As was widely reported, today in Lund Sweden, Pope Francis and Bishop Mounib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) signed a Joint Statement on the occasion of the beginning of the year marking 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation. This signing was preceded by an ecumenical service presided over by Francis, Younan, and LWF General Secretary Rev. Dr Martin Junge, in addition to many Catholic and Lutheran representatives. The service, which was live streamed and followed by a public service in Malmö Arena, was historic in that it was marking the beginning of 500 years since the Protestant Reformation. This fact should not be overlooked, but the point of this series over the past ten days is to frame this impressive liturgy and Joint Statement so that readers can see this did not come out of the blue, nor is what happened here without precedent. Rather, Francis, and the LWF leaders are building on a heritage of papal ecumenism that has been unfolding over the past five decades, and will continue, as the Joint Statement stated, until we are able to share at a common table.
What’s more, Pope Francis’s pontificate, though it has not even been four years, has taken the ecumenical gestures of his predecessors and thrown them into overdrive. This was as much a product of the dialogues of the previous decades coming into fruition as it is his own doing.
Francis’ relationship with the Eastern Orthodox commenced from the very beginning of his pontificate. On March 19th, 2013, his inauguration was the first time that a Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Patriarch Bartholomew, attended a papal inauguration. On May 6th-10th, Pope Tawadros II, of Alexandria, visited Rome to mark forty years since Shenouda and Paul had met and signed the first Common Declaration. This was the first visit between a Coptic Pope and the Bishop of Rome since that first visit. On May 10th, the popes met and Tawadros proposed a common day of friendship and prayer on May 10th of each year. Francis agreed and the occasion continued and was the occasion where he said that the churches share an “ecumenism of blood” in his letter to Tawadros in 2015.
The next year, from May 23rd to 26th, Francis and Bartholomew held a joint pilgrimage to Jerusalem to commemorate fifty years since Paul VI and Athenagoras met. During this pilgrimage, following a joint liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the two signed a Joint Declaration, commemorating the work that had been done, and calling for it to be continued. On November 3oth of that year, Francis visited Constantinople, where he attended the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of St. Andrew, this visit was also saw the signing of a Joint Declaration calling for the two churches to work on unity. Within the Divine Liturgy of this visit, both Francis and Bartholomew gave addresses calling for unity in the strongest language seen at such events. One of the most groundbreaking events came when Francis met the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, at the Havana Airport on February 14th, 2016. This meeting, the first between a pope and the Patriarch of Moscow, saw the signing of a Joint Declaration which centered on dialogue and the shared religious values between the two churches. On April 16th, 2016, Francis and Bartholmew met again, on the Island of Lesbos, to visit refugees and to sign a Common Declaration calling for greater unity in response for the need for care of refugees and vulnerable persons. On June 26th, 2016 Francis and the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, participated in liturgies with one another and signed a Common Declaration calling for the two churches to continue dialogue promote unity. This trip, from June 24th-26th, saw Francis call the slaughter of the Armenians a genocide. On October 5th 2016, while in Rome to commemorate fifty years since Paul VI and Archbishop Ramsey met, The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most. Rev. Justin Welby, participated in a joint liturgy and signed a Common Declaration stating that though the obstacles in the way of union between the churches are great, they are undeterred and are sure of the common faith in and mission from Christ. As part of this liturgy, they sent nineteen pairs of bishops, each a Roman Catholic and an Anglican to be missionaries of reconciliation and service.
Perhaps the greatest contributions Francis have made to the ecumenical movement have not been the theologically dense common declarations and joint statements. Perhaps even, they have not been the jointly celebrated liturgies he has shared in. Perhaps Francis’ greatest ecumenical achievements, like in other areas have come from his fairly “untraditional” manner of exercising the Petrine ministry. This “smell of sheep ecumenism” saw Francis not only visit a Pentecostal church in southern Italy on June 28th, 2014 and apologize for the way Pentecostals have been treated by the Catholics but to invite Pentecostal ministers to the Vatican in May, 2015, where he had the ministers pray over him. In January of 2014, he met with his friend, Bishop Tony Palmer, a Charismatic, Independent Anglican bishop and recorded a message on Palmer’s iPhone for a ministry conference hosted by U.S. charismatic televangelist Kenneth Copeland. At this conference, Palmer introduced the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and stated bluntly that this document “the protest was over.” His message and Francis’s video were met with applause.
On June 24th, Francis met with Copeland, Palmer, and other televangelists at the Vatican, where he asked them to pray over him.
His “uniquely Francis” ecumenism showed again on November 15th, 2015, were at a Lutheran Church in Rome, when asked about intercommunion in the context of a couple with a Lutheran spouse and a Roman Catholic spouse, he did not go into theological lecture about sacramental economy and conscience, but applied these concepts to reply to the question, seemingly putting it in the hands of the person wondering. Again, with the meeting with Welby, this style of ecumenism, one Welby shares, was shown. Rather than admitting there are great theological differences that prevent immediate union, the two stated this, then moved on toward concrete joint ecumenical mission, rooted in baptism and the missionary imperative all Christians, regardless of denomination share. A greater example of this, cannot be found than in the example of his response, whether it is in a letter to Tawadros or with Bartholomew on Lesbos to the violence and the genocides against Christians and minorities in the Middle East and North Africa. Rather than an ecumenism centered around theological commissions, the ecumenism that he has practiced and called for is one rooted in helping the helpless, offering aid to those in need, and praying for the victims and perpetrators of violence.