Speaking to ecumenical leaders Thursday, Pope Francis said Christian unity in many ways depends on a willingness to go out of oneself to meet the needs of others, and called for a “new evangelical outreach” among Christian communities.
In a June 21 speech, the pope voiced concern over what he said is a growing impression that ecumenism is divorced from missionary outreach, saying the mission aspect of Christianity “cannot be neglected nor emptied of its content.”
Missionary outreach, he said, “determines our very identity,” since preaching the Gospel is core to the Christian identity. And while the ways in which this mission is carried out might vary, we must constantly remind ourselves that Christ's Church grows by attraction.”
To this end, Francis said a “new evangelical outreach” is needed among Christians of different confessions, who are called to be one people that “experiences and shares the joy of the Gospel, praises the Lord and serves our brothers and sisters.”
Francis voiced his conviction that “an increased missionary impulse” would spur Christians toward greater unity, leading to an “ecumenical spring” which, despite the “constant vacillations” among different denominational communities, would allow them to gather together around Jesus Christ.
The pope spoke during a June 21 ecumenical meeting in Geneva to mark the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches.
Founded in 1948, the World Council of Churches (WCC) is a global fellowship of churches whose goal is to promote unity among different Christian confessions. With some 348 members worldwide, the organization has long been a driving force for ecumenism in Europe.
Members are present in 110 countries and represent over 500 million Christians, including Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist churches, as well as many Reformed, United and Independent churches.
The majority of the founding members initially came from Europe and North America, however, today the bulk of the WCC membership is in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific. The Holy See is not a member of the WCC, but it is an observer, and collaborates with the organization in several areas.
Pope Francis visited the WCC headquarters during his June 21 daytrip to Geneva, which he made specifically for the 70th anniversary celebrations.
After his arrival, the pope met with the President of the Swedish Confederation, Alain Berset, and led an ecumenical prayer encounter, telling attendees that their love for Christ must overcome divisions rooted in party preferences and differences in belief.
Francis then lunched with ecumenical leaders from around the world before returning to the WCC headquarters for his ecumenical meeting. After the gathering, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass for Switzerland's Catholic population before returning to Rome.
In his address at the ecumenical meeting, Pope Francis pointed to the biblical significance of the number 70, noting how in the Gospel Jesus tells his disciples to forgive one another “not only seven times, but seventy times seven.”
That number, the pope said, is not a limit and nor does it quantify justice, but rather, it “opens up a vast horizon” and “serves as the measure of a charity capable of infinite forgiveness.”
After centuries of conflict among Christian communities, this charity “now allows us to come together as brothers and sisters, at peace and full of gratitude to God our Father,” he said, adding that the day's gathering is the fruit of the forgiveness and efforts toward unity of many who have come before them.
“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,” he said.
Those working in the ecumenical field today are heirs to the “to the faith, charity and hope of all those who, by the nonviolent power of the Gospel, found the courage to change the course of history,” Francis said.
While in the past this history “had led us to mutual distrust and estrangement, and thus contributed to the infernal spiral of continual fragmentation,” the Holy Spirit has changed the route, “and a path both old and new has been irrevocably paved: the path of a reconciled communion aimed at the visible manifestation of the fraternity that even now unites believer.”
Pope Francis also noted that the number 70 reflects the number of disciples Jesus sent out two-by-two in the Gospel, which implies that in order to be a true disciple, one must “become an apostle, a missionary,” going beyond division to spread the Good News.
Pointing to the theme of the day's meeting, “Walking, Praying and Working Together,” the pope said walking is a two-fold movement which implies both going “in and out,” which means going in toward the center, which is Christ, and out toward “the existential peripheries” of the world.
Prayer is “the oxygen of ecumenism,” he said. “Without prayer, communion becomes stifling and makes no progress, because we prevent the wind of the Spirit from driving us forward.” The pope then urged attendes to ask themselves how often they pray for one another, and for unity.
On the point of walking together, Francis pointed to several ongoing initiatives in which the Holy See already collaborates with ecumenical leaders, including the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism; collaboration with the Office for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation and the joint preparation of texts for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, among others.
He also praised the WCC's Bossey Ecumenical Institute for their work in training both pastoral and academic leaders for different Christian churches throughout the world.
“The work of our Christian communities is rightly defined by the word 'diakonia,'” a Greek term meaning service to others, he said, adding that 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.”
With vulnerable populations becoming increasingly marginalized and the rich becoming more wealthy, and with Christian persecution increasing throughout the world, Christians themselves are called to draw near to those who suffer, remembering that unity is already established in the “ecumenism of blood,” he said.
Pope Francis closed his address urging attendees to encourage one another while avoiding the temptation “to absolutize certain cultural paradigms and get caught up in partisan interests.”
“Let us 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,” he said, adding that “it is problematic when Christians appear indifferent towards those in need.”
More troubling still, he said, is the certainty shown by some, “who consider their own blessings clear signs of God’s predilection rather than a summons to responsible service of the human family and the protection of creation.”
Asking what each community can concretely do together, the pope urged participants not to hesitate in putting a plan together when ideas arise, so as to “experience a more intense fraternity in the exercise of concrete charity.”