91. Ecumenism in All Directions. Pope Francis and the Unity of the Church

October 8th, 2014

Nothing is substantially new, but everything is affirmed and lived out in a really new way. This is how Cardinal Walter Kasper, former head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, summarizes Pope Francis’ approach to ecumenism. In a foreword to a book that analyses the major papal speeches and acts as far as the unity of the church is concerned (Riccardo Burigana, Un cuore solo. Papa Francesco e l’unità della chiesa, Milano: Edizioni Terra Santa, 2014), Kasper argues that from his first address after being elected to his daily words and gestures, ecumenism has been central to what Francis has been doing thus far.

As is often the case in the Roman Catholic Church, there is no substantial change in the overall doctrinal framework. The Catholic approach to ecumenism is still the same without additions or subtractions. The final goal of ecumenism is to bring the whole church cum Petro (with Peter, i.e. in fellowship with the Pope) and sub Petro (under Peter, i.e. in submission to the Pope). Having said that, emphases and attitudes do change and this Pope certainly has a distinct way of interpreting his mission as a chief promoter of the ecumenical cause.

Ecumenism of Friendship

The book reflects the on-going commitment of Pope Francis to foster his view of Christian unity. After reading it, here are some observations that can be made. His ecumenical initiatives are based more on personal contacts with leaders of different churches and organizations than on institutional channels. In performing his role the Pope does not totally depend on Vatican bureaucracy but instead retains his own sphere of initiative. This relational aspect is often underlined as the primary way to foster mutual trust and deeper relationships. In Francis’ view, theological dialogues are less important than personal acquaintances. Nothing changes as far as the long term goal of the Pope presiding over the whole church is concerned, but this is not the issue that the Pope likes to focus on. The important thing for him is to say that we are friends, brothers, sisters, already “one” in some sense.

He wants different ecumenical partners and friends to be valued, listened to, cared for, and even admired. He wants to affirm them and wants them to feel appreciated. Theological and ecclesiastical alignments are secondary. Anyone interested in what is happening with this Pope should note that the paradigm he is operating under is that of an ecumenism of friendship rather than one of convictions. The two are not opposed, but the emphasis for him lies on the former, not the latter.

In his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis made clear that time is more important than space. What he meant is that those who set their lives in long-term trajectories are better suited to achieve something than those who concentrate on the here and now. The overwhelming appreciation of the ecumenical partners and the on-going investment in personal relationships are two tracks of the ecumenical path that is consistent with this view.

Closer to All?

Another impressive mark of Pope Francis’ ecumenism is that he manages to get closer to all his ecumenical partners without making distinctions between them. He has similar words, attitudes, and approaches to Eastern Orthodox of various stripes, Liberal protestants, Anglicans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and other kinds of Christians. Theologically speaking this is rather awkward because the closer you get to the sacramentalism and the devotions of the East, the farther away you go from the liberal agenda of most Western protestant churches, and vice versa. Furthermore as you draw nearer to the “free” church tradition of Pentecostalism you at the same time distance yourselves from the highly hierarchical and sacramental ecclesiology of both the Roman and the Eastern traditions. Not so for Pope Francis. As already pointed out, this is not his approach. He invests in relationships with all people while leaving aside theological traditions and ecclesiastical settlements. He wants to get closer to all.

A further illustration of this point is that as he draws nearer to all Christians, Pope Francis is also determined to draw nearer to all people, be they religious or secular. The same brotherly and appreciative afflatus is what marks the Pope’s attitude towards Jews, Muslims, and agnostic intellectuals. Divisive issues are left aside whereas the “brotherly” dimension is always in the foreground. The Pope is clearly pushing with the same intensity the relational side of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue as if they were two intertwined paths to achieve the overall catholic goal: cum Petro and sub Petro.

The point is that one’s objective is to draw nearer to everyone, this means that the driving concern is not biblical truth and love that is a principled and discerning criterion but the catholicity of friendship that is much more flexible and fluid. While appreciating the friendly tone, the keeping of Christian unity cannot be a matter of friendship alone. Unity in truth is what Jesus prayed for in John 17, and unity in truth and love is what Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4.


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    90. Church Planting in Rome?

