I ended Thursday’s blog with the opening sentence of the second major point made by Pope Francis in his address on unity, given June 18, at the Vatican. His words are so startling as to jar you if you read them and just stop, I mean make a full stop! “Unity is beyond all conflict.” How can this be? What on earth is he talking about? It seems impossible to grasp in any ordinary sense of the words given what we know about church history and modern reality.

But here is what he said, in full, to give the larger context (italics are all mine):

Unity is beyond all conflict. Unity is a grace that we must ask of the Lord so he may save us from the temptations of the division, from internal struggles and selfishness, from gossip. How much damage gossip does! How much damage! Never gossip about others, never! How much damage divisions causes among Christians, bringing partisan, narrow interests into the Church! Divisions among us

[i.e. among Catholics], but also divisions among the communities [i.e. ecclesial communities, what we call churches, are not understood to be the church in the complete sense that Rome believes itself to be the catholic church]: evangelical Christians [Note: evangelicals are listed first which is itself quite amazing!], 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 with 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!

Dear brothers and sisters, let us ask God to help us to be members of the Body of the Church always deeply united to Christ, help us not to hurt the Body of the Church with our conflicts, our divisions, selfishness: help us to be living members bound to each other by a single power, that of love, which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5).

I have frequently commented on the way Catholic theology, since Vatican II, has understood the church. Nothing could be clearer, at least to me, than the points that Pope Francis makes here. I will share five that I see as consistent with his thinking and direction:

  1. The fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church, not exclusively but wholly. It is (finally) to be found in succession with the apostles and bishops of the early church and this is seen and ultimately experienced in the Catholic Church.
  2. The Catholic Church has not, since Vatican II,  changed how it understands the nature of apostolic succession and the office of the bishop of Rome. Blessed Pope John Paul II put on the table, as it were, the way in which Rome understands the primary of Peter and expressed a desire to rethinking all of this in an effort to draw the Orthodox into the dialogue aimed at Christian re-unification. Pope Benedict XVI wrote a book, as a very young theologian named Joseph Ratzinger, in which he clearly spoke of non-Catholic churches as ecclesial communities, communities that were truly Christian, full of grace and truth, but communities not in communion with the papacy. While I respect Catholic claims about itself as the true church I obviously do not share them. What I find disturbing, in the light of Pope Francis’ prayer for unity, is how so few conservative Catholics (especially if they are former-Protestants) have a deep love and passion to enter into this pursuit of unity that we now see so clearly evident in the new pope.
  3. Pope Francis plainly knows and loves evangelical Christians and prays with them for unity in Christ’s mission as a matter of course. This is the ocean of his simple, humble faith. I call on all my Catholic brothers and sisters to swim in this same ocean. I call on them to pray for me, with me and about our common mission to the world. Let us stop trying to proselytize one another for our church and join hearts and hands in reaching the least and the lost.
  4. Let us embrace the theology one devoted evangelist/priest shared with me recently when he said, “John, our task is to announce the good news of the kingdom and invite people to come into it under Christ’s reign. Then we urge them to find a Christian community as the Holy Spirit leads them.” I could not agree more. I do not seek to convert Catholics. I seek to bring people under the lordship of Christ, into the reign of King Jesus. The Holy Spirit is very able to take the teaching of the faith, through the Bible and the witness of God’s people, and lead people to a community where the faith is loved. This business of “coming home” as coming to one church and only one church is neither healthy nor vital in the end. I know many Catholics will squirm at this statement but it is consistent with the practice of most Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants I know and enjoy fellowship with so many such Christians in our present divided state. Meanwhile, let the churches work at unity and union wherever possible.
  5. The modern ecumenical movement is only about one hundred years old. This is really a short period of time in God’s economy. We should patiently keep praying and laboring for unity and see where the Holy Spirit leads us as God’s pilgrim people. Pope Francis seems to deeply understand this perspective thus I rejoice in him as a global Christian leader and pray for him every single day!

