Opening our eyes to other faiths

Picture of Bruce Duncan CSsR

Bruce Duncan CSsR

Father Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who specialises in areas of social justice and ecology

Healing divisions between Catholics, other Christian Churches and other religious traditions has been high on the agenda of Pope Francis.


Pope Francis believes we are at a providential moment to bring together not just Christians and those of other world religions, but all people of good will in the common cause of promoting the material and spiritual wellbeing of every person on earth, and of protecting Mother Earth so there will be a lasting common home for all God’s creatures.


The pope’s statements coincide with Interfaith Harmony Week (February 1 to 7) and International Day of Human Fraternity (February 4).


Even before becoming pope, Francis was quoted in the 2010 book Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio envisaging Christians in a “reconciled diversity that implies walking together, praying and working together, and seeking unity in the truth.”


As newly-elected pope in 2013, he added that ecumenism is not just a matter of knowing each other better but recognising “what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us”. “We must walk united without differences; there is no other way. This is the way of Jesus.”


Inspired by this vision, on his visit to Geneva to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Pope Francis went as a pastor in support of the organisation’s goal to “seek visible unity in one faith and one Eucharistic fellowship”. Francis is not the first pope to visit the WCC. Pope Paul VI (1969) and St John Paul II (1982 and 1984) preceded him.


Founded in 1948, the WCC today represents 560 million Christians from almost 350-member churches, including most of the Orthodox churches, many in the Protestant and Anglican traditions, along with Pentecostal and African Independent churches. The Catholic Church is not a member but part of a joint working group established in 1965 and has fostered growing collaboration in areas of mission, justice, peace and reconciliation.


As a priest and bishop in Argentina, Pope Francis worked to strengthen ecumenical ties among Christians, including with the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, sharing in retreat days with pastors and priests. He preached on three occasions at meetings of up to 7000 charismatic Catholics and Evangelical Protestants together in Buenos Aires.


Pope Francis had many Jewish friends and became especially close to Rabbi Abraham Skorka with whom he wrote a book, On Heaven and Earth (2010), sharing their beliefs and hopes, and deepening their commitment to care for the poor and suffering in their country.


The pope also developed warm relationships with Muslim leaders in Argentina, and as pope in 2014 went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage with his Argentinian friends, Rabbi Skorka and Imam Omar Abboud. In a remarkably symbolic photo, they embraced together at the Wailing Wall.


As bishop, he took many initiatives involving non-Catholics and non-believers in social projects and campaigns, including against trafficking and the slave labour into which other Latin American immigrants fell after arriving in Argentina. Himself from a migrant family from Italy, Pope Francis has been particularly responsive to the difficulties of refugees and migrants, and an outspoken advocate for them on the international stage.


Eighteen months before visiting the WCC, Pope Francis flew to Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. He joined Catholics and Protestant Lutherans in the Swedish cities of Malmo and Lund on November 1, 2016 where the World Lutheran Federation was founded in 1947.


The pope commended Luther for his insight into sola gratia with his call for reform in the Church. Francis said: “With the concept ‘by grace alone,’ he reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response. The doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.”


The dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans has advanced greatly since the 1960s, and in 1999 the Catholic Church and two-thirds of the 100 Lutheran Churches signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.


The statement lamented that “Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church. Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalised for political ends.”


Astonishingly, this resolved the theological dispute over justification by faith, the core issue of the Reformation. Mutual excommunications and condemnations were lifted by the churches. There has been mutual recognition of baptism and discussions continue about inter-communion and the Eucharist.


In the words of the English Bishop William Kenney in an interview in October 2016: “It’s very important that people know that the Reformation was a great misunderstanding, we all got it wrong, on both sides, and we’ve lifted excommunications and condemnations and apologised.”


Considering the turmoil and distress involved with the Reformation and its consequences, this is a most amazing statement.


At a prayer service at the WCC Ecumenical Centre in Geneva praying for repentance, reconciliation and unity, Pope Francis reflected on what it meant “to walk in the Spirit”. He said that growing closer to Christ meant being converted into a new identity, making true ecumenism possible.


But Pope Francis of course was aware of past hostilities and hurt. “How hard it is to leave behind centuries-old disagreements and mutual recriminations”. He added that “differences must not be excuses. Even now we can walk in the Spirit: we can pray, evangelise, and serve together.” For Pope Francis, “Prayer is the oxygen of ecumenism.”


All Christians are called to the mission of spreading the joy of the gospel, with their example of faith attracting others to Christ. However, he cautioned that ecumenism and mission were no longer as closely intertwined in the WCC as they were at the beginning. He said the mission must not be reduced to “a purely immanent humanism” and urged a “new evangelical outreach”.


Yet the credibility of the gospel was tested by our response to those who suffer unjustly from exclusion, poverty and conflict. “The more vulnerable are increasingly marginalised, lacking their daily bread, employment, and a future, while the rich are fewer and ever more wealthy”.


Pope Francis lamented that lack of Christian unity was contrary to the will of Christ and was a scandal to the world. “The Lord asks us for unity; our world, torn by all too many divisions that affect the most vulnerable, begs for you.”


Interfaith Harmony Week will be held from February 1 to 7 and is about promoting harmony between all people regardless of their faith. International Day of Human Fraternity is celebrated on February 4 and recognises the ‘valuable contribution of people of all religions, or beliefs, to humanity’.


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