The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ended Saturday with the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. There have been many appeals by the Pope in these days to overcome the “scandal” of division between Christians. Numerous also have been the initiatives of the different confessions to deepen mutual knowledge and acceptance. All of these following the theme of the Apostle’s question to the community of Corinth: “Has Christ been divided?”
The challenges that emerge on the ecumenical path and relations between Christian are many, as are the great novelties that are projected on the horizon. Not least among these is Pope Francis’ trip to the Holy Land, where he will meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.
ZENIT talked about all this with Monsignor Marco Gnavi, Director of the Office for Ecumenism and Inter-religious dialogue of the Vicariate of Rome.
ZENIT: At what point are we today in the ecumenical dialogue? And what challenges are anticipated?
Monsignor Gnavi: At present we have reached a consciousness and an awareness of the diversity of each one. Now it is a question of giving witness together, before a world that looks at the disciples of the Gospel, from whom hope is expected. The search for unity today can’t be the prerogative of academics, of theologians, but it must involve all in a new inspiration, in a new passion, recalling the pressing invitation to unity that flows from Jesus’ priestly prayer in John’s Gospel, the spiritual testament that Christ left us.
ZENIT: In your opinion, what is Pope Francis’ contribution to ecumenical dialogue?
Monsignor Gnavi: Great listening and willingness to encounter. It is demonstrated by the numerous audiences from the first day of his pontificate: Bartholomew, Tawadros, Theodoros II and so many others, as well as his words about Syria, Egypt and all those areas of the world that are red hot by the movements of history: a constant appeal to solidarity, to encounter with minority Churches, to give hope to these brothers. I think the Holy Father is helping everyone to center themselves again on the Gospel: In a secular world like ours, tempted by divisions, to present himself as Bishop of Rome is a sign to come together again in the essentialness of our Christian roots, without forgetting our differences.
ZENIT: Has Francis indicated a different approach with the Orthodox to facilitate the relation between the Primacy of Peter and “Sinodality”?
Monsignor Gnavi: Pope Francis situates himself in the line of his predecessors: he puts the Petrine ministry at the service of unity. The Holy Father has spoken of “synodality” thinking of the internal communion of the Catholic Church herself, as indication of the encounter between the local Churches with the faith of Rome. The example of Orthodox synodality is, therefore, a provocation to spur Catholic Bishops to search for true communion. The Pope has stressed it as an open question: for the time being there is no answer, perhaps it will be realized in history.
ZENIT: In the last Wednesday general audience, the Pope stated that “the division of Christians is a “scandal.”
Monsignor Gnavi: I think the Pontiff wished to stimulate all the Churches and ecclesial communities, first of all we Catholics, to consider the urgency of the credible and joyful witness that we must render to the Gospel in every context in which we live. The division is more painful where Christians are a minority, where the peaceful weapons of dialogue confront the evil of violence. There are areas of the world in which Christians seek to “reconstruct” themselves, their divisions and diversities notwithstanding, to give themselves mutual support. I am thinking in particular of Nigeria where Catholics, Anglicans, etc. resist together the aggressions and die innocently while praying in the churches.
ZENIT: In an interview the Pope spoke in fact of ecumenism of blood.
Monsignor Gnavi: Indeed. It is the ecumenism of martyrs that is being lived by these brothers of Asia, of Africa, of Latin America who live the evangelical Beatitudes at the price of blood. They die in the exercise of charity, in the quest for peace. This humility renders them great.
ZENIT: In your opinion, is the quest for communion with other Churches really a priority for Christians today? Or is it a “way of speaking,” while relishing to remark on our differences?
Monsignor Gnavi: It is a priority because Christians’ vocation to unity is written in their DNA. Christians live in history, and even if it has lost the sense of unity and of the common good, they bear this distinctive trait. We are children of the Gospel and our root is communion. Without unity, in fact, evangelical witness is weak and the division becomes an opening to evil in all its expressions. Therefore, the quest for unity not only is, but must be, a priority. John XXIII said that we must seek what unites us and leave aside what divides us. We have lived moments in which the opposite was done, and we continue to feel it. Today, however, we are called to let ourselves to be run through by the Spirit to seek full communion. The theme of the Week this year is “Has Christ been divided?” The answer is simple: Christ cannot be divided; each one of us must give effective signs of this.
ZENIT: In light of what has been said so far, in what way will the Pope’s trip to the Holy Land be able to foster a leap forward in the ecumenical dialogue?
Monsignor Gnavi: It is a great sign that this visit is taking place 50 years after the historic embrace of Paul VI and Athenagoras, a gesture that represented the cancellation of all the excommunications after a centuries-old distance,1054. It was an extraordinary event that happened precisely in the Land of Jesus. The Pope will also meet with Patriarch Bartholomew and this meeting – as also the choice of the three stages – shows his confidence in the future. Francis’ trip is not intended to point out nostalgia for the past, but a tenacious hope in the possibility of fecundating the world together with our Orthodox brethren. And, in my view, it is an appeal to Christians to begin a new path from Jerusalem. The world is going through a difficult stage, articulated by economic and social crises and a crisis of values, but this must become an occasion for Christians to have the hope, of which they are bearers, shine luminously, without allowing themselves to be tempted by the snares of evil, also because the world expects this of them.[Translation by ZENIT]