(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Anglicans and Catholics to work together to promote the unity of Christians and the unity of the human family. His words came as he presided at Vespers, together with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in the church of St Gregory on the Caelian Hill.
The ecumenical prayer service took place, symbolically, on the site from where Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine out on mission to evanglise the English at the end of the 6th century. During the liturgy Pope Francis presented the Anglican leader with a replica of the pastoral staff of St Gregory, while the Archbishop gave the Holy Father a silver Cross of Nails as a symbol of their partnership in the urgent work of reconciliation.
Leading the singing of the psalms, anthems and well known hymns was the choir from Canterbury Cathedral, alongside the Sistine Chapel choir. Among the packed congregation were pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops from around the world who are in Rome this week to celebrate 50 years of ecumenical dialogue and to recommit themselves to partnership in mission.
In his words to them, Pope Francis said “We recognize ourselves as brothers who belong to different traditions, but are driven by the same Gospel to undertake the same mission in the world.” Therefore he said, “it would be always good, before embarking on any activity, for you to put these questions to yourselves: Why ought not we do this together with our Anglican brothers?; Can we bear witness to Jesus by acting together with our Catholic brothers?”
Referring to the pastoral staff of St Gregory which contains a carved ivory lamb, the Pope urged the bishops of both traditions to follow the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, telling them that “It is in sharing the difficulties and joys of ministry that we once again grow close to each other.”
He urged them to be “promoters of a bold and real ecumenism, always on a journey in search of opening new paths.” This is always and above all, he said, a matter of following the example of Our Lord, his pastoral methodology, of which the prophet Ezekiel reminds us: to seek out the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded, heal the sick. Only thus, the Pope said, “shall the scattered people be brought together”
Please find below Vatican Radio’s unofficial translation of the Pope’s words at Vespers, followed by those of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
The prophet Ezekiel, with an eloquent image, describes God as a shepherd herding his scattered sheep. They were separated from each other “in the day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ez 34,12). The Lord seems thus, through the Prophet, to turn to us with a twofold message. First, a message of unity: God, as Shepherd, desires the unity of His people, and he especially desires those appointed as Shepherds under him to spend themselves in pursuit of unity. Second, the reason we are told of the divisions in the flock: in the days of clouds and thick darkness, we lost sight of the brother who stood beside us, we became unable to recognize and rejoice in our respective gifts and in the graces we’ve received. This happened because the darkness of incomprehension and suspicion and, overhead, the dark clouds of disagreements and disputes, gathered around us – often formed for historical and cultural reasons and not only for theological reasons.
But we have the firm belief that God loves to dwell among us, who are his flock and precious treasure. He is a tireless pastor who continues to act (cf. Jn 5:17), encouraging us to walk towards greater unity, which can only be achieved with the help of His grace. Therefore we remain confident, because in us, even though we are fragile earthen vessels (cf. 2 Cor 4,7), God loves to pour out his grace. He is convinced that we can move from darkness to light, from dispersion to unity, from wanting to plenitude. This path of communion is the path of all Christians and is your particular mission, for you are the shepherds of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission.
It’s a great vocation, that which is to work as instruments of communion always and everywhere. This means promoting at the same time the unity of the Christian family and the unity of the human family. The two areas are not only not opposed but are mutually enriching. When, as disciples of Jesus, we offer our services jointly, each opening and the meeting, overcoming the temptation of closures and insulation, we work both at the same time when we work side-by-side, when we promote the unity of Christians as well as that of the human family. We recognize ourselves as brothers who belong to different traditions, but are driven by the same Gospel to undertake the same mission in the world. Then it would be always good, before embarking on any activity, for you to put these questions to yourselves: Why ought not we do this together with our Anglican brothers?; Can we bear witness to Jesus by acting together with our Catholic brothers?
It is in sharing the difficulties and joys of the ministry that we once again grow close to each other. May God grant you to be promoters of a bold and real ecumenism, always on a journey in search of opening new paths, which will benefit in the first place that your brothers in the Provinces and the Episcopal Conferences. This is always and above all a matter of following the example of the Lord, his pastoral methodology, of which the prophet Ezekiel reminds us: to seek out the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wound, heal the sick (cf. v. 16). Only thus shall the scattered people be brought together.
