Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Jan. 25. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis: Christian unity can't happen if we linger on problems of the past

By  Elise Harris, CNA/EWTN News
  • January 25, 2017

ROME, Italy – During an ecumenical Vespers service on Wednesday, Pope Francis told both Catholics and members of other Christian communities that unity can only happen when past grievances are forgiven and all sides walk forward with their gaze on Christ.

“How do we proclaim this Gospel of reconciliation after centuries of division? Paul himself helps us to find the way. He makes clear that reconciliation in Christ requires sacrifice,” the Pope said Jan. 25.

Referring to the Gospel of Luke, he said that willingness to “lose our lives” out love of God in order to save them, as St. Paul experienced personally, “is, and always has been, the Christian revolution.”

“If we experience this dying to ourselves for Jesus’ sake, our old way of life will be a thing of the past and, like Saint Paul, we will pass over to a new form of life and fellowship,” Francis said, explaining that looking back is helpful and even necessary in order “to purify our memory.”

However, the danger comes with the temptation “to be fixated on the past, lingering over the memory of wrongs done and endured, and judging in merely human terms,” he said, adding that doing this “can paralyze us and prevent us from living in the present.”

We are called to draw strength from the memory of the good things the Lord has given us, but at the same time God asks us “to leave the past behind in order to follow Jesus today and to live a new life in him.”

Authentic reconciliation among Christians, he said, “will only be achieved when we can acknowledge each other’s gifts and learn from one another, with humility and docility, without waiting for the others to learn first.”

The Pope spoke during a Vespers service at Rome's Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall after celebrating a private Mass to mark both the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul as well as the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which this year focused on the theme “Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us.”

Led by Pope Francis, the Vespers was attended by representatives from various other Christian churches and communities in Rome, including Metropolitan Gennadios, a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; David Moxon, personal representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome; members of the joint commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches; students from the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey; a group of Orthodox young people studying in Rome; and members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

In his speech, the Pope pointed to the theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, saying the love of Christ referred to “is not our love for Christ, but rather Christ’s love for us.”

“Nor is the reconciliation to which we are compelled simply our own initiative,” he said, stressing that “prior to any human effort on the part of believers who strive to overcome their divisions, it is God’s free gift.”

“As a result of this gift, each person, forgiven and loved, is called in turn to proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation in word and deed, to live and bear witness to a reconciled life.”

Christians from all confessions are invited to move forward not by getting caught up in “programs, plans and advantages, not to look to the prospects and fashions of the moment,” but rather to find the path “by constantly looking to the Lord’s cross.”

Christ's sacrifice of himself for our sins, he said, “is an invitation to leave behind every form of isolation, to overcome all those temptations to self-absorption that prevent us from perceiving how the Holy Spirit is at work outside our familiar surroundings.”

Francis then pointed to the fact that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, noting that while in the past it would have seemed impossible for Catholics and Lutherans to join in commemorating an anniversary that divided Christians, it’s possible today, as is demonstrated by his recent visit to Sweden for a joint commemoration of the event.

The fact that Catholics and Lutherans can commemorate the anniversary “with hope, placing the emphasis on Jesus and his work of atonement, is a remarkable achievement,” thanks to both prayer and God’s intervention, he said, adding that it is also the result “of 50 years of growing mutual knowledge and ecumenical dialogue.”

Pope Francis closed his speech saying the prayer for Christian unity is a reflection of Christ's own prayer to his Father on the night of his arrest “that they may all be one.”

“May we never tire of asking God for this gift. With patient and trusting hope that the Father will grant all Christians the gift of full visible communion,” he said, urging those present to “press forward in our journey of reconciliation and dialogue, encouraged by the heroic witness” of past and present martyrs.

He prayed they would take advantage of every opportunity given “to pray together, to proclaim together, and together to love and serve, especially those who are the most poor and neglected in our midst.”

(Story from the Catholic News Agency)

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