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  1. Bryan Prosser June 28, 2013 at 5:41 am - Reply

    Thank you once again John. I know there is much written about what divides Catholics from Protestants, even what divides many Protestants from other Protestants. For most of my Christian life, I have tried to understand as much as possible, the doctrines that are essential to my faith in Christ. I understand Martin Luther’s concerns during the Reformation. I take my creeds seriously. Yet I must admit that the constant focus on particulars related to how someone is “saved”, or made right before God, has made me weary, and it has mostly made me a constant “separatist”. With the deconstruction of the Church going on in the Evangelical Church; the increased disinterest in the institutional structures of the Church, I have had to do a lot of rethinking about my own commitment to the Church. Why not just follow Jesus, as so many now say? The Church is corrupt, and over-bearing, and often gets in the way of a more peaceful and pure faith, they say. Everything these days, keeps pushing toward disintegration, and it is disheartening when we read of what Jesus wanted for his followers, and few pray along with him for these things. Evangelicals must be concerned with more than just soteriological facets of the menu of doctrines they uphold. Seeking to be linked; united to the mystical reality of the Church, lead and empowered by the triune Godhead, to be at peace with our own Christian brethren, and far less concerned with the institutional trappings of the flawed physical structures of churches, should be our constant focus. There is a legitimate place for earthly ecclesial structures but the person of Jesus must occupy our sincerest devotion to avoid any possibility of forming idols in our minds. I ask myself often, as you have, if I limit the infinite ways of God by trying to form neat theological boxes for everything to fit into. Does God awaken souls in the most unusual ways? Does he limit his salvation work to the Protestant faith alone? Is God at work in the midst of Muslim communities? Can we ever fully know how God works? If we can’t, then we must be humbled by it, and be shaped by the reality that God works in far more diverse ways than we comfortably can make sense of. I must open my heart to anyone who calls Jesus their redeemer, and shows a consistent love for him and their fellow man. This attitude will drive me to my knees to pray more fervently for unity among disparaged and persecuted followers of Christ. We need each other as we labor to do good for the sake of Christ. I struggle to understand these things John. And I will continue to read and pray through what you write because I am far more interested in what brings the world together than what separates it.

  2. Pat Friant June 28, 2013 at 4:06 pm - Reply

    My main problem is when a Church or any kind of religious group claim to be the only valid truth or the only true Church has the Roman church does and anybody is anathema.

  3. Dr. Chau T. Phan June 28, 2013 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    Correction: In this sentence it should be SUCCESSION not SEcession:
    “The fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church, not exclusively but wholly. It is (finally) to be found in secession with the apostles and bishops of the early church and this is seen and ultimately experienced in the Catholic Church.”

    • John Armstrong June 28, 2013 at 8:19 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for this vitally important correction of an obvious typo. This one makes a huge difference. I did correct my error and I am profoundly grateful to you Dr. Phan for pointing it out to me. Bravo.

      • Dr. Chau T. Phan June 29, 2013 at 8:54 pm - Reply

        Dear Pastor Armstrong: As a Catholic teaching ecumenism, I am grateful for your generous response to the election and tenure of Pope Francis. I wish to be in touch with evangelical pastors like you in northeast Florida, and would you please spread the word? I have been doing work for Christian Unity since 2007 and wish very much to dialogue with ecumenical Evangelicals, but so far have not met anyone. I also would very much welcome comments and suggestion on my not yet month-old teaching website http://www.ecumenism101.info. My stance “What Is Ecumenism to me?” is found at http://www.ecumenism101.info/what-is-ecumenism-to-me/
        Chau T. Phan, Associate Diocesan Ecumenical Officer, Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida.

        • John Armstrong June 30, 2013 at 4:24 pm - Reply

          For readers of this blog please note that Dr. Phan and I have “connected” directly and look forward to future ecumenical work for the kingdom of God. Once again the social media has resulted in some great new open doors for unity in Christ’s mission. Pray for us.

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