The Pope’s Powerful Call to Missional-Ecumenism

Unknown-1Pope Francis issued an encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), last week that caught the attention of people all around the world. I cannot recall, to be perfectly honest, a papal document that has generated so much widespread interest in years. I think a great deal of this is driven by the deep fascination that people have with this man and his mission.

The Catholic News Service reported:

Pope Francis’ voice is unmistakable in the 50,000-word document’s relatively relaxed style—he writes that an “evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”—and its emphasis on some of his signature themes, including the dangers of economic globalization and “spiritual worldliness.” Inspired by Jesus’ poverty and concern for the dispossessed during his earthly ministry, Pope Francis calls for a “church which is poor and for the poor.”

Non-Catholics, especially evangelical Protestants, should read this document. There is a great deal that they will love and a great deal they need to wrestle with to deepen their faith journey and walk with Jesus in humble discipleship.

Christianity Today encouraged evangelicals to read this encyclical and noted that there were five things we should particular like about it. You should read the entire article online but here are the five areas they name based upon the new encyclical:

  1. The church must find new ways to evangelize.
  2. The church must wake up to the reality that consumerism poses an existential threat to Christianity.
  3. The church should recover its enthusiasm for evangelism.
  4. Preaching the good news should be “first and foremost.”
  5. The church should put the poor, disadvantaged, and overlooked at the front of the line for hearing the good news.

In the section of the new encyclical titled “Ecumenical Dialogue” Pope Francis writes:

Commitment to ecumenism responds to the prayer of the Lord Jesus that “they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). The credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize “the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her.” We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face. Trusting others is an art and peace is an art. Jesus told us: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5:9). In taking up this task, also among ourselves, we fulfill the ancient prophecy: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares” (Is 2:4) (Section 244).

This is followed by two more important sections on “ecumenical dialogue” that read as follows:

In this perspective, ecumenism can be seen as a contribution to the unity of the human family. At the Synod, the presence of the Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomaios I, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, His Grace Rowan Williams, was a true gift from God and a precious Christian witness (Section 245).

Given the seriousness of the counter-witness of division among Christians, particularly in Asia and Africa, the search for paths to unity becomes all the more urgent. Missionaries on those continents often mention the criticisms, complaints and ridicule to which the scandal of divided Christians gives rise. If we concentrate on the convictions we share, and if we keep in mind the principle of the hierarchy of truths, we will be able to progress decidedly towards common expressions of proclamation, service and witness. The immense numbers of people who have not received the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot leave us indifferent. Consequently, commitment to a unity which helps them to accept Jesus Christ can no longer be a matter of mere diplomacy or forced compliance, but rather an indispensable path to evangelization. Signs of division between Christians in countries ravaged by violence add further causes of conflict on the part of those who should instead be a leaven of peace. How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we 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. To give but one example, 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. Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness (italics are mine entirely, Section 246).

I have italicized most of the final section for a specific reason. Nowhere could a better statement of my view of this matter be found. Note what Pope Francis really says about the subject of missional-ecumenism:

  1. Division among Christians is a “counter-witness, particularly in Asia and Africa.”
  2. Mission faces unnecessary criticism, complaint and ridicule because of the “scandal of divided Christians.”
  3. We can progress toward common expressions of proclamation, service and witness if we keep in mind the principle of the hierarchy of truths; i.e., we can keep our eye on “mere Christianity” (core apostolic ancient faith) and pursue common proclamation and make real progress in the real world of mission and people. This is my vision!
  4. The immense numbers of unreached people cannot leave us indifferent to this call to unity. Again, precisely my own point for nearly two decades of public ministry now.
  5. Our commitment to unity must focus on helping people receive the gospel of Jesus Christ, not simply on diplomacy or forced compliance.
  6. Where violence has directly impacted a nation our focus on unity should act as a leaven for peace.
  7. If we believe in “the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another.” Unity is not a human work but a divine calling. It is the operation of the Holy Spirit renewing his church in grace, love and the power of the Holy Spirit.

If you want to know what I have invested my life in, with every fiber of my being as a divine vocation, it is an intentional and laser-like pursuit of precisely what Pope Francis invites us into with these words written from his pen as the bishop of Rome. I never thought I would live to see this happen. I now believe that I shall live, God willing, live to see the first fruits of new twenty-first century harvest that comes about by Spirit-given renewing grace which will lead millions into a multitude of fresh expressions of deep and growing missional-ecumenism. John 17 is being answered before our eyes in ways that we did not see coming even five years ago!

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