. Nevertheless, full unity remains in the future. The document published by Francis and Bartholomew speaks intensely of the desire to restore intercommunion at the Eucharist, and one gets the impression that this may come sooner rather than later.
But Francis and Bartholomew also had other issues to discuss, notably the growing persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and the impact of climate change on the world and especially the poor. Bartholomew has been a champion of environmental issues for many years, and Francis would publish his own encyclical on care for creation only a year after his meeting with Bartholomew.
The issue of persecution of Christians came up when Francis, nearly a year before this meeting with Bartholomew, became only the second Catholic Pope to have met with the other “Pope”, Pope Tawadros, Patriarch of Coptic Christianity. In that meeting, the two Popes emphasized their common belief in baptism, and their hope to overcome various theological differences, so that in time they would be able to take the wine together at a Eucharist.
Two years later in Feb. 2015, Pope Francis again made mention of Egyptian Coptic Christians. He prayed for “our brother Copts, whose throats were slit for the sole reason of being Christian, that the Lord welcome them as martyrs….” It was also with respect to the murder of Coptic Christians that Pope Francis made this unusual comment:
The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard…It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.
Perhaps the most distinctive ecumenical action taken by Pope Francis was his recent meeting with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, the first such meeting in history. Although the Greek Orthodox Church has been on friendly terms with Roman Catholicism, the Russian Orthodox Church has not been. In part this is because of the growing unity between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. This is so much the case that Vladimir Putin has often claimed that the religious shield of Russia is the Orthodox Church. And that in turn has been helpful to Putin in the conflict over the Ukraine, which has within it both orthodox churches beholden to Russia and to Greece, as well as a uniate Orthodox church beholden to Rome.
Pope Francis was criticized even in advance of his meeting with Kirill, which took place at the Havana, Cuba, airport. The concern was that the Pope was not so subtly giving credence to Putin’s imperialism in Ukraine. But Francis’ vision transcended the political dimensions of this meeting. The statement that was issued by the two religious leaders affirmed their common heritage from the first thousand years of Christian history, insisting that the command of unity from Jesus was the basis on which the churches recognized one another, and appealing for greater cooperation between the churches, especially in Ukraine and Russia. No doctrinal issues were addressed.
The next important development in Pope Francis’ ecumenical endeavors will be a trip to Lund, Sweden in late October, to pray with the leaders of the World Lutheran Federation in commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation in 2017. During the Oct. 31 visit to Lund, in southern Sweden, the pope will take part in a joint ceremony of the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation. I have met with representatives of both Messiah and Bethany Lutheran, and we are hoping to initiate a dialogue on Lutheran Cattholic rrelations in advance of the meeting in Sweden. We are still working out the details, but an announcement will be forthcoming.
At a service for Church unity in January of this year, Pope Francis said: “I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other churches which has not reflected gospel values. “We cannot erase what happened before, but we do not want to allow the weight of past wounds to continue to contaminate our relations.”
There has already been work by both Catholic and Lutheran theologians on one of the largest of the theological issues from the Reformation, one raised by Luther himself; namely the notion of justification by faith alone, and more generally the relation between faith and grace. An agreement from 1999 was published which essentially resolved the heart of the conflict for both Lutherans and Catholics. In 2006 the World Methodist Council also agreed to this document.
All this was in the air before Francis became Pope. Typically, he has not spoken of the theological issues as much as he has of the sins of past generations—sins which included animosity on both sides, and an obvious lack of Christian charity. In fact, the aftermath of the split between Catholicism and Protestantism was the Thirty Years War of the 17th century. Protestants and Catholics killed one another with abandon, such that the population of both Germany and Italy, in particular, were severely reduced. While this was the last war between the two groups, elements of it still survive: the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Island. And while war is not a major issue these days here in the U.S., I am just old enough to remember the paranoia that emerged in the U.S. when John Kennedy ran for President in 1960. The U.S. was a Protestant nation, and Kennedy, it was feared, would become a lackey for the Roman papacy.
In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and its decree on Ecumenism (1964), as well as other statements from that time, a great amount of ecumenical work was inaugurated. Pope Francis inherited all that.
