• John Thavis

With new pope, hopes for ecumenical springtime

Pope Francis’ first few days have already generated an abundance of hope on many fronts, and one of them is ecumenism.

The fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, is attending the pope’s inaugural Mass tomorrow is rightly seen as a milestone in Catholic-Orthodox relations. That hasn’t happened since Catholics and Orthodox split in 1054.

Of course, Pope Francis does not yet have a “record” on relations with other Christian churches. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, however, he dropped some clues.

According to Bishop Gregory Venables, the Anglican bishop of Argentina, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was apparently not enthusiastic about Pope Benedict’s move in 2011 to create a structure in the Catholic Church to welcome disaffected Anglicans.

In remarks published by the Anglican Communion News Service, Bishop Venables said Cardinal Bergoglio “called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the church needs us as Anglicans.”

Bishop Venables described the new pope as “consistently humble and wise” as well as “outstandingly gifted,” and as someone who would treat him as an equal in joint services.

In a broader sense, Pope Francis’ whole approach to the office of the papacy has generated hope for an ecumenical springtime. So far, the new pope seems intent on downplaying papal power and highlighting his role as a unity figure among his brother bishops.

It was striking that in his initial appearances, he repeatedly referred to himself as the “bishop of Rome” rather than emphasizing his role as an authority figure in the universal church.

Many experts say one of the biggest ecumenical obstacles, especially in dialogue with the Orthodox, is the way papal primacy is carried out. The key issue is how the pope’s universal role of authority and service is balanced with the pope’s collegial relationship with all the bishops.

Pope Francis has given every indication that he takes collegiality seriously. Addressing the members of the College of Cardinals the day after his election, he told them that “we are as brothers.”

“We are that community, that friendship, that closeness, that will do good for every one of us. That mutual knowledge and openness to one another helped us to be open to the action of Holy Spirit,” he said. While all roles in the church are not equal, he added, they need to work in harmony.

Italian Father Bartolomeo Sorge, a leading Jesuit intellectual, told reporters that the expectation of greater collegiality was a reasonable one.

“It’s significant that Pope Francis, in the brief words he pronounced immediately after his election, spoke of the ‘church of Rome’ that presides in charity over the other churches. This awareness could be a prelude to achieving the kind of collegiality that the (Second Vatican) Council foresaw and that has yet to be realized,” he said.

In his first major audience after his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis is meeting Wednesday with the representatives of other Christian churches who came to Rome for the event. That’s the moment we should get a clearer sense of his ecumenical intentions.

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