In June Pope Francis traveled Armenia for a trip largely made to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide and support the country’s Christian majority. During his visit the Pope met with Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, speaking to him of their brotherhood and placing a strong emphasis on unity.
At an ecumenical meeting with Armenian Orthodox leaders the day before his audience with the Patriarch, Francis prayed that they would “race toward our full communion” with determination.
As if the events of the first half of the year weren’t enough, after popping over to Poland for WYD in July, Francis made a quick visit to Assisi at the beginning of August to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the dedication of the Portiuncula chapel, the site where the Franciscan order began.
During the visit he had a surprise meeting with Mohamed Abdel Qader, the Imam of Perugia and Umbria, who was present with the Pope at the 30th World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi a month later.
Convoked by St. John Paul II in 1986, the gathering brings together representatives of various other religions, both Christian and non-Christian. During the September encounter, Francis was joined by Patriarch Bartholomew, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, as well as Imam Ahmen al-Tayyeb.
At the end of September Pope Francis made his visit to the Caucasus nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
While in Georgia, which is a majority Orthodox nation where relations with Catholics have traditionally been tense, the Pope met with Catholicos and Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II, saying unity is necessary and love for God and the Gospel must overcome “the misunderstandings of the past” and the problems of the present and future.
Despite obvious tensions felt during the visit, demonstrated by the visible presence of members of the Orthodox Church protesting the Pope’s visit as well as the failure of the Orthodox delegation to show up at the only public Mass the Pope celebrated, Francis has on several occasions spoken highly of Ilia, calling him “a man of prayer.”
In Azerbaijan, which marked the first time Francis has traveled to a majority Shi’ite Muslim nation, he praised the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox and Jews the country enjoys. Only 600-700 Catholics live in the country.
Then in October Pope Francis made his historic visit to Sweden for a joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The event also marks 50 years of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.
During a large ecumenical encounter Pope Francis and Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, signed a joint statement together. In a separate event later that day, Francis stressed that “we remember this anniversary with a renewed spirit and in the recognition that Christian unity is a priority, because we realize that much more unites us than separates us.”
Pope Francis gave an interview in November ahead of the close of the Jubilee of Mercy that focused heavily on the rapid progress ecumenical and interfaith relations seem to be making during his pontificate.
In the interview, Francis credited this pace to his predecessors, saying the “small and large steps” that have been taken during his tenure are not of his own doing, but are rather indicative of the path of dialogue outlined during the Second Vatican Council “which moves forward, intensifies.”
“I have met the primates and those responsible, it’s true,” he said in the interview, “but my predecessors have also had their encounters.”
While John Paul II was the first Pope to do make many of the signs Francis is known for now, such as visiting synagogues and mosques, Francis noted that “the measure in which we go forward the path seems to go faster.”
So while it has always been fairly obvious that ecumenical and interfaith dialogue have had a front row seat in Francis’ pontificate, taking a look back puts into perspective just how much of a priority it’s been.
In addition to highlighting this priority, the Pope’s prayer video this month is also a clear reflection of his preference to focus on shared areas of interest and collaboration in ecumenical and interfaith discussions, rather than points of theological division, as a means of providing both sides the common ground on which to move forward.
For Francis, while questions of theology and doctrine are important, working together to serve the poor and vulnerable is the privileged place where ecclesial unity is expressed, even if the theological wrinkles have yet to be ironed out.
And if his prayer intention this month is any indication, as we look ahead to 2017 we can anticipate that the type of events and encounters we saw in 2016 won’t slow down, but will likely continue to gain steam.