I am asked continually about Pope Francis, particularly by evangelical Protestants who have traditionally been suspicious of the Catholic Church in general and the pope in particular. I have shared here on this site, for some years now, reports of my growing friendships and unity with my Catholic brothers and sisters.
To put this very simply, and in my own context for this blog site, I believe my personal charism (vocation/calling) is to explain and model Christian unity (John 17) and to build relational and ecclesial bridges that promote and lead to deep unity. Back in the decade of 1990s this vision profoundly gripped my heart. This happened first in my preaching of John 17:20-26 in May of 1992. This was at the same time that I was leaving twenty years of pastoral ministry to serve this new ministry that I began for renewal in 1991. This happened again one Sunday morning at College Church in Wheaton in what I would describe as a Spirit-drenched encounter with the Apostles’ Creed. I had studied the creeds and was simply reciting it when the Holy Spirit fell on me in incredible power to convince me to act in faith on my calling.
I was initially confused about the Catholic part of this vision that was growing very intensely inside of me. I knew that God was drawing me into dialogue with Catholics. I also knew that he was leading me to establish deep friendships with Catholics everywhere but had no idea how this would lead me where it has, especially over the last five years. I also knew that pursuing this Spirit-given vision would cost me deeply. (It did but I am not interested in talking about those difficulties since the lasting and eternal results have all been shown to me to be the fruit of the Spirit’s work and power in a “dying and rising” process I have embraced by faith.)
Here is the important thing to note – God’s spirit is moving powerfully in bringing Christians together in deep unity in ways that have not been seen for centuries. This is a global movement. Evangelical Christians have a profound role to play in this movement if they listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches and respond in humble faith.
The election of Pope Francis, who much prefers to be called the bishop of Rome, is one of the greatest signs of unity in my lifetime, maybe the greatest. I know this firsthand because I have talked to friends who know him very well and who know his heart for unity and the real depth of his prayer life in this area. He is a man of faith, prayer and deep unity in Christ. Pope Francis models servanthood and he lives unity, even more than his words and public actions reveal.
On Wednesday of last week (June 18) Pope Francis gave a general audience and spoke about this unity in the most pointed way he has since his election. What the press did not report is that several weeks before this audience he met in private with leading evangelicals from Latin America, who are his dear friends, just to pray with them in his home in Rome. The newly elected pope pleaded urgently upon his election: “Pray for me!” In point of fact he really, truly meant this from his heart.
But read his words from the general audience of last Wednesday. Unless you are a complete skeptic about the signs of God’s grace in this man and his words and acts you will be moved to the core of your soul.
Dear brothers and sisters, good day!
Today I will focus upon another expression with which the Second Vatican Council indicates the nature of the Church: that of the body, the Council says that the Church is the Body of Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium, 7).
I would like to start from a text of the Acts of the Apostles which we know well: the conversion of Saul, who will then be called Paul, one of the greatest evangelists (cf. Acts 9:4-5). Saul was a persecutor of Christians, but while he is on the road leading to the city of Damascus, suddenly a light envelops him, he falls to the ground and hears a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asks: “Who are you, Lord?”, And the voice answers: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (v. 3-5). This experience of St. Paul tells us how deep the union between we Christians and Christ Himself. When Jesus ascended into heaven he did not leave us orphans, but with the gift of the Holy Spirit, our union with Him has become even more intense. The Second Vatican Council says that Jesus “communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body” (Dogmatic Constitution. Lumen Gentium, 7).
The image of the body helps us to understand this deep Church-Christ bond, which St. Paul has developed especially in the First Letter to the Corinthians (cf. chap. 12). First, the body brings our attention to a living reality. The Church is not a charitable, cultural or political association, but a living body, that walks and acts in history. And this body has a head, Jesus, who guides, feeds and supports it. This is a point I want to emphasize: if the head is separated from the rest of the body, the whole person cannot survive. So it is in the Church, we must remain bound ever more deeply to Jesus. But not only that: just as the body needs the lifeblood to keep it alive, so we must allow Jesus to work in us, that His Word guide us, that His presence in the Eucharist nourish us, animate us, that His love gives strength to our love of neighbor. And this always! Dear brothers and sisters, let us remain united to Jesus, let us trust in Him, direct our life according to His Gospel, nourish ourselves with daily prayer, listening to the Word of God, participation in the Sacraments.
And here I come to a second aspect of the Church as the Body of Christ. St Paul says that as members of the human body, although different and many, we form one body, as we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13). In the Church, therefore, there is a variety, a diversity of tasks and functions, there is no dull uniformity, but the richness of the gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes. But there is communion and unity: we are all in a relation to each other and we all come together to form one living body, deeply connected to Christ. Let us remember this well: being part of the Church means being united to Christ and receiving from Him the divine life that makes us live as Christians; it means remaining united to the Pope and the Bishops who are instruments of unity and communion, and also means overcoming personal interests and divisions, in order to understand each other better, to harmonize the variety and richness of each member; in a word, to love God and the people who are next to us more, in the family, in the parish, in the associations. In order to live a Body and its limbs must be united! Unity is beyond all conflict. Always! Conflicts, when they don’t end well, separate us from each other, they separate us from God. Conflict can help us to grow but can also divide us. We must not travel the path of division, of conflict among us, no we must all be united – with our differences – but united because that is the path of Jesus!
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, 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!
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 wept when I read these words. I will expound them, from my perspective as an evangelical Protestant who loves the Catholic Church, over the next several days. I conclude by saying, “God is very powerfully and clearly moving to bring brothers and sisters together in deeper union and friendship with Christ and one another.” Let us arise from the sleep of our various schisms and our lack of charity toward one another. It is time to seek God in humility for the awakening of the whole church and the global impact of the good news of the kingdom of God. Amen.