Pope Francis, like all his recent predecessors, has expressed a desire for good relations among the world’s religions, as well as the various Christian churches, from the very beginning. Rarely, however, has that drive been as visible or intense as it is right now.
We’re currently in the middle of a 10-day stretch that features three high-profile events: One could be described as fairly routine, but the other two are anything but.
On Jan. 17, Francis crossed Rome to visit the city’s historic Great Synagogue, his first visit to a Jewish place of worship since his election to the papacy in March 2013. It marked the third time a pontiff has gone to the Rome synagogue, located within the boundaries of what was once a papally-imposed Jewish ghetto.
On Jan. 25, as popes do every year, Francis will go to Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to mark the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which falls on the feast of the conversion of St. Paul. Generally, it’s the most important annual occasion for popes to reflect on ecumenism.
Though it’s not yet confirmed, reportedly Francis will leave the Vatican yet again on Jan. 27 to visit the Mosque of Rome, one of the largest Islamic places of worship outside the Arab world. If so, he’ll become the first pope to do so, and historically it will be just the ninth time a pontiff has entered a mosque.
In light of the flurry of activity, one has to ask: Why is interfaith and Christian unity so much on the pope’s brain right now?
To some extent, it’s just coincidence. Given that both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI visited the Rome synagogue, it was always written in the stars that Francis would do so at some point, and it was also virtually certain that it would happen in January on Italy’s annual day for Jewish/Christian dialogue.
Having made that visit, Francis would naturally think of a trip to the mosque as a signal that his outreach to Jews is not a zero/sum exercise that comes at the expense of Muslims. Given that he’s forever a pope in a hurry, he wouldn’t want to wait long to get the point across, which may explain why the visit could come just 10 days after the stop at the synagogue.
Similarly, Jan. 25 has long been set aside by popes as a day for ecumenical emphasis in light of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an observance that stretches all the way back to 1908. In that sense, Francis is simply holding to script.
In other words, the stars aligned to put all this activity into the same time frame.
On the other hand, there are at least three reasons why Francis is likely grateful that these appointments are coming one right after the other.
First, it underscores that Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, while distinct, are nevertheless related.
For sure, ecumenical dialogue among Christians is a different animal from Christian engagement with other faiths. When Christians talk, the ultimate aim is full, visible, structural unity in one common home. When different religions engage, the goal is to know one another better and to work together, while always respecting the unalterable differences among the religions in belief and practice.
Yet the practical reality is that ecumenism gives a boost to inter-faith dialogue.
If Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and so on get one message from Catholics but another from Baptists, or one message from the Orthodox and another from Pentecostals, it can muddy the waters. The more Christians are unified, the easier outreach to other faiths becomes.
Second, the coincidence of all three of these events falling in the same time frame allows Francis to make the point that he’s not picking and choosing, or giving preference to one group over another.
Instead, the implied message is that building better ties with Jews, Muslims, and other Christians is all part of the same package. In the words of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations in 1965, the Catholic Church wants to be an “expert in humanity,” which includes the various religious expressions of the whole human family.
Third, of course, is the towering reality that arguably the world has never needed a counter-witness to religious extremism and violence more than it does right now.
Given the bloodshed associated with ISIS, Boko Haram, Christian/Muslim conflict in the Central African Republic, the rise of both Hindu and Buddhist extremism in parts of Asia, terrorist attacks across Europe, and on and on, even reasonable people with no axe to grind may be tempted to conclude that religion is inevitably destined to pit people against one another.
In that light, Francis’ apparent determination to show that it doesn’t have to be so — that religion can be every bit as much a part of the solution as the problem — seems timely indeed.
Whether by luck or design, January 2016 is giving Pope Francis a platform to broadcast that message in unusually high-profile fashion. What remains to be seen is whether his frenzy of outreach will pay off in terms of changing hearts and minds where it counts.