    September 29th, 2014

    Catholic missiology speaks of “plantatio ecclesiae” to describe the process of church planting where currently there is no church. The rationale of this “plantatio” is that once the (Roman Catholic) church is planted there is no need to plant another church. This is even truer in the city of Rome! In the city where the Holy See has its center and where the heart of the Roman Catholic Church lies, how does one dare to plant a church? The Church (capital C) is already there by definition! So, church planting in the shadow of the Vatican requires extra-homework in order to identify a biblical warrant before embarking on such a task.

    Spiritual Barriers
    Church planting in Rome encounters lots of cultural and religious barriers: non-catholics are often perceived as sects, awkward people, foreigners, or new religious movements. Sometimes,  unfortunately, the evangelical performance (e.g. narrow-mindedness, tribal mentality, over-sensitivity to differences, estrangement from the real world) confirms these stereotypes. The intent, however, should be to show that evangelical churches are biblical, classical, orthodox, protestant churches that cherish church history, the heritage of the Church Fathers, and have a long legacy in the history of Christianity while reflecting a spiritual vitality that is lacking in so many spheres of the religious world.

    Then there are the spiritual and theological roadblocks. Here the whole issue of mediation comes to the fore. How do we draw near to God? The standard Catholic view is that one approaches God through the sacramental system of “mother” Church. Many words that are used are the same (e.g. grace, cross, gospel, salvation), but they mean very different things and their meanings have to be addressed. Church planters must avoid the danger of assuming that terms such as grace, faith, Jesus, church, cross, and gospel, are understood as they are biblically defined. Dismantling old patterns and constructing new ones is an on-going task. Gently but firmly people need to distance themselves from catholic institutional/sacramental baggage and be exposed to the Gospel afresh.

    Finally, there is the personal dimension. The ordinary Roman is struck by the personal element of the Gospel. Usually they have no concept of it. Their religion is mainly a set of practices and traditions, but not something that involves their whole life. Therefore community life, church life, and family life are all important ways to convey the practical difference that a saving faith in Jesus Christ brings to everyday life.

    Ecclesiological Challenges and Gospel opportunities

    The majority of Roman Catholic countries are as poorly evangelized as most secular countries in Europe. Rome is no exception. The vast majority are nominal Christians who have a loose sociological belonging to the community and no saving faith in Jesus Christ. For the most part Roman Catholic practice is based more on Folk Catholicism (e.g. devotions and processions) than Biblical Christianity. The reading of the Bible was prohibited for centuries and this censorship has produced a high level of biblical ignorance. People think they are “Christian” because they were baptized as infants and are part of a “Christian” culture, but there is little if no sense of personal engagement as far as the Gospel is concerned. Beyond the outward religious surface, there is a blend of religious and secular idolatries along with a mixture of pre and post-modern idolatries. While the presence of the institutional church is pervasive, the impact of the Gospel is minimal and significantly obscured by social convenience and practical indifference.

    Rome therefore is a mission field and church planting is key to evangelism and Gospel transformation. Rome is certainly not accustomed to being a city where religious pluralism and the plurality of churches are welcomed. Over the centuries the Church has always been presented in the singular and anyone outside of the (Roman Catholic) Church was considered a heretic and/or a schismatic. The claim of being a “church” outside of the Roman Catholic Church is countercultural but something that most people find intriguing. This is especially true in celebrating the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist being the center-piece of the entire Roman Catholic system where its sacramental, hierarchical, and dogmatic dimensions intersect). Here church planters are sending the message that the Christian church is certainly “one” and therefore “catholic” but not exclusively “Roman”. Church planting deconstructs the Roman Church’s claim to be the only church and emphasizes the “unity” of the church in terms of Gospel faithfulness instead of institutional adherence to the papal system.

    In Rome there is much cynicism about the church and religion in general, as is the case in the rest of Europe. The cultural climate is skeptical and so opportunities exist to introduce the Gospel based on the virtuous circle of evangelical truth, evangelical community, and evangelical culture. Church planting is key to this goal because it joins believing and belonging, proclamation and service, the personal and the communal, creative contextualization and obedience to the Word of God. “Plantatio ecclesiae” used to be an action that went from Rome to the rest of the world. Now as ever it needs to be a commitment that reaches Rome as any other part of the world.

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