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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!