Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Holy See)

International Conference «Legacy of the Second Vatican Council: In the spirit of Lumen Gentium, Unitatis Redintegratio and Orientalium Ecclesiarum»

October 1, 2014

Pope Francis and Christian unity Ecumenism on the way

“I wish to assure you that, in continuity with my predecessors, it is my firm intention to pursue the path of ecumenical dialogue” : it is with these words that Pope Francis, on the first day of his pontificate, expressed his ecumenical commitment to representatives of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. It is very significant that in his first statement on ecumenism, Pope Francis evoked the memory of his predecessors, especially Pope John XXIII, citing with enthusiasm the opening address at the Second Vatican Council. While presenting himself as a successor in continuity, Pope Francis nonetheless has adopted a very personal approach to the issue of Christian unity. Eighteen months after his election, it may be useful to identify and reflect upon the major themes, concepts, characteristic expressions, insights and reflections of the new Bishop of Rome on the theme, which is a priority for him.

I would like in this paper to try to outline the contours of this reflection by drawing on a phrase that appears repeatedly in the speeches of Pope Francis on ecumenism: “Walking together, praying together, working together”. After endeavouring to define the concept of unity of Pope Francis (I), this paper will seek to analyse what he means by “shared journey” towards unity, in terms of both the dialogue of charity and that of truth (II), before presenting two other interlinked strands: spiritual ecumenism and practical ecumenism (III).
I. Unity as ‘reconciled diversity’
What is Pope Francis’s concept of unity? The expression that best characterizes his concept of unity is probably ‘reconciled diversity’, borrowed from the Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman. It is in his homily during the Vespers at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on 25 January 2014 that Pope first uses this term in the ecumenical context. A few months later, during a private visit to a Pentecostal pastor in Caserta, he uses it a second time, referring implicitly to Cullman: “What does the Holy Spirit make? (…) The Holy Spirit creates ‘diversity’ in the Church. (…) But then, the same Holy Spirit creates unity, and this way the Church is one in diversity. And, to use the word of a Protestant whom I love very much, a ‘reconciled diversity’ ‘by the Holy Spirit. He creates both things: he creates the diversity of charismata and then makes harmony of the charismata”.
To illustrate the definition of unity as ‘reconciled diversity’, the Pope often uses the image of a prism. During his visit to the Pentecostal Church of Caserta, the Pope in a particularly convincing way applied this image to the unity of the Church, asking the question:
“Would the unity of Church be like a sphere, where all points are equidistant from the centre, all equal? No! This is uniformity. And the Holy  Spirit doesn’t create uniformity! What shape can we find? Let us consider a prism: the prism is unity, but all its parts are different; each has its own peculiarity, its charisma. This is unity in diversity. It is on this path that we Christians do what we call by the theological name of ecumenism: we seek to ensure that this diversity may be more harmonized by the Holy Spirit and become unity (…).


The other important concept in the thought of Pope Francis on unity is the principle that ‘Unity prevails over conflict’, an idea that occurs frequently in his remarks on ecumenism. The expression confirms that Christian unity is primarily a question of conflict and reconciliation, and therefore a moral issue before it is a dogmatic problem. Indeed, as with other concepts or images, the expression is not unique to ecumenism. In the encyclical Lumen fidei (LF) this principle is mentioned in the section on the social impact of faith. The Pope points out, in a way very revealing of his thought, that “from a purely anthropological standpoint, unity is superior to conflict; rather than avoiding conflict, we need to confront it in an effort to resolve and move beyond it, to make it a link of a chain, as part of a progress towards unity” (LF, 55).
It is in the ecumenical context that the term its whole significance. The Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (EG) develops the expression most fully. The text reflects the conviction that for Pope Francis, unity and peace are inseparable: unity must be considered from the point of view of peace, and peace from the perspective of unity. For this reason, the Exhortation places reflections on peace in the section entitled ‘Unity prevails over conflict’, and speaks of peace in terms that could be described as ‘ecumenical’. The Pope defines peace – which is built as a “communion amid disagreement” (EG, 228) – as a “reconciled diversity” (EG, 230). Conversely, unity is described primarily in terms of peace, and might even be summarized by saying that unity is peace. Reflections on ecumenism in the text are found precisely in the passage devoted to peace. Unity in the Church can only be achieved by seeking profound peace among Christians, as Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians, inviting them “to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1–3). Moreover, unity itself is at the service of peace for humanity: “Jesus told us: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Mt 5:9). (…) In this perspective, ecumenism can be seen as a contribution to the unity of the human family” (EG, 244–245).

