In a significant first of its kind today, Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis jointly presided at vespers in San Gregorio in Rome. The two processed in together fully vested; both jointly gave reflections; both also gave the blessing together.
Archbishop Justin took the pectoral cross from round his neck and presented it to Pope Francis during vespers … The Pope put then put the cross round his neck…
As he blessed the Cross of Nails, the Archbishop said: “Bless His Holiness Pope Francis who inspired by the Cross of Nails, bears witness to the grace and truth of your crucified and risen Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. . .
“I will give this Cross of Nails to His Holiness Pope Francis as a symbol of our partnership in the work of reconciliation. For the Glory of God and the coming of His kingdom of justice and peace.”
The Cross of Nails is significant in that it is a replica of the Cross of Nails forged from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, which was firebombed in WWII and the replicas are dedicated for peace and reconciliation of all peoples.
Francis also gave Justin a replica of the pastoral staff of St. Gregory, who sent missionaries to England.
The Archbishop is in Rome to mark fifty years of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue. The visit focused on the common call of evangelization and mission, rather than theological differences. Today’s symbolism bore clear echoes of Paul VI giving his episcopal ring to Archbishop Ramsey in 1966. The Paul VI ring is traditionally worn when the Archbishop of Canterbury is visiting the Vatican.
The vespers service was the occasion for nineteen pairs of bishops, one Anglican and one Roman Catholic, to be commissioned to be sent on common mission in their respective regions.
Additionally, it included the signing of a common declaration in which both leaders reaffirmed the common call to unity and stated that they are undeterred by the “serious obstacles” and remain committed to full unity.
Contrast the tenor and ecumenical symbolism of today’s vespers with the Evensong celebrated at Westminster Abbey during Benedict XVI’s state visit to the UK where the pope was in attendance in choir dress and was wearing the stole of Leo XIII, the Pope who issued Apostolicae Curae, which declared Anglican orders were “absolutely null and utterly void.”
Let us pray that these two sister churches can work toward the unity that Christ so desired, “that all may be one.”