ROME – Speaking at the largest Catholic church in the Persian Gulf, where pastoral outreach can be challenging given the region’s many different rites and communities, Pope Francis told an ecumenical gathering that embracing this diversity is the key to unity.
In his Nov. 4 speech, the pope lamented the many divisions that still exist among Christian communities, saying they have “wounded the Lord’s holy body,” however, the Holy Spirit, “who joins all the members together, is greater than our divisions according to the flesh.”
“Consequently, it is right to say that what unites us far exceeds what divides us and that, the more we journey according to the Spirit, the more we will be led to desire and, with the help of God, restore full unity among us,” he said.
Pope Francis spoke at an ecumenical prayer meeting for peace at Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral in Awali, Bahrain, that was attended by various Christian leaders, including the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.
Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral is the Arabian Gulf’s largest church, and the land on which it is built was given to the Catholic Church by His Majesty King Hamad Al Khalifa. Bahrain is also home to the Gulf’s oldest Catholic church, which opened in the capital city of Manama in 1939.
Bahrain is a majority Muslim nation, with roughly 70 percent of the population adhering to Islam. Around two thirds belong to the Shia tradition, and one third, including the ruling Al Khalifa family, belonging to the Sunni tradition.
There are around 80,000 Catholics in the whole country, many of whom are foreign workers belonging to different Christian rites and confessions, which has posed a challenge to local pastors seeking to minister to all of the various communities.
However, despite the many communities present, Pope Francis said it is not only possible to achieve unity, but that striving for this “unity in diversity” is what will help the Christian community as a whole achieve peace.
In his speech, the pope recalled the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost, noting that spirit descended at a time when the apostles were gathered together.
“They could also worship God and do good to others separately, but when they came together in unity, the doors to God’s work were opened wide,” he said, saying Christians are therefore called “to come together so that the marvelous works of God may be accomplished in our midst.”
“Our presence here in Bahrain as a little flock of Christ, scattered in various places and confessions, helps make us feel the need for unity, for sharing the faith,” he said, saying this unity grows through prayer and praise of God.
The practice of the “prayer of praise” does not “isolate or close us in on ourselves and our own needs but draws us into the heart of the Father and thus connects us to all our brothers and sisters,” Francis said.
Prayers of praise and adoration, he said, are “the highest form of prayer” and they are “the antidote to sadness and the temptation to lament our interior inadequacy and our outwardly small numbers.”
He urged the various confessions present to continue making their churches open and available to those from other communities who wish to pray, saying heaven itself will be a chorus of praise being sung by “Christian martyrs of various denominations.”
“How many of them have there been in these recent years, in the Middle East and throughout the world! They now make up a single starry sky, guiding our way as we journey through the deserts of history,” he said, adding, “We have the same goal: all of us are called to the fullness of communion in God.”
Stressing the point of diversity, Pope Francis noted that the Holy Spirit at Pentecost allowed each person to speak in their own language and be understood, saying “the Spirit does not invent a new language for everyone, but allows each to speak in other languages, so that everyone can hear his or her own language spoken by others.”
“In a word, he does not imprison us in uniformity, but disposes us to accept one another in our differences…That is the spirit of the ecumenical journey,” he said.
Francis also underlined the importance of bearing witness, saying the apostles at Pentecost, after receiving the Holy Spirit, “are ‘opened up,’ transformed, and go forth from the Upper Room.”
“They will then go out to all the world,” he said, saying Jerusalem, “which had seemed their point of arrival, becomes the starting point of an extraordinary adventure.”
Fear is no longer a factor, meaning that “henceforth they go everywhere, not to stand out from others, much less to revolutionize the order of society and the world, but by their lives to radiate everywhere the beauty of God’s love,” the pope said.
The Christian message, then, “is not so much an address made with words, but a witness offered by deeds,” he said, saying, “The faith is not a privilege to be claimed, but a gift to be shared.”
Stressing charity as “the badge of Christians, the essence of our witness,” the pope said living in Bahrain has enabled many communities to rediscover “the utter simplicity of charity,” and pointed to the hospitality shown to foreigners and the patience, understanding, and dialogue shown daily in the workplace.
“Unity and witness are both essential,” he said. “We cannot truly witness to the God of love unless we are united among ourselves in accordance with his will, and we cannot be united by remaining apart” and without expanding the bounds of communities so that Holy Spirit “embraces every language and reaches out to everyone.”
“Let us entrust to him in prayer our shared journey, and beg the outpouring of his grace upon us, in a new Pentecost that will open new horizons and quicken the pace of our journey of unity and peace,” Pope Francis said.
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