Conversion at the heart of ecumenism, pope says

This year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity concluded with the pope’s traditional pilgrimage to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls to mark the saint’s conversion (which notably does not mention falling from a horse anywhere in the biblical account! Thanks go to the Italian painter Caravaggio for influencing the way nearly all of us envision it).

I was able to attend the ecumenical vespers service hosted by Pope Francis at the tomb of the Apostle to the Gentiles, with leaders from other branches of Christianity in attendance. San Paolo is one of the most beautiful churches in Rome, and is famously lined with portraits of all 266 popes around the ceiling. The monks in the adjacent Benedictine monastery dating back to Pope Gregory II in the 700s are charged with two particular “privileged tasks” of the Basilica: fostering penance and engaging in ecumenical initiatives. I am teaching a course on Fathers and Heretics in the pre- and post-Nicene period at the nearby Pontifical Beda College, and so am frequently in that (relatively) less-touristy area of the city.

The theme of this year’s Week was “Dammi un po’ d’acqua da bere,” or in English, “Give me a small drink of water,” which are Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:7).

I was excited to participate, as many people here told me that the annual event is truly prayerful and meditative, and more subdued than some of its elaborate counterparts in St. Peter’s. And I certainly found it to be so. Francis preached and encouraged all Christians to emulate Jesus in his fearlessness in approaching those out of our usual orbits. “His attitude tells us that encounter with those who are different from ourselves can make us grow.”

In the passage, the thirst Jesus describes to the woman is more than physical, “it is a thirst for encounter; a desire to enter into dialogue with the woman…. To understand one another, and to grow in charity and truth, we need to pause, to accept and listen to one another. In this way, we already begin to experience unity. Unity is done on the path, it is never still, unity is done walking.”

Without disparaging bi-lateral or multi-lateral theological exchanges, the pope went on to say that practical life and conversion is at the heart of ecumenism:

“So many past controversies between Christians can be overcome when we put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches, and seek instead to grasp more fully what unites us, namely, our call to share in the mystery of the Father’s love revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit. Christian unity will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions. The Son of Man will come and will find us still arguing. We need to realize that, to plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts.”

Many churches and ecclesial communities were represented in their distinctive attire and regalia, and the prayers of the faithful were read in French, English, Serbian, Arab, Italian and Greek (the last by a Cypriot friend, unbeknownst to me until I saw him standing next to the pope!).

Twin impulses within the ecumenical movement can be embodied in the Roman churches of St. Peter and St. Paul themselves. In the first, the columns of Bernini’s colonnade reach out, as if embracing the world in all of its brokenness and scandalous division, clutching a wounded people “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Lk 13:34).

But the second has its role in ecumenism, too. The outward-looking, universalist gaze of St. Paul’s mission to the ancient world is embodied in the bold stance of his basilica outside the city’s Aurelian walls. It always calls to mind his unrelenting dedication to evangelization, to sharing the Good News which the entire church of Christ (and not a subset within it or particular governing body of it) has received.

We are born into, redeemed and come to know the Savior of the world within community structures, be they Christian or familial. And so ecumenism is not a scholarly specialization or benevolent hobby left to those who happened to be interested or so inclined; rather it is a mandate, a charge and a requirement for living as a Christian in today’s fractured, post-schism world.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.

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