 II. “Walking together”: a ‘synodal’ ecumenism

After seeking to define Christian unity as envisaged by Pope Francis, let us see how he considers its achievement through ecumenism.

 1. “Unity comes about in journeying”

One of the most characteristic images used by Pope Francis on ecumenism is that of the journey. However, this image is not unique to ecumenism; it is also the principal theme of the first homily of the new Bishop of Rome in the Sistine Chapel the day after his election. But the Pope consistently applies this image to ecumenism: it is a “shared journey” – literally, in Greek, a “synod” – in which we have to “walk together”. The expression “walking together” emerges constantly in defining the ecumenical process. It is used particularly for relations with the Orthodox: “The path of unity with the Orthodox means most of all walking and working together”, affirmed the Pope, who has twice recalled in interviews the anecdote that Athenagoras jokingly told Paul VI that they “walk together and send all of the theologians to an island to discuss among themselves”.
The point that emerges in the thought of Francis is that unity comes about in the journey: it is through walking together with Christ that unity is gradually accomplished. A particularly interesting phrase appears in the Homily for Vespers on 25 January 2014: not only are we “all journeying together, fraternally, on the road towards unity”, but we are “bringing about unity even as we walk”. Indeed, the Lord (…) is with us all on this path of unity”. Therefore, concluded the Pope with the particularly powerful words: “To journey together is already to be making unity! (…) Unity will not come about as a miracle at the very end. Rather, unity comes about in journeying; the Holy Spirit does this on the journey”.


2. The dialogue of charity: “fraternal encounter as an essential part of the journey towards unity”
The “path of rapprochement” between Christians is undertaken in two ways, using the expressions formulated by Pope Paul VI, namely the “dialogue of charity” and the “dialogue of truth”. Let’s start with the dialogue of charity.
If it can be said that a shared journey promotes rapprochement, this is because it makes room for fraternal encounter. Again, the theme of encounter, like that of the journey, is not unique to ecumenism: it is in all areas of ecclesial, political, and social life that Pope Francis has been a promoter of a “culture of encounter” instead of a "culture of confrontation”. But this "culture of encounter" is extremely appropriate to ecumenism. Pope Francis mentioned it in particular in his speech to the primate of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church: “On the ecumenical path it is important to look with trust to the steps that have been completed, overcoming prejudices and closed attitudes which are part of a kind of ‘culture of clashes’ and source of division, and giving way to a ‘culture of encounter’, which educates us for mutual understanding and for working towards unity”.
The Pope dwells at length on the theme of encounter in his speech at the Pentecostal Church in Caserta, associating it with the idea of fraternity. In the same way that the sons of Jacob regained their brotherhood at the end of their journey, Christians, too, will rediscover their fraternity once they start their journey. Certainly, the theme of brotherhood, which is so dear to Pope Francis, is not unique to ecumenism: his first Message for the World Day of Peace was entitled “Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace”. But fraternity is for him an essential dimension of ecumenism. He also explains why he feels he is like a brother of his guests, and why such fraternity is strengthened, in the case of the Orthodox, by the apostolic succession. “Over the course of these first nine months, I have received visits from many Orthodox brothers: Bartholomew, Hilarion, the theologian Zizioulas, the Copt Tawadros. (…)I felt like their brother. They have the apostolic succession; I received them as brother bishops (…). In the apostolic succession, the Patriarch represents the apostle himself: this is why the Pope called the Patriarch Bartholomew “my brother Andrew”.
Forgiveness is essential on the journey of brotherhood. Twice in the ecumenical context, the Pope personally asked for forgiveness on behalf of the Catholic Church. The first in a public and official way during the general audience upon his return from the Holy Land: “Once more, as former Popes have done, I ask forgiveness for what we have done to foster this division, and I ask the Holy Spirit to help us heal the wounds we have inflicted on other brothers”. A second time in a private way during his meeting with the Evangelical pastor Giovanni Traettino and his community: “I am the Pastor of Catholics …) I ask your forgiveness for those Catholic brothers and sisters who understood and were tempted by the devil and did the same thing as Joseph’s brothers. I ask the Lord to give us the grace to recognize and to forgive”.