But his focus has not been primarily on doctrinal issues. When he spoke about meeting with Lutherans in October, his words reflected the need to ask for forgiveness. The break between the divisions of Christianity have never been simply intellectual affairs. They have almost always produced violence, hatred, animosity, and contempt. Mending fences is not possible by putting a group of theologians together in a room and asking them to come up with a document that will please everyone. Mending fences begins with an acknowledgement of the sins committed by previous generations, and a humble admission of guilt.
Pope Francis’ ecumenical endeavors have also sought to build unity among Christians by addressing common challenges. Thus, the declaration that he and Bartholomew signed included an important emphasis on care of God’s creation, an issue that Francis cares as deeply about as Bartholomew. And the declaration with Patriarch Kirill focused on the growth of Christianity in Cuba and South America, and on a variety of other issues.
In short, ecumenical work involves focusing not just on theological differences, but on a more forward-looking agenda of issues both moral and religious. To put it another way: ecumenism is not just about beliefs and past differences over them, but also about common concerns today, especially on moral and ethical issues.
There is another vision of ecumenical unity that Francis has mentioned as well, a concern that arises from the current crisis of Christians in the Middle East and Africa: namely, the persecution of Christians by the Islamic cult called ISIS and Boko Haram and other such groups. In an interview relating to the Coptic Church Francis made the following statement: For me, ecumenism is a priority. Today, we have the ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians because they wear a cross or have a Bible, and before killing them they don’t ask if they’re Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics or Orthodox. The blood is mixed.
In speaking of martyrdom, and in forging new relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, Pope Francis has touched on the implications of ecumenism for political realities. When Christianity becomes closely allied with the nation-state, it brings with it a number of political headaches, as the Russian and Ukrainian churches know well. To some extent Pope Francis has seemed to want to make a gentle impact on the alliance of church and state, reminding all of the true message of Christianity. In the case of ISIS, the problems deepen because of the group’s ties with Islam. But ISIS is a political phenomenon not unrelated to world politics in the last five years and more.
In the face of the ecumenical unity forged by the wanton murder of Christians by members of ISIS, interfaith dialogue with other religions becomes important and indispensable. Such dialogue triangulates the relation between Christianity and Islam over against ISIS and its claim to represent all of Islam. Such dialogue is not easy and criticism from all sides is not wanting.
Pope Francis visited the historic Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, removed his shoes before entering, stood next to the Grand Mufti Rahim Yarran, facing Mecca, and bowed his head in prayer for some time. It is not surprising that some Christians and conservative Catholics found this horrifying.
This is interfaith dialogue, not ecumenical relations. My point is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the two in practice.
To return to the ecumenical side of the question: The foundation of all ecumenical endeavors is the prayer of Jesus that “all may be one, as I am in the Father”. That unity is most fundamentally a unity of love, not simply of a set of beliefs. Beliefs are important, but they are not everything. Religious diversity has been a feature of Christianity from its beginning—think only of the difference between the communities under John, James, and others, each of which had its own distinctive preoccupations. Diversity is not an evil thing necessarily. In his address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis said: In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society.
Even though diversity in itself is not an evil, there are all too many times when religious diversity hides contempt, anger, hostility, and bursts forth occasionally into violence. That is why I chose the parable of the Good Samaritan for the reading today. It might seem that that parable is far afield from the subject. But it is entirely apt when we consider its central character: The Samaritan. We are a bit used to think of the Samaritan as someone from Samaria, which is true enough. But Samaria was the geographic location of a people who were heretical and schismatic, who accepted only the Torah and none of the rest of Scripture. They were always looked down upon by proper Israelites. The parable of the good Samaritan is accordingly a parable about how God’s grace is sometimes better seen in the actions of a detested religious group than in the authorities of the Jewish religion.
That remarkable parable is a reminder that God’s grace may appear in the work of others we don’t like or don’t respect. And when faced with that, we need to ask God’s forgiveness for our own sins of hasty and insensitive judgments of those whose beliefs we do not accept.
My concluding prayer is simple: Lord, that we may all be one in you, in love, in respect, and in humility.