ROME — At the end of a week devoted to the press for Christian unity, Pope Francis said on Sunday that the way ahead is for various denominations to reject “proselytism and competition” among themselves.
The trick, he said, is for Christians to stop being “self-enclosed” and “exclusive,” and to focus instead on spreading the Gospel.
“Our shared commitment to proclaiming the Gospel enables us to overcome proselytism and competition in all their forms,” Francis said. “All of us are at the service of the one Gospel!”
Although Francis has repeatedly called on Christians to invite others to the faith, he has also condemned “proselytism” on multiple occasions, by which he means coercive or aggressive missionary techniques.
The pope said that by answering the call to spread the Gospel, different Christian denominations will find a privileged setting for greater cooperation.
Christian unity, Francis said, won’t be achieved by subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions.
“To understand one another, and to grow in charity and truth, we need to pause, to accept and listen to one another. In this way, we already begin to experience unity,” Francis said.
The pope’s remarks came Sunday evening as he closed an annual week of prayer for Christian Unity in the Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The pontiff led a vespers service attended by representatives of other Christian churches and ecclesial communities, such as the Anglican Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
(“Ecclesial communities” is a Vatican term referring to Christian groups that don’t necessarily think of themselves as a “church.”)
The week of prayer for Christian unity began in 1968. This year’s theme, chosen by Vatican representatives and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches, was: “Jesus said to her: ‘Give me to drink’.”
Also present at the ecumenical prayer were men and women who belong to religious orders in various churches, and Francis called on them to offer a witness to communion in Christ through concrete gestures of acceptance and dialogue.
He called for all members of various Christian denominations to pursue unity, not just individuals or communities devoted specifically to ecumenical dialogue.
“A fruitful exchange of experiences,” Francis said, “can prove beneficial for the vitality of all forms of religious life.”
His address at St. Paul Outside the Walls capped several talks by Francis about Christian unity throughout the week.
On Thursday, during a private audience with an ecumenical delegation from Finland, the pope said that “a shared Christian witness is very much needed in the face of the mistrust, insecurity, persecution, pain, and suffering experienced so widely in today’s world.”
Earlier on Sunday, during his weekly prayer of the Angelus, Francis told the crowd gathered at St. Peter’s that “it’s a bad thing that Christians are divided,” and that it’s because of sin, history, and the devil that what was born as one is now divided.
As it was with his immediate predecessors, Christian unity has been at the core of Pope Francis’ pontificate. He’s tried to foster ecumenical dialogue on the grounds of common concerns.
In May 2014, Francis went to Israel and Palestine to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras.
According to his explanation, the best part of the trip for the Argentinian pontiff was an ecumenical prayer the shared with Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest and also most bitterly contested Christian sites in the world.
“To plumb the depths of the mystery of God,” said Francis on Sunday, “we need one another, we need to encounter one another, and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts.”