In an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa Dec. 15, Pope Francis called ecumenical dialogue a priority of his pontificate, noting that Christians of all traditions face the same persecution today.
“For me ecumenism is a priority. Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians,” the Pope said.
“This is what ecumenism of blood is. It still exists today; you just need to read the newspapers. Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptized in. We need to take these facts into consideration,” he added.
“We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come. Unity is a gift that we need to ask for.”
Since the very beginning when he leaned out the balcony of the central loggia of Saint Peter’s basilica on March 13, Pope Francis called himself “the bishop of Rome” who “presides over the other Churches in charity.”
Some observers said that Francis’ emphasis on being the “bishop of Rome” led Bartholomew I, the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to attend the Pope’s inaugural Mass March 19, marking the first time the patriarch has attended such an event since the Great Schism in 1054.
In fact, the path to Christian unity started long time ago, a truth acknowledged by Pope Francis in his recent La Stampa interview.
“John Paul II spoke even more explicitly about a way of exercising the primacy which is open to a new situation. Not just from the point of view of ecumenical relations but also in terms of relations with the Curia and the local Churches,” he explained.
The late Pontiff’s encyclical letter “Ut unum sint” asked for help in finding “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.” This sentence has been fully quoted by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium.”
In his interview, Pope Francis expressed the affection and good will that he feels for his ‘brother bishops’ of the East.
“Over the course of these first nine months, I have received visits from many Orthodox brothers: Bartholomew, Hilarion, the theologian Zizioulas, the Copt Tawadros. The latter is a mystic, he would enter the chapel, remove his shoes and go and pray.”
“I felt like their brother. They have the apostolic succession; I received them as brother bishops,” he explained.
“It is painful that we are not yet able to celebrate the Eucharist together, but there is friendship. I believe that the way forward is this: friendship, common work and prayer for unity.”
“We blessed each other; one brother blesses the other, one brother is called Peter and the other Andrew, Mark, Thomas…” Pope Francis recounted.
A new way for ecumenism is considered to have been opened after Benedict XVI's resignation. With this action, Benedict proved the Roman Pontiff to be a primus inter pares (first among equals), and this action should assist in resolving the papal primacy issue – one of the most important controversies between Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
A milestone of this path to Christian unity should be in the next Pope Francis trip to Jerusalem.
Talking to La Stampa, Pope Francis said that he “is preparing” to go to the Holy Land, “to meet my broche Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and commemorate” the 50th anniversary of the embrace between Pope Montini and the then patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem.
The Pope Francis' trip to Jerusalem has not been scheduled yet, but according to Israeli media it should take place on May, 25-26.
Kerri Lenartowick contributed to this report.