ROME — Francis on Sunday took another step to deepen Christian unity when he became the first pope to visit an Anglican church in Rome. At a prayer service with English hymns he pointed to a practical path towards communion in shared acts of mercy as well as a spiritual attitude of humility, as “a beggar of mercy.”

“True, solid communion grows and is built up when people work together for those in need,” Francis said. “Through a united witness to charity, the merciful face of Jesus is made visible in our city.”

His words came in a homily at the Anglican Church of All Saints’ in downtown Rome, where he took part in a short Choral Evensong, blessed an icon, and spontaneously answered questions put to him by three members of the congregation.

Although previous popes are familiar with famous Anglican houses of prayer such as Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in London, this was the first ever visit by the Bishop of Rome to an Anglican church in his own diocese.

The invitation was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first Church of England service in Rome on October 27th 1816. The current church, close to the Spanish steps, was built over half a century later.

“As Catholics and Anglicans, we are humbly grateful that, after centuries of mutual mistrust, we are now able to recognize that the fruitful grace of Christ is at work also in others,” Francis said during his homily.

Citing joint prayer services and the many forms of service Catholics and Anglicans do together, the pope gave thanks that “among Christians the desire has grown for greater closeness.”

Although “progress on our journey towards full communion may seem slow and uncertain,” he added, “today we can be encouraged by our gathering.

“For the first time, a Bishop of Rome is visiting your community,” he went on, adding that this was both a blessing and a responsibility to work for greater ties and strengthen the Churches’ service of the city.

The pope blessed an icon of Christ the Savior commissioned for the anniversary from the British Catholic iconographer Ian Knowles, a former Anglican priest who works out of a studio in Bethlehem.

Francis’s visit also marked the official twinning of All Saints with the Catholic parish of Ognissanti (which also means ‘All Saints’), the titular church of German Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and a theologian Francis highly esteems.

The two parishes have been engaged in unity work for over a decade and have recently started a project for feeding the homeless together every Friday.

Francis said the twinning is a good sign of the desire to “become ever more faithful disciples of Jesus, always more liberated from our respective prejudices from the past and ever more desirous to pray for and with others.”

“Where we are united in the name of Jesus, he is there,” Francis said, closing his homily with a quote from the Gospel of St. Matthew. “And turning his merciful gaze towards us, he calls us to devote ourselves fully in the cause of unity and love.”

This ecumenical path through service is something he spoke about again in the “off-the-cuff” segment of the visit.

Pope Francis shares a light moment during his historic visit to the Anglican Church of All Saints in Rome, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)
Pope Francis shares a light moment during his historic visit to the Anglican Church of All Saints in Rome, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

One of the questions centered on an apparent shift of emphasis between popes Benedict and Francis. Benedict XVI was quoted citing the risk of giving priority to collaboration in social enterprises instead of following a theological path towards unity as opposed to Francis’s approach, which is centered in “walking and collaborating” together towards Christian unity.

Francis began his response by saying he didn’t know in what context Benedict had said this, if he meant it as it was presented in the question posed to him, or if it was perhaps something the German pontiff told a group of theologians.

Nevertheless, the pope said, both are important.

“What is the heart of the matter? I believe that what Benedict said is true, we have to do theological dialogue to study the roots [of unity], the sacraments, and the many things we don’t agree on,” Francis said. “But this cannot be done in a laboratory, it has to be done on the road.”

Through this ecumenical path, the pope said, theological dialogue is linked with Christians helping one another in their needs, their lives and also spiritually.

“We help each other in the service of charity, serving the poor, in hospitals and in wars,” Francis said. “Ecumenical dialogue cannot be made statically.”

Asked about what can the traditional churches in Europe learn from the “younger ones” in the global south, the pope said that for the Churches in Africa or Latin America ecumenism is easier because they are more creative.

He gave several examples, including one from his home country Argentina, in whose remote northern region Anglicans and Catholics work together in a ministry to indigenous people. With few priests in either church, he said Anglicans and Catholics prefer to go to each other’s services rather than miss a liturgy, and this was something the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was aware of.

“It’s easier to do ecumenism in young Churches,” the pope said.

He cited another example of an invitation he had received from an ecumenical delegation of bishops from South Sudan. An Anglican, a Catholic bishops and a Presbyterian leader jointly asked him to visit the country together with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Francis said it was still unclear if the trip would be possible because of the current situation. But if it does happen, the gesture would be meant as a sign of unity in a country that is currently divided by an ethnic war that has led to the world’s first famine in six years.

Sunday’s prayer service follows an intense few months of Christian unity in the last quarter of 2016 that included a week-long ecumenical summit between Anglicans and Catholics to mark 50 years of closer and deeper relationships between the two traditions. Next month Anglican choral evensong will be celebrated for the first time ever in St Peter’s basilica.

On Sunday the pope was welcomed to the All Saints parish by Robert Innes, Bishop of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe, who gave thanks to God for the pope’s global leadership, “and for the particular inspiration you have been to those of us in the Anglican Communion.”

He told Francis: “You have stood alongside the refugee and the migrant. You have initiated work on modern slavery and human trafficking. Within Europe and our diocese, you have challenged members of the European Union to rediscover their Christian heritage and values.”

At the end of the service, Pope Francis was presented with marmalade and simnel cake — which English people eat at Easter — made by members of the congregation.

While Sunday was about Catholic/Anglican unity, Vatican-watchers couldn’t help but be struck by an interesting intra-Catholic footnote. During the ceremony at All Saint’s Church, Australian Cardinal George Pell and Kasper sat next to one another, chatting amiably.

Given the strongly different positions they represent on Amoris Laetitia and other issues, perhaps that was one final ecumenical touch to the day.