The news that Pope Francis would visit the Anglican church located in the centre of Rome, devoted to All Saints, failed to hit the front pages. It may be because of the low number of members of the Church of England in Italy, or because in 2017 ecumenical attention is focused on the Fifth Centenary of Luther’s Reformation, which the Lutheran Church is bound to in a different way compared to the Protestant Church. Or it may be because a number of media outlets are getting accustomed to Pope Francis’ gestures, which don’t cause a sensation and thus can’t be transformed into scoops. But that is not a negative occurrence: I wish to Heaven that the fraternal meeting between the faithful of different Christian Churches and religions were ordinary administration!
But the Pope took care of surprising us: with Archbishop Welby, Primate of England, the highest ecclesial authority of the Anglican Church, he will travel to South Sudan, which it would be a euphemism to define one of the poorest Countries in the world.
The news was unexpected, and it deserves in-depth reflection. But it promptly triggered various reactions. First of all, the journey was a joint decision of Archbishop Welby and of Pope Francis. This is far from obvious: we are all advocates of the motto “if you want something done do it yourself”, while the distinctive trait of ecumenism, and even more so the very nature of every Christian community, is communion, encounter, joint actions and decisions. Similar gestures come to mind, such as the joint initiative in Lesbos a year ago, a concrete sign of attention towards refugees shown by the Pope, Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Hieronymos from Athens; along with the “Humanitarian corridors”, which secures the safe passage of war refugees, a joint initiative of the Valdese and Catholic Churches, adopted by Caritas Italy, to be launched by the Evangelical Churches in Germany, because
Being concerned for each other and for everyone is a patrimony and a joint commitment of all the disciples of Christ,
which leads to the second reflection: concern for our neighbour is a theme that has never been cause of divisions between Christians. Naturally this doesn’t mean that we have always succeeded. Moreover, it highlights the awareness that the commandment of love is equally received within all Christian Churches, and hence it already unites them in a community of service, which has a lot to teach to every Church, and probably also to the world as a whole. Christian unity is possible. In fact to a certain extent it’s already underway. A third reflection is suggested by the destination of this journey: South Sudan, a very young nation; an extremely poor nation that could also play a symbolical role. In other words, the decision of a joint visit to that Country of the dark Continent contributes to the reaffirmation of that very “Christian difference” which our societies are in dire need of. Hence with this decision Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby become the spokespersons of those who object to exclusion, who oppose shutting down doors and borders to the poor, to refugees, and, in general terms, to all “others”, who –for unknown reasons– seem to be sadly doomed to raise fears and suspicion.
That same “Christian difference” is a concrete token of the fact that it’s possible to adopt different criteria, namely the criteria of communion, of welcome and of brotherhood.
Those of you who are more knowledgeable about the ecumenical movement will remember the emergence of the Conference of Edinburgh, which in 1910 initiated the journey of reconciliation among Christians: Anglican and Protestant missionaries, working together in Africa, started valuing the importance of joint Gospel proclamation, which only but unites all believers. At the time the Catholic faithful didn’t feel involved by this movement. But today they are in the front line with all Christian Churches and all those who have understood that there is no alternative. Moreover, the fact that this reminder comes from Africa is all the more significant. It reminds us that “anti-ecumenism is equal to ignorance”, as Patriarch Kirill of Moscow recently affirmed. It’s the ignorance of our times, of the historical processes. Ultimately, it appears that it is precisely what Welbly and Francis are jointly saying.
(*) director of the National Office for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue of the Italian Bishops’ Conference