I would like to refer to our common journey in the footsteps of Christ the Good Shepherd, inspired by the pastoral staff of St. Gregory the Great, which might well symbolize the great ecumenical significance of this meeting. Pope Gregory, from this wellspring of mission, chose and sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and his monks to the Anglo-Saxon nations, inaugurating a great chapter in evangelization, which is our common history, and binds us inseparably. Therefore it is right that this pastoral staff be a symbol of our shared journey of unity and mission.
At the center of the curved part of the staff is represented the Risen Lamb. Thus, while reminding us of the will of the Lord to gather the flock and go in search of the lost sheep, the staff also seems to show us the central content of the love of God in Jesus crucified and risen, the Lamb sacrificed and living. It is love that penetrated the darkness of the sealed tomb, and opened the doors to the light of eternal life. The love of the Lamb victorious over sin and death is the true innovative message to carry together to those who are lost today, and to those who still do not have the joy of knowing the compassionate face and merciful embrace of the Good Shepherd. Our ministry consists in illuminating the darkness with this gentle light, with the meek power of love that conquers sin and overcomes death. We have the joy to recognize and celebrate the heart of the faith. Let us once again make that our center and focus, without being distracted by that, which, enticing us to follow the spirit of the world, would detract from the original freshness of the Gospel. From there comes our shared responsibility, the one mission to serve God and humanity.
It was also pointed out by some authors that the pastoral staves, at the other end, often have a pointed tip. It may well think that the ministry not only recalls the vocation to lead and gather the sheep in the name of the Risen Christ, but also to prod those that tend to stand too close and shut in, urging them to get out. The mission of the pastors is to help the flock entrusted to them, that it be always out-going, on the move to proclaim the joy of the Gospel; not closed in tight circles, in ecclesial “microclimates” which would take us back to the days of clouds and thick darkness. Together we ask God for the grace to imitate the spirit and example of the great missionaries, through which the Holy Spirit has revitalized the Church, which is revived when she goes out of her own accord on the ways of the world to live and proclaim the Gospel. Let us remember what happened in Edinburgh, at the origins of the ecumenical movement: it was precisely the fire of mission that allowed us to begin to overcome the barriers and break down the fences that isolated us and made a common path unthinkable. Let us pray together for this: the Lord grant us that from here might arise a renewed élan for communion and mission.
Address by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
The Israelites in the slave labour camps outside Babylon knew about fault and responsibility. In the passage just before this they hear from Ezekiel whom to blame for their exile; it is the bad shepherds, their failed leaders. In the following passage they are told that their desperate plight is also their own fault. There are bad sheep as well as bad shepherds.
In this passage, sandwiched between bad shepherds and bad sheep, it is God who says that He Himself will act. He seeks, he rescues, he feeds, he cares for the weak, but the fat and strong, who can only have become so by evil means, are to be destroyed. We are the sheep, and our Shepherd is God himself. In that sentence is all our hope, our certainty that the Church will live through all its struggles and vicissitudes, for the Good Shepherd finds, cares, judges, and restores. Yet in our confidence, we must not forget the warnings.
We cannot be bad shepherds, for they are rejected. When we fight, and when we lose the obligation of sharing mercy and forgiveness, we not only disobey the explicit prayer and command of Our Lord , but also we become shepherds who devour. The church becomes a circus for gladiatorial combat, in which the losers are shown no mercy. Augustine, commenting on Psalm 32, says of the Donatists, “Let us grieve for them, my friends, as though they were our own brothers and sisters. For that is what they are, whether they like it or not.” The wonderful power of the Year of Mercy is in its appeal to the merciful heart of God, in which we must be merciful to each other.
We cannot either be bad sheep, by becoming inward looking, and turning from the Saviour who has gone before us to the poor, the migrant, the slave and the refugee. The Good Shepherd is seeking his people, the fullness of our life is found when we seek with him. Last Christmas, in my chapel, we heard the testimony of a young, trafficked sex worker who had been found by Christians, and through them found the Good Shepherd. We all wept at hope renewed and a journey of healing begun.
While we rejoice that our Good Shepherd is the one who rescues, we also know that we are called to be his feet and hands and mouth. The mouth that calls, the hands that pick up, the feet that cross any obstacle to find the lost sheep and bring it home.
My prayer is always that as God’s family, we are those who look out into a world that is like sheep without a shepherd, where the weak, the unborn, the trafficked, the dying, are treated as inconveniences. Not only do we look, but we respond, saying to the Good Shepherd, “here we are, send us”.
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