Two recent events highlight how powerful an agent for Christian unity the role of the Bishop of Rome can be while simultaneously remaining one of the greatest stumbling blocks to this unity. Last week, Oct. 31, began the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Francis traveled to Sweden to join with the leadership of the Lutheran World Federation to help launch the commemoration. In September, at the 14th plenary session of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, an agreement was signed, a joint document regarding synodality and primacy during the first millennium.
Both the Great Schism of 1054ad and the Protestant Reformation of 1517ad were caused partially by the excommunications issued by popes in these centuries long ago. Part of the Orthodox disagreements with the Church of the West in 1054 was the Bishop of Rome’s claim to universal jurisdiction and the move away from the synodality once exercised by the patriarchal pentarchy in the first millennium of Christianity. Reformers questioned whether the papacy was biblically warranted, which led to violent disagreements that left some reformers going so far as claiming the papacy was the “antichrist.” These separations in the Christian family led to almost 33,000 different denominations over the course of the last millennium.
As the Holy Spirit moved among Christians to once again strive for unity near the end of the last millennium, the Roman Catholic Church entered fully into this hope by the convocation of an Ecumenical Council, the Second Vatican Council, by the Bishop of Rome, Pope John XXIII. All successive popes have worked tirelessly for the cause of Christian unity. And in one of the more important documents regarding ecumenism in the post conciliar church, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unam Sint — That All May Be One, he wrote: “As Bishop of Rome I am fully aware, as I have reaffirmed in the present Encyclical Letter, that Christ ardently desires the full and visible communion of all those Communities in which, by virtue of God’s faithfulness, his Spirit dwells. I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation…It is out of a desire to obey the will of Christ truly that I recognize that as Bishop of Rome I am called to exercise that ministry. I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the pastors and theologians of our churches, that we may seek — together, of course — the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned…a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea ‘that they may all be one so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’”
Quite a powerful statement. The gathering of Roman Catholics and Orthodox leaders and theologians in September signed a document titled “Synodality and Primacy During the First Millennium: Towards a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church.” While it does not solve all the differences in understanding the role of the papacy in a unified church it reminds Christians of the central role of the papacy in the first millennium. The unity of the church in the first millennium was centrally Eucharistic, with the Bishop of Rome playing an important role in ecumenical councils and helping to resolve issues of difference among the bishops. His role was serving the unity of the church in faith and communion.
Certainly Pope Francis models this call to foster and protect the unity of the church. By his very presence at the service marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation the pope showed his desire to heal the wounds of the past. At that service he spoke of the hope of both Catholics and Lutherans, “As Catholics and Lutherans, we have undertaken a common journey of reconciliation. Now, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path…Nor can we be resigned to the division and distance that our separation has created between us. We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” Yes, the papacy as exercised by this Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, is drawing near the hope of his predecessors, that the papacy will ultimately be the catalyst of our hoped for Christian unity.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.