ROME — On Thursday, Pope Francis spoke about Christian unity and ecumenism, specifically what they are not. Namely, they aren’t about uniformity or the total absorption of one religion by another, but instead consist of a common communion in Christ.
“Ecumenism is true when Christians are able to shift the focus from themselves, from their arguments and formulations, to the Word of God who demands to be heard, accepted and witnessed in the world,” the pope said Nov. 10.
“Because of this, the various Christian communities are called not to ‘compete,’ but to cooperate.”
Pope Francis was speaking to members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity gathered in Rome for their plenary assembly at the Vatican.
Throughout his pontificate Francis has placed a strong emphasis on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. The last few months alone have included several ecumenical meetings, such as in Lund, Sweden, and in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
In his speech, the Pope gave three examples of what he considers to be “false models of communion” that don’t really lead to unity, but instead “contradict it in its true essence.”
The first of these, he said, is believing that unity is a result of human effort, when in reality, it is always and only a gift of the Holy Spirit.
“We humans are not able to create unity alone, nor can we decide on the forms and times. So what is our role? What must we do to promote unity among Christians?” he asked, explaining that “our task is to accept this gift and make it visible to all.”
The best way to do this? Francis believes it is by “journeying” along the path. Though we may be far from full communion, there are often glimpses of hope, he said. Putting aside presumption, we can recognize how everyone is a sinner and everyone is in need of God’s love and mercy.
“Likewise, the unity of love is already a reality when those whom God has chosen and called to form his people together announce the wonders he has done for them, especially by offering a testimony of life, full of love for all people,” he said.
When we meet “as brothers, we pray together, we work together in proclaiming the Gospel and in service to the least we are already united,” he continued.
Only along this path, he said, can the theological and ecclesiological differences between Christians be surpassed, according to the Holy Spirit and “for the good of the Church.”
The second false model of unity Francis proposed is to believe that unity is equivalent to uniformity.
When the different theological, liturgical, spiritual and canonical traditions are “genuinely rooted in the apostolic tradition,” he noted, they are an “asset, not a threat” to the unity of the Church.
If we let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit, he said, the “richness, the variety, diversity” do not become a source of conflict, but are instead a point of enrichment.
The “ecumenical task,” then, is to respect “legitimate diversity” and work to successfully address what seem like irreconcilable differences, even when they persist.
Similarly, Pope Francis said that unity is not “absorption,” but a unification around the same center, the Lord.
“It is not enough to be unanimous in understanding the Gospel, but it is necessary that all believers are united to Christ and in Christ,” he said.
“In doing so, we Christians can recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters who believe in the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, engaged together to find ways to obey the Word of God.”
It is both personal conversion, and conversion as a community, to conformity with Christ which allow us to grow in communion among ourselves, the Pope said, explaining that this must be the spirit of every meeting which strives to bring differences closer together.
Jesus himself prayed in John 17:21 that “they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you,” Francis noted.
“The unity of Christians is an essential requirement of our faith. A requirement that flows from the depth of our being believers in Jesus Christ,” he said. “We call for unity, because we invoke Christ.”