Rorate Caeli

No more apologetics, then? Pope Francis' January 25 homily on ecumenism

January 25, as usual, saw the celebration of Second Vespers at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, with the Pope leading it, in order to mark the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25). Francis' homily for this year's Second Vespers is mostly a reiteration of previous post-Conciliar papal messages on ecumenism (including the denunciation of "proselytism") but contains two new elements: an explicit call to reject not just "polemical" but also "apologetic" approaches, and a public and more formal dismissal of the theological debates over controverted issues in favor of an ecumenism primarily based upon cooperation and "encounter". (Bear in mind that the congregation in this particular Vespers included representatives from Orthodox and Protestant confessions.) It is worth noting that Francis describes the theological debates between different Christian groups as "subtle theoretical discussions" over "opinions", as if the Church-dividing doctrinal issues are mere matters of opinion.

We trust that the usual suspects will not try to do "apologetics" on behalf of this speech by doing any or all of the following: 1) pretend that Francis never said this, or 2) insinuate that he does not know what apologetics is (he is more intelligent than many defenses of his words and actions imply), or 3) insist that we focus not on his words but on his intention (words are words), or 4) speculate that this is just another Vatican mistranslation (it is not), or 5) assert that "apologetic approaches" -- whatever that means -- is different from "apologetics" and therefore what Francis has said is correct, is manifestly clear to all except evil "traddies" and "liberals", and beyond criticism, just like every single word that comes out of his mouth.

Francis also spoke of the need to avoid all "competition" among Christian Churches and communities. Perhaps what he has in mind are the tens of millions that the Catholic Church in Latin America has lost to various Protestant sects, an enormous number of souls that the hierarchy there does not seem to have any plans of reclaiming for the faith? 

From the homily:

Weary from his journey, Jesus does not hesitate to ask the Samaritan woman for something to drink. His thirst, as we know, is much more than physical: it is also a thirst for encounter, a desire to enter into dialogue with that woman and to invite her to make a journey of interior conversion. Jesus is patient, respectful of the person before him, and gradually reveals himself to her. His example encourages us to seek a serene encounter with others. To understand one another, and to grow in charity and truth, we need to pause, to accept and listen to one another. In this way, we already begin to experience unity. Unity grows along the way; it never stands still. Unity happens when we walk together.

The woman of Sychar asks Jesus about the place where God is truly worshiped. Jesus does not side with the mountain or the temple, but goes deeper. He goes to the heart of the matter, breaking down every wall of division. He speaks instead of the meaning of true worship: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). So many past controversies between Christians can be overcome when we put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches, and seek instead to grasp more fully what unites us, namely, our call to share in the mystery of the Father’s love revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit. Christian unity – we are convinced – will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions. When the Son of Man comes, he will find us still discussing! We need to realize that, to plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities, overcomes conflicts, reconciles differences.

Gradually the Samaritan woman comes to realize that the one who has asked her for a drink is able to slake her own thirst. Jesus in effect tells her that he is the source of living water which can satisfy her thirst for ever (cf. Jn 4:13-14). Our human existence is marked by boundless aspirations: we seek truth, we thirst for love, justice and freedom. These desires can only be partially satisfied, for from the depths of our being we are prompted to seek “something more”, something capable of fully quenching our thirst. The response to these aspirations is given by God in Jesus Christ, in his paschal mystery. From the pierced side of Jesus there flowed blood and water (cf. Jn 19:34). He is the brimming fount of the water of the Holy Spirit, “the love of God poured into our hearts (Rom 5:5) on the day of our baptism. By the working of the Holy Spirit, we have become one in Christ, sons in the Son, true worshipers of the Father. This mystery of love is the deepest ground of the unity which binds all Christians and is much greater than their historical divisions. To the extent that we humbly advance towards the Lord, then, we also draw nearer to one another.

Her encounter with Jesus made the Samaritan women a missionary. Having received a greater and more important gift than mere water from a well, she leaves her jar behind (cf. Jn 4:28) and runs back to tell her townspeople that she has met the Christ (cf. Jn 4:29). Her encounter with Jesus restored meaning and joy to her life, and she felt the desire to share this with others. Today there are so many men and women around us who are weary and thirsting, and who ask us Christians to give them something to drink. It is a request which we cannot evade. In the call to be evangelizers, all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities discover a privileged setting for closer cooperation. For this to be effective, we need to stop being self-enclosed, exclusive, and bent on imposing a uniformity based on merely human calculations (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 131). Our shared commitment to proclaiming the Gospel enables us to overcome proselytism and competition in all their forms. All of us are at the service of the one Gospel!

In this moment of prayer for unity, I would also like to remember our martyrs, the martyrs of today. They are witnesses to Jesus Christ, and they are persecuted and killed because they are Christians. Those who persecute them make no distinction between the religious communities to which they belong. They are Christians and for that they are persecuted. This, brothers and sisters, is the ecumenism of blood.