This past week we learned that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, spoke the “language of the heart” to our separated brethren gathered for a Pentecostal conference with Kenneth Copeland Ministries, via an unprecedented seven minute iPhone video-recording that was captured by the Pope’s visiting friend, Anthony Palmer, who is an Anglican Bishop and international ecumenical officer for the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches.
This fraternal, long-distance video-hug from a pope to a roomful of Pentecostals may go down in history as one of the most palpable expressions of ecumenical dialogue the Church has ever witnessed.
What makes the occasion so visibly and visually compelling is the manner in which Pope Francis so genuinely presented himself not mereley as the Holy “Father” but rather as a true brother to those whom he addressed. If you really want to know what the pursuit of real Christian unity looks like— and thus what authentic ecumenical activity is — take the time to watch the video, available online in many places, as well as embedded below.
The most intriguing aspect, as I see it, regarding Pope Francis’ message, is that he more or less “inverts the emphasis,” so to speak, usually associated with the term “separated brethren.” We Catholics tend to focus on the \’separated\’ part of this term we use for fellow Christians in Protestant denominations. The Pope focused instead on what it means to be \’brothers\’.
Mentioning the “two rules” of loving God and of loving neighbor “because he is your brother . . .,” Pope Francis then acknowledges that, yes, “We are kind of… permit me to say, separated.” He goes on to say, “Separated because, it’s sin that has separated us, all our sins. The misunderstandings throughout history. It has been a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame. We have all sinned.”
He then calls to mind the “embrace” among Jacob’s sons that took place in Egypt after the hungry clan discovered the brother they had sold into slavery was there with them again. “We have to encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together like Joseph did. These tears will unite us. The tears of love,” he said.
Concluding his words, he tells the audience of Pentecostal Christians, “From brother to brother, I embrace you.”
The simple truth of genuine reconciliation comes into focus with his words “we must cry together.” How often do we resist coming to terms with the “shared” blame that must be addressed in our pursuit of restored Christian unity? On the contrary, we should prepare to weep for our own failures and for the too-numerous lost opportunities to be a true brother to any Christian with whom we find ourselves “separated.”
Indeed, the 1964 Second Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, says it plainly enough:
“But the Lord of Ages wisely and patiently follows out the plan of grace on our behalf, sinners that we are. In recent times more than ever before, He has been rousing divided Christians to remorse over their divisions and to a longing for unity. Everywhere large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace, and among our separated brethren also there increases from day to day the movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians.” (no. 1)
Such a sense of “remorse” and willingness to “cry together” with our brothers over the scandal of Christian separation should not come as a surprise to us. The Decree on Ecumenism makes it clear, in fact, that our primary duty is NOT to look across the aisle of separation between us and our Protestant brothers to correct them. Rather, the Decree says:
“Catholics, in their ecumenical work, must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren, praying for them, keeping them informed about the Church, making the first approaches toward them. But their primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles.” (no. 4)
We Catholics are, therefore, called to first put our own house in order so that our pursuit of Christian perfection equips us to be real witnesses of our own unity with Christ the Head of His Body, the Church.
The deeply true and beautiful expression of Pope Francis’ desire for Christian unity seems anchored to this realization. We “must cry together” because we have failed together. And we can only correct our own failures, not each other’s.
The more we can approach our “separated brethren” with this truth in mind, the more easily we will find the journey toward the fraternal embrace of restored Christian unity. So let’s pray that the audiovisual “hug” offered by Pope Francis becomes a well-worn model that we Catholics seek to repeat again and again with our Christian brothers and sisters.