Pope Francis’ path of ecumenism, dialogue and peace

During Pope Francis’ May 24-26 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he was accompanied not only by several of his chief collaborators in the Vatican but also by Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud, both of Argentina. It was the first time in time in the history of papal pilgrimages that Jewish and Muslim clergy were part of an official Vatican delegation. That was already a powerful gesture. 

But Skorka and Abboud were more than token representatives of their respective religious traditions. They are also Francis’ friends. Skorka, the former head of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, collaborated with Cardinal Bergoglio on a television series and co-authored a book of religious conversations entitled “On Heaven and Earth.” Abboud was the secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Argentina with whom Cardinal Bergoglio had worked on various projects and outreaches. 

The fact that the two of them were part of the delegation — and especially their spontaneous, iconic embrace at the Western Wall — made visible Pope Francis’ particular approach to interreligious dialogue: to show that people of different religions not only can coexist peacefully but truly become friends through a process of encounter, dialogue, growth in mutual understanding and walking ahead together. That is an approach he’s hoping those in the Holy Land, and in fact all people of the world, will learn to take. 

In the introduction to his published conversations with Skorka, the future Pope Francis commented that in interreligious dialogue we can sometimes focus too much on what separates rather than what unites. “At times,” he said, “we are better able to identify ourselves as builders of walls than as builders of bridges.” Even though we may know the other superficially and have polite conversations, “There is an absence of dialogue,” because dialogue is “born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. One must know how to lower the defenses, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth.” 

Interreligious dialogue does not require compromising one’s religious identity by pretending differences don’t exist or matter. It’s also not about finding the lowest common denominator between faiths. It’s about “walking the path of respect and affection, walking in the presence of God and striving to be faultless.” Interreligious dialogue is not, in other words, principally a conversation but a journey. It takes place, he said last May, within a dynamic “culture of encounter, a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters, within which we can also speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other beliefs, who do not have the same faith.” 

Those same principles are in play in terms of trying to heal the great schism between Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well as in trying to bridge the political divide between Israelis and Palestinians that prevents peace in the Holy Land of peace. 

With regard to ecumenism between Christians in the East and the West, Francis said on May 28 that he and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew journeyed to encounter each other in Jerusalem to discuss Christian unity, but noted that “unity is brought about along a path. Unity is a journey. We can never achieve unity in a theological congress,” but rather through “walking together in life, praying together, working together in the many areas we can, helping each other.” 

“We are all brothers in Christ,” Pope Francis said, “and Patriarch Bartholomew and I are friends, brothers, and we shared with each other the will to walk together, to do all we can praying together, working together for God’s flock, seeking peace, guarding creation, so many things that we have in common. As brothers we must go forward.” 

After the pilgrimage they announced that they would be leading their churches in a common journey toward a 2025 encounter in Nicaea — now Iznik, Turkey — to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the first Ecumenical Council when Christians in East and West convened to denounce the Arian heresy that denied Jesus’ Divinity. Now is a time for all Christians to learn from our fourth-century ancestors how to come together and walk together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

Pope Francis is also seeking to get people journeying together politically. During his separate official appearances with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres, he invited them to join him in the Vatican to pray for peace. Happily both accepted and that encounter of prayer will take place on Sunday. 

They may not be praying “together” in the sense of making the same precise petitions, in the same language, with the same understanding of what the “peace” they’re seeking means concretely. They will, however, be in the same room, praying at the same time, praying for God to give them and their peoples the wisdom and strength to walk together on the path of peace. 

It’s a huge opportunity and truly historic event. It may not lead immediately to a Christian-Jewish-Muslim embrace like we saw with a pope, rabbi and imam at the Western Wall, but it hopefully will lead to a time in which walls of division can be torn down. 

All of us should unite ourselves to their prayer this Pentecost Sunday, asking the Holy Spirit to come down upon them and to rain down His fruit of unity not only upon their prayer in the Vatican but upon the same city of Jerusalem on which He descended that first Pentecost. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River. fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.

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