 3. The dialogue of truth

On the “path of unity”, the dialogue of charity is inseparable from that of the truth, which is attained primarily through an “exchange of gifts” leading Christians to the “whole truth”.
In speaking about the ecumenical dialogue, Pope Francis willingly recalls the expression "exchange of gifts" so often used by John Paul II. The expression is developed in Evangelii gaudium and is even the theme which is at the heart of the passage dedicated to ecumenism: “[W]e can learn so much from one another! It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us” (EG 246), the Pope affirmed before concluding: “Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness” (EG 246).
The Pope commented during the Week of Prayer for Christian unity on the passage in which the Apostle Paul criticizes the disputes of the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:4) while giving at the same time thanks to God for the gifts they have received: “The Apostle’s attitude is an encouragement for us and for every Christian community to joyfully recognize God’s gifts in other communities. Despite the suffering of division, which sadly still exist, let us welcome the words of St Paul as an invitation to sincerely rejoice for the graces God has given to other Christians. (…) It is beautiful to recognize the grace with which God blesses us and, still more, to find in other Christians something we need, something that we could receive like a gift”.
As is evident in these various passages, the exchange of gifts is always linked to the gaze on the other. In this regard, a passage of the Encyclical Fidei lumen entitled “The unity and integrity of faith” is particularly indicative of the thought of Pope Francis. “[W]e find it hard to conceive of a unity in one truth. We tend to think that a unity of this sort is incompatible with freedom of thought and personal autonomy”. Yet, explains the Pope, unity in truth is possible when love enables us to see reality through the eyes of the other: “The experience of love shows us that a common vision is possible, for through love we learn how to see reality through the eyes of others, not as something which impoverishes but instead enriches our vision” (LF 47). Although this passage does not apply directly to ecumenism, it shows that unity in the truth can be achieved if our gaze, through love, makes the effort to see with the eyes of the other, enriching itself, in some way, with the gaze of the other, in order to reach a “shared vision”.
The need to “always look at one another in God” was applied specifically to ecumenism a year later when the Pope received a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Pope stressed the need “to look at one another with the eyes of faith” and “to see ourselves as we truly are in God’s plan, according to the designs of his eternal will, and not what we have become as a result of the historical consequences of our sins”. This way of theological looking “gives rise to an authentic theological reflection which is truly scientia Dei, a participation in that vision which God has of himself and of us”.
The expression "exchange of gifts" therefore applies primarily to the theological dialogue, leading us not to a truth based on compromise but to the whole truth. The purpose of the theological dialogue is not so much to reach a compromise upon which to agree, but – precisely through this "exchange of gifts" – to arrive at the whole truth. In this perspective, in the context of receiving a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and seemingly distancing himself from some understandings of “ecumenical consensus”, the Pope said that dialogue is “not about seeking a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening our grasp of the sole truth that Christ has given to his Church”.
In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, the only example of the "exchange of gifts" often mentioned by the Pope is synodality: “In the dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality” (EG 246). A reflection on synodality is inseparable from a reflection on the Petrine ministry. The invitation of Pope John Paul II to reflect on seeking “the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned” was solemnly reiterated by Pope Francis during the ecumenical celebration at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (cf. John Paul II, Ut unum sint 95–96). However, a new dimension was introduced by Pope Francis in his homily for Vespers on 25 January 2014 when he affirmed that not only must a reflection on the ministry of the Bishop of Rome have an ecumenical dimension, but this ecumenical dimension is essential in the Petrine service: “The work of .. my predecessors enabled ecumenical dialogue to become an essential dimension of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, so that today the Petrine ministry cannot be fully understood without this openness to dialogue with all believers in Christ. We can say also that the journey of ecumenism has allowed us to come to a deeper understanding of the ministry of the Successor of Peter, and we must be confident that it will continue to do so in the future”.

