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Pope Francis Calls for Concrete Action to Promote Christian Unity

  Adapted from an article in the 21 June 2018 issue of America
by Gerald O'Connell


“The Lord asks us for unity; our world, torn apart by all too many divisions that affect the most vulnerable, begs for unity,” Pope Francis told top representatives of the World Council of Churches during a prayer service at its headquarters in Geneva soon after his arrival on June 21.

This push for unity was the leitmotif of his visit for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the largest ecumenical movement in the world that today represents 348 churches and 560 million Christians from 110 countries. The Catholic Church works with the council in several ways, though not yet as a full member.

On the plane from Rome to Geneva, Francis told reporters that this “was a journey to unity” and “a desire for unity.” On arrival in this country of eight million people, Francis was given a particularly warm welcome by the president of the Swiss Federation and those gathered for a prayer service with which he began his visit.

The Norwegian-born secretary general of the W.C.C., Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, hailed the pope’s visit as “a sign of hope” and “a milestone in the relations among the churches.” He told him: “You came from one ‘end of the world,’ from the far south, as you said when you were elected. We are here together as women and men, young and old, from South and North, East and West.”

During his visit, Francis heard testimonies from various members of the W.C.C. about the work they are doing for justice and peace across the world. He also met two of members from North and South Korea who have been working for peace on the peninsula.

Throughout his pontificate, Francis has sought to advance the cause of Christian unity more by concrete actions—such as the visit today—than by theological discussion. He is convinced that progress to Christian unity can be achieved by “walking, praying and working together” as expressed by motto chosen for his visit.

Addressing the W.C.C., Francis emphasized that “our lack of unity is in fact not only openly contrary to the will of Christ but is also a scandal to the world and harms the most holy of causes: the preaching of the Gospel to every creature.”

He highlighted two important ways to achieve unity. First, he said, “what is really needed is a new evangelical outreach.” He told them: “I am personally convinced that an increased missionary impulse will lead us to greater unity. Just as in the early days, preaching marked the springtime of the church, so evangelization will mark the flowering of a new ecumenical summer.”

He emphasized the need for this “new evangelical outreach” because of a concern that “comes from an impression that ecumenism and mission are no longer as closely intertwined as they were at the beginning.” He reminded this worldwide body of churches that “the missionary mandate, which is more than diakonia and the promotion of human development, cannot be neglected nor emptied of its content. It determines our very identity.” He insisted that “the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth is part of our very being as Christians.”

Francis indicated that a second important way to achieve unity is for the W.C.C. and the Catholic Church to work together in every way possible in concrete loving service to a suffering and divided humanity.

“The work of our Christian communities is rightly defined by the word diakonia. It is our way of following the Master who came ‘not to be served but to serve,’” he said. “The credibility of the Gospel is put to the test by the way Christians respond to the cry of all those, in every part of the world, who suffer unjustly from the baleful spread of an exclusion that, by generating poverty, foments conflicts.

“The Lord, the Good Samaritan of mankind will examine us on our love for our neighbor, for each of our neighbors. So let us ask ourselves: What can we do together? If a particular form of service is possible, why not plan and carry it out together, and thus start to experience a more intense fraternity in the exercise of concrete charity?”

Seeking to encourage them, he said: “Let us see what we can do concretely, rather than grow discouraged about what we cannot. Let us also look to our many brothers and sisters in various parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, who suffer because they are Christians. Let us draw close to them.” He reminded everyone that “our ecumenical journey is preceded and accompanied by an ecumenism already realized, the ecumenism of blood, which urges us to go forward.”

He called on the W.C.C. and Catholic Church to “help men and women of good will to grow in concern for events and situations that affect a great part of humanity but seldom make it to the front page. We cannot look the other way.”

Pope Francis thanked the council for its commitment to unity over these past 70 years and paid warm tribute to those who were pioneers in the ecumenical field. “If we are here today, it is also thanks to all those who went before us, choosing the path of forgiveness and sparing no effort to respond to the Lord’s will ‘that all may be one.’ Out of heartfelt love for Jesus, they did not allow themselves to be mired in disagreements but instead looked courageously to the future, believing in unity and breaking down barriers of suspicion and of fear.”

Francis told his ecumenical audience, “I have desired to come here, a pilgrim in quest of unity and peace.” He said he wanted to take part personally in the 70th-anniversary celebrations “to reaffirm the commitment of the Catholic Church to the cause of ecumenism and to encourage cooperation with the member churches and with our ecumenical partners.”

Referring to the motto for his visit, Francis reminded these fellow Christians that there are two ways of walking: “We can either walk in the Spirit,” along the path opened by our baptism, or else we can “gratify the desires of the flesh...thinking that the way to fulfillment is by acquiring possessions.” But, he said, this “thirst for material things blinds us to our companions along the way, and indifference prevails in the streets of today’s world.”

On the other hand, he said, “walking in the Spirit” means “rejecting worldliness” and “opting for a mindset of service and growing in forgiveness.” It means “playing our part in history” by loving one’s neighbor as oneself. He told them that this way of walking “calls for constant conversion and the renewal of our way of thinking so that it can conform to that of the Holy Spirit.”

Francis recalled that “in the course of history, divisions between Christians have often arisen because at their root, in the life of communities, a worldly mindset has seeped in. First, self-concern took priority over concern for Christ.” He noted that “once this happened, the Enemy of God and man had no difficulty in separating us, because the direction we were taking was that of the flesh, not of the Spirit.”

On the other hand, he said, “the ecumenical movement, to which the World Council of Churches has made so great a contribution, came about as a grace of the Holy Spirit.” Indeed, “ecumenism made us set out in accordance with Christ’s will, and it will be able to progress if, following the lead of the Spirit, it constantly refuses to withdraw into itself.”

Pope Francis recognized that some have reservations about ecumenism because "it does not adequately protect the interests of individual communities, often closely linked to ethnic identity or split along party lines, whether ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive.’” He said, however, that “ecumenism is a great enterprise operating at a loss,” but “the loss is evangelical reflecting the words of Jesus: ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’”

It is too easy to “halt before our continuing differences” or to be blocked “by a certain weariness and lack of enthusiasm,” he said. “Our differences must not be excuses. Even now we can walk in the Spirit: We can pray, evangelize and serve together. This is possible, and it is pleasing to God! Walking, praying and working together: This is the great path that we are called to follow. And this path has a clear aim, that of unity. The opposite path, that of division, leads to conflict and breakup.”

Having completed his visit to the W.C.C., the pope went to the Palexpo to celebrate Mass for some 40,000 Swiss Catholics.