In January 2014, Pope Francis surprised the world with a short, impromptu video that he recorded on a friend’s iPhone. The friend was Tony Palmer, a bishop from a little-known branch of the Anglican Church, and they had been discussing a conference that Bishop Palmer was set to attend. The conference was a gathering of Pentecostal leaders, and Palmer invited the pope to record a greeting to them.
So without any script or rehearsal, Pope Francis addressed his “dear brothers and sisters”:
It is my pleasure to greet you with a greeting both joyful and full of yearning. Joyful because it gives me joy that you have come together to worship Jesus Christ. . . . Yearning because . . . we are kind of, allow me to say, separated. Separated because sin has separated us. . . . It has been a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame. We have all sinned. There is only one blameless, the Lord. . . .
So let’s pray to the Lord that he unites us all. Come on, we are brothers! Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that he has begun. And this is a miracle; the miracle of unity has begun. . . . I ask you to bless me, and I bless you. From brother to brother, I embrace you.
This warm and inspiring message from the Holy Father didn’t just come out of nowhere. It has a decades-long