 III. “Praying together, “working together”

“To walk together, to pray together, to cooperate on the many things we can do together, to join in helping one another”, affirmed Pope Francis in an interview with journalists on his return from Jerusalem. After looking at what it means for him to “walk together” in the dimension of the dialogue of charity and dialogue of truth, let us now look at these two latter expressions, which concern spiritual ecumenism and practical ecumenism respectively.
1. Spiritual ecumenism
The commitment to ecumenism, which “responds to the prayer of the Lord Jesus that ‘they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21)” (EG 244) cannot exist without prayer. The characteristic feature of the teaching of Pope Francis on spiritual ecumenism is the emphasis on common prayer. To pray together, in a certain way, is already to live unity, already to achieve this unity. In one of his general audiences, the Pope spoke of having spent a long time praying for unity with an Evangelical pastor, and invited the faithful to do the same thing, among Catholics and with other Christians. The visits of delegations are often the occasion for common prayer for unity. This prayer is not only intended for Christian unity: Christians must unite in common prayer for the whole world. This is the meaning of the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew to the prayer for peace held in the Vatican on 8 June 2014.
Another important aspect of spiritual ecumenism is the “ecumenism of blood”. This expression, which is his own, is also one of the most frequently used by Pope Francis when speaking about Christian unity. It appears for the first time in the interview given to La Stampa, in which the Pope states that those who persecute Christians “do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed”. More solemnly still, at the ecumenical service at the Holy Sepulchre, the Pope pointed out that “when Christians of different confessions suffer together, side by side, and assist one another with fraternal charity, there is born an ecumenism of suffering, an ecumenism of blood, which proves particularly powerful not only for those situations in which it occurs, but also, by virtue of the communion of the saints, for the whole Church as well”.
2. Working together
At the general audience on his return from Jerusalem, the Pope reflected on his trip citing three verbs that he uses frequently to describe his ecumenical commitment: “With Patriarch Bartholomew (…) we shared the desire to walk together, to do all that we can do from this day forward: pray together, work together for God’s flock, seek peace, take care of creation, the many things that we have in common. And as brothers we move forward”. “Working together” is precisely the “practical ecumenism” to which I would now like to turn.
Of course, this “practical ecumenism” is hardly new. Ever since the beginning of the ecumenical movement, the joint action of Christians in the ethical, social and political fields has been an essential dimension; moreover, it has been greatly encouraged by Unitatis redintegratio (UR 12). However, this dimension has changed since the beginning of the movement both as a result of globalization and of the radical changes that have marked the social and cultural context, particularly in the West, where reference to God is being marginalized.
This change of context is particularly evident concerning common witness to Christian values, particularly in the areas of family and marriage. Welcoming the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope stressed the need for “our witness to the reference to God and the promotion of Christian values in a world that seems at times to call into question some of the foundations of society, such as respect for the sacredness of human life or the importance of the institution of the family built on marriage”.
The theme of religious freedom has also acquired a new relevance for cooperation among Christians due to being threatened in many countries around the world, including Europe. There is thus “an urgent need for effective and committed cooperation among Christians in order to safeguard everywhere the right to express publicly one’s faith and to be treated fairly when promoting the contribution which Christianity continues to offer to contemporary society and culture”, affirmed the Pope in a message to the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The pursuit of social justice emerges as another ecumenical priority in a society that marginalizes many of its elements, who are pushed into the “existential peripheries” so often mentioned by Pope Francis. The papal message to the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches speaks of this social justice, affirming that Christians “are called to reach out to those who find themselves in the existential peripheries of our societies”.
