As many of our readers know, Pope Francis has been in the middle of an Apostolic Visitation to Greece and Cyprus. I apologize for not discussing it here sooner, but I finally got caught up on his speeches and homilies from the journey and there are two excerpts that resonated deeply with me.
The first was in his homily during Mass on Friday at GSP Stadium in Nicosia. He discusses his vision of renewed evangelization for the Church, and he returned to key themes that he’s emphasized since the very early days of his papacy, especially those in his first exhortation as pope, Evangelii Gaudium. Recalling the heart of that message, he reminded the assembly that the “joy of the Gospel naturally leads to witness and frees us from the risk of a private, gloomy and querulous faith.” In other words, evangelization is the fruit of the joy that radiates from the Christian who has undergone conversion to Christ.
This of course is in total continuity with his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, who rejected the notion of proselytism and stressed that the Church “grows by ‘attraction’: just as Christ ‘draws all to himself’ by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.” Francis’s homily explained how the joy of God’s love can renew our lives and lead us to share the message of the Gospel:
Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see you living with joy the liberating message of the Gospel. I thank you for this. It is not proselytism – please, never engage in proselytism! – but witness; not a moralism that judges but a mercy that embraces; not superficial piety but love lived out. I encourage you to keep advancing on this path. Like the two blind men in the Gospel, let us ourselves once more encounter Jesus, and come out of ourselves to be fearless witnesses of Jesus to all whom we meet! Let us go forth, carrying the light we have received. Let us go forth to illuminate the night that often surrounds us! We need enlightened Christians, but above all those who are light-filled, those who can touch the blindness of our brothers and sisters with tender love and with gestures and words of consolation that kindle the light of hope amid the darkness. Christians who can sow the seeds of the Gospel in the parched fields of everyday life, and bring warmth to the wastelands of suffering and poverty.
Brothers and sisters, the Lord Jesus is also passing through the streets of Cyprus, our streets, hearing the cries of our blindness. He wants to touch our eyes, to touch our hearts, and to lead us to the light, to give us spiritual rebirth and new strength. That is what Jesus wants to do. He asks us the same question that he asked the two blind men: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Mt 9:28). Do we believe that Jesus can do this? Let us renew our faith in him. Let us say to him: Jesus, we believe that your light is greater than our darkness; we believe that you can heal us, that you can renew our fellowship, that you can increase our joy. With the entire Church, let us pray: Come, Lord Jesus! [All repeat: “Come, Lord Jesus!]
The second statement by Francis that I’d like to share regarded Christian unity.
This weekend I saw a Reuters story by Philip Pullella and Karolina Tagaris about an elderly Greek Orthodox priest who shouted, “Pope, you are a heretic” at Pope Francis when he was in Athens. Certainly, we have Catholics who accuse Pope Francis of heresy and cause division in our own communion, but this served as a reminder to many of us who hope and pray for reunion with the Orthodox that there are still many hurdles to be overcome.
Sometimes when we observe the warm relationship between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople or prayer services and meetings geared toward Christian unity, we begin looking at the situation with rose-colored glasses. It seems that for every warm gesture, such as the meeting between the pope and an Orthodox leader like Bartholomew or His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All Greece, there’s an internal division within Orthodoxy or Catholicism. I am also reminded of an incident in 2014, when two Greek metropolitans sent Pope Francis an 89-page letter, addressing him as “His Excellency, Francis, Head of State of the Vatican City” (recognizing only his civil authority and none of his spiritual authority), put the word “Pope” in scare-quotes throughout the letter, and said that they “unceasingly pray that our Lord Jesus Christ gather together the deluded ‘Pope’ and his followers, through repentance and the renunciation of your delusion and heresy, into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Orthodox Church.”
In an address delivered yesterday in the presence of Archbishop Ieronymos, Francis spoke frankly of the difficulties between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches throughout the centuries, and of the sins of Catholics that added to the divisions. But he also appealed to the apostolic roots of our shared Christian heritage, and how these are a sign of God’s desire to see us reunited:
Five years ago, we met at Lesvos, amid one of the great tragedies of our time: the plight of so many of our migrant brothers and sisters, who cannot be regarded with indifference, seen only as a burdensome problem to be managed or, worse yet, passed on to someone else. Now we meet again, to share the joy of fraternity and to view the Mediterranean that surrounds us not simply as a site of difficulties and divisions, but also as a sea that brings peoples together. A short time ago, I mentioned the age-old olive trees that our lands have in common. Reflecting on those trees that unite us, I think of the roots we share. Underground, hidden, frequently overlooked, those roots are nonetheless there and they sustain everything. What are our common roots that have endured over the centuries? They are the apostolic roots. Saint Paul speaks of them when he stresses the importance of being “built upon the foundation of the apostles” (Eph 2:20). Those roots, growing from the seed of the Gospel, began to bear abundant fruit precisely in Hellenic culture: I think of the early Fathers of the Church and the first great ecumenical councils.
Tragically, in later times we grew apart. Worldly concerns poisoned us, weeds of suspicion increased our distance and we ceased to nurture communion. Saint Basil the Great says that true disciples of Christ are “modeled only on what they see in him” (Moralia, 80, 1). Shamefully – I acknowledge this for the Catholic Church – actions and decisions that had little or nothing to do with Jesus and the Gospel, but were instead marked by a thirst for advantage and power, gravely weakened our communion. In this way, we let fruitfulness be compromised by division. History makes its weight felt, and here, today, I feel the need to ask anew for the forgiveness of God and of our brothers and sisters for the mistakes committed by many Catholics. Yet we are comforted by the certainty that our roots are apostolic and that, notwithstanding the twists and turns of time, what God planted continues to grow and bear fruit in the same Spirit. It is a grace to recognize one another’s good fruits and to join in thanking the Lord for this.
Image: Vatican News