Here in Rome and the rest of the northern hemisphere we are currently celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. (Most churches in the southern part of the globe, now enjoying summer vacation, will celebrate the unity octave from May 17-24.)

As is custom, Pope Francis will conclude the eight-day commemoration with an ecumenical prayer service next Monday at the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. That day, of course, is the feast of the great saint’s conversion.  

Sometimes the popes have used the annual occasion at St. Paul’s to make important announcements. John XXIII certainly did in 1959 when he surprised the world by declaring his plans to convoke the first ecumenical council in nearly a hundred years. It would come to be known as the Second Vatican Council.

But what far too many people forget, including an alarming number of Catholic bishops, is that Papa Giovanni made the reunification of the one, yet divided Church of Jesus Christ, a primary goal of Vatican II. Unfortunately, the restoration of unity—or Unitatis Redintegratio in Latin, as the Council’s landmark decree on ecumenism is called—has not yet become a reality.

Nonetheless, in the half-century since the monumental council concluded, the Catholic Church, despite a stubborn reticence among some traditionalists, has become a committed leader in the ecumenical movement. Beginning with Good Pope John, successive popes have made their own unique contributions to the advancement of full unity among all Christian communities.

John Paul II, for example, in spite of his tendency to favor a “you-come-in-ism” (that is, the insistence that all other Christian churches and bodies submit to all demands of the Roman Church), issued probably the single most important document on ecumenism in the post-Vatican II era.

Ut Unum Sint, which the Polish pope published in 1995, admitted that the current way the Bishop of Rome exercises his primacy over the other churches was an obstacle to Christian unity. So he invited pastors and theologians of every Christian denomination to help him “find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

Up to now, there has been little movement on this front. But Pope Francis seems determined to carry the project forward. Last October, in one of the most important speeches of his pontificate concerning the reform of Church governance, he indicated that the path to follow is the implementation of synodality.

Among other things, he said:

I am persuaded that in a synodal Church, greater light can be shed on the exercise of the Petrine primacy. The pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but within it as one of the baptized, and within the college of bishops as a bishop among bishops, called at the same time—as Successor of Peter—to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.

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During this week’s general audience, Pope Francis reminded the several thousand people gathered in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican that all Christians, despite their denomination, were fundamentally united by their common baptism. That’s because “God’s mercy, which is operative in baptism, is stronger than our divisions,” the pope said.

“In the measure in which we accept the grace of mercy, we become ever more fully the people of God and are also able to proclaim to all people God’s marvelous works, precisely because of this simple and fraternal witness of unity,” he noted.

Therefore, Francis said, the “concrete witness of unity” among Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics existed in proclaiming the power of the Gospel and carrying out the “corporal and spiritual works of mercy”.

This is just another example of one of the Jesuit pope’s favorite principles—that reality is greater than ideas. In other words, Christians might belong to different branches of what was originally a single, united Church, but that original unity is still intact. And it is intact, not by adhering to a strict doctrinal or liturgical uniformity, but by living out the simple vocation of baptism—proclaiming the Gospel and serving the needs of others.

Francis is likely to have more to say about this in his annual message for Lent, which will be released next Tuesday. Its theme is from Matthew 9:13: “Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice.”

The pope has already shown that, at least for him, that includes the holy sacrifice of the Mass. How else would one put it, considering he has gone further than any pope before in engaging with non-mainline Christian groups such as Evangelical and Pentecostal groups with a minimal sacramental structure.

Francis has visited such a community in Southern Italy and has sent messages of prayerful support to several others. He even went so far as to record a homemade smart phone video for a convention of US tele-evangelizers in which he asked them for their blessing.

This unconventional gesture and a recent visit to the Lutheran community in Rome—in which he told a congregant married to a Catholic that she could decide, in conscience, whether it was right to receive communion in her husband’s Church—have alarmed the self-styled defenders of Catholic orthodoxy.

They do not like the pope’s idea of, let’s call it, “polyhedron ecumenism.” And here’s why. A polyhedron (or, better, a polytope) is a geometric figure with different angles and lines in which each component retains its own peculiarity while forming one, united whole.

To what extent Francis is trying to make the analogy an operative paradigm is not yet clear. But Catholic traditionalists are convinced that, on principle, it cannot be squared with Church teaching. At least in the way they interpret it.

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Let’s face it, Pope Francis has set off all sorts of alarm bells for people who do not like change. And since the Catholic Church is, by nature, a pretty conservative organization and community, many Catholics are unsettled by the pope’s challenging message to make changes to our lifestyle.

Change, renewal, conversion. These words or concepts set the tone of the most important document he has issued to date – Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel).

In paragraph 42 of that apostolic exhortation the Pope writes:

In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them.

What about the law of celibacy for ordained priests of the Latin Rite? It has deep historical roots and may be beautiful. The same goes for the married priesthood, which has always been maintained even, if limitedly, in the Roman Church.

But it is impossible to argue convincingly that prohibiting married men from the priesthood is directly connected to the gospel. In fact, Pope Francis has indicated that he would consent to a general opening up of the priesthood to married men. And some are convinced that this is the next issue he has decided to put before his Synod of Bishops for deeper discernment.

As was the case at the last two general assemblies of the Synod, which focused on marriage and the family, there are those who don’t want to even discuss the topic of married priests. And so it was interesting to read the news that a married, permanent deacon in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was “removed” several weeks ago for violating his marriage vows. 

Don’t be surprised if this sort of thing is given a lot more attention as the rumors circulate about the pope’s intention to push the bishops to ordain married priests. Those opposed to such a move will want to show that a married clergy brings its own set of problems.

And highlighting the faults of married deacons would be part of the “no” camp’s effort to try to scare Francis away from opening what they see as another can of worms.

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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