Inseparably from the issue of justice, the promotion of peace in a troubled international context is another priority of Pope Francis, and an obvious area of ecumenical cooperation. “Don’t forget the three ‘p’: prayer, peace and poverty”, urged Pope Francis to the Archbishop of Canterbury on his second visit in 2014. Referring to the joint initiative of the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster to invite the political authorities to seek a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict, the Pope stressed that “we Christians bring peace and grace as a treasure to be offered to the world, but these gifts can bear fruit only when Christians live and work together in harmony”.
Finally, respect for creation is another important theme for practical ecumenism, especially with Patriarch Bartholomew for whom it has been an enduring priority. Thus the joint statement of the Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew emphasizes that “the future of the human family depends also on how we safeguard (…) the gift of creation that our Creator has entrusted to us”, repenting “the wrongful mistreatment of our planet, which is tantamount to sin before the eyes of God”.
Conclusion: A “synodal” ecumenism
After this analysis, I will seek to offer some conclusions. Pope Francis has clearly made Christian unity a priority of his pontificate. Although this priority stands largely in continuity with his predecessors, incorporating many of their insights (for example, the image of the “exchange of gifts”), his approach – which emerges in his actions as well as in his words (especially in interviews) – is very personal.
The themes, images and expressions that Pope Francis develops about the unity of Christians are, for the most part, not exclusively pertinent to ecumenism: the image of the journey, the expression “reconciled diversity”, the example of the prism, the principle that “unity prevails over conflict”, the ideas relating to the “culture of encounter” and to brotherhood, the question of “seeing reality through the eyes of the other”, are all topics that can be found in many other areas of the Pope’s teaching. But their relevance emerges in a particular way in the ecumenical context: Christian unity is only one aspect of the wider problem of the unity of the human family, but it is also the leaven and even one of its conditions.
For Pope Francis, the division of Christians is above all a scandal that obstructs evangelization. The question is not the difference itself, but the inability to consider differences in God, with diversity turning into conflict. Unity is above all a gift of the Holy Spirit, who creates unity in diversity. This gift must be received through the inner preparation of each and every community, leading to a “reconciled diversity”.
How do we achieve this unity? By “walking together, praying together, working together”, repeats Pope Francis. The ecumenical quest begins with the journey. The important thing is to walk together, to walk “united in the difference”. Unity will not occur at the end of the journey, but “along the way”, during the journey itself. Along this common path, the dialogue of charity and of truth belong together. The path to Christian unity must be characterized by a “culture of encounter” enabling Christians to rediscover themselves as brothers and to ask one another for mutual forgiveness. Thanks to the change in our mutual understanding, the dialogue of truth will seek fulfilment in the “exchange of gifts”, which, far from seeking a compromise, will lead us to all truth. It is especially regarding the question of synodality that the Pope hopes for fruits in this exchange of gifts, for reasons that are internal to the Catholic Church as well as for Christian unity. Not only must the ministry of the Bishop of Rome have an ecumenical dimension, but this dimension is essential for the Petrine ministry.
The last two aspects, “praying together” and “working together”, already enable us to experience unity. Spiritual ecumenism is attained by the common prayer of Christians and is made visible especially in the “ecumenism of blood”, which already unites Christians of various traditions in their shared suffering and shared witness to Christ. The dimension of practical ecumenism, which is implemented in an evolving cultural and social context, should lead Christians to cooperate together in the field of Christian values, religious freedom, social justice, promotion of peace, and respect for creation.
Referring to the usual etymology of the word “synod”, one could say that the ecumenism of Pope Francis is above all “synodical”, whether in the dialogue of charity and truth, or in spiritual or practical ecumenism. It offers Catholics and all Christians a path of unity or, more specifically, recalling the term used for the first time by Paul VI, an “ecumenism on the way”. Like the pilgrims of Emmaus who joined Christ on the way, Christians are called to walk together until that day that they will recognize in the breaking of bread He who has died and risen for them.