Narratives, especially as they come to be shaped in the media, are a funny thing. Every public figure has one, and once they’re set in cement, almost everything that person says or does is seen through that lens.
For Pope Francis, a key element of his narrative is the (often exaggerated) notion that he’s a liberal maverick. Even when he does or says something that other popes have done or said a thousand times before, it’s touted as an innovation.
Recent days have brought examples on the ecumenical front, referring to the push for unity among the various branches of Christianity.
Briefly, here’s what’s happened:
• Francis announced he’ll travel to Lund, Sweden, on Oct. 31, to open a year-long series of events for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, together with the Lutheran World Federation and leaders of other Christian churches.
• The Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation issued a “common prayer” for the anniversary, intended for use around the world by both churches.
• At around the same time, it was reported that some members of a group of Finnish Lutherans visiting Rome were offered Communion in St. Peter’s Basilica in defiance of Catholic rules, a move later described as an error.
• During an ecumenical service on Jan. 25, Francis asked for “mercy and forgiveness” for the way Christians have treated each other, including a request for forgiveness for behavior of Catholics that has not reflected “Gospel values.”
These moves build on the fact that when Rome dedicated a piazza to Martin Luther last September, it did so with the Vatican’s tacit blessing, and shortly afterwards Francis visited Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and answered a Protestant woman who asked about receiving Catholic communion, delivering a somewhat rambling reply seen by some as advising her to make her own call.
In more traditional Catholic circles all this has elicited alarm, seeing Francis as too “soft” on the boundaries between Catholicism and the rest of the Christian world.
Yet if Francis is to be judged weak on that basis, then so must every pope for at least the last fifty years, including figures whose own narratives would tell you they were iron-willed (St. John Paul II) or arch-conservative (Pope Benedict XVI.)
Catholicism’s commitment to ecumenism was ratified at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and every pope since has moved the ball.
Even before the council ended, Pope Paul VI in 1964 traveled to Jerusalem to meet Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, the first encounter between the leaders of Western and Eastern Christianity in more than 500 years.
Two years later, Paul VI famously gave the episcopal ring he had worn as the cardinal-archbishop of Milan to Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion. In 1975, when a new Patriarch of Constantinople sent an envoy to the Vatican, Paul knelt and kissed his feet. (It was especially remarkable since not so long before, visitors to the pope were required to perform that gesture as an act of submission.)
As for John Paul II, the catalogue of his ecumenical words and deeds is so extensive as to defy summary, but here’s a couple of examples.
In December 1996, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and several other Anglican bishops came to Rome. John Paul gave Carey a gold pectoral cross, the same gift he offered to Catholic archbishops on their required visits to Rome. He presented silver pectoral crosses to the other Anglicans.
Yet according to official Catholic doctrine, Anglican bishops are not validly ordained, and hence have no business sporting such symbols. The gifts were a case of a pope being bolder with his gestures than his words.
In October 2002, in conjunction with the 700th anniversary of the birth of St. Bridget of Sweden, John Paul II took part in a gala vespers service in St. Peter’s Basilica. Present were 13 Roman Catholic bishops, plus nine Lutheran bishops from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, one other Lutheran clergyman, and three non-Catholic prelates (two Orthodox, one Anglican).
The prelates were dressed in liturgical vestments, and they processed in and sat down with equal dignity. It was difficult to avoid the impression John Paul was recognizing a brotherhood in holy orders that Catholic theology would struggle to explain, just as Francis was groping for a way to talk about Communion in his response to the Protestant woman that was both traditional but also open.
Benedict XVI too was obviously on board. In his very first Mass as pope, celebrated in the Sistine Chapel the day after his election, Benedict pledged that working tirelessly “to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” would be his “primary task.”
It’s also worth noting that the controversial new Catholic/Lutheran common prayer is based on a 1999 joint declaration between the two churches on the doctrine of justification, meaning how people are saved. From the Catholic side, the figure who ultimately saved that pact was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict.
“It was Ratzinger who untied the knots,” said Bishop George Anderson, then the head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, in a 1999 interview. “Without him we might not have an agreement.”
The bottom line is that if Francis is to be styled as a revolutionary for his ecumenical agenda, it’s a revolution that started long before he arrived, and will almost certainly continue long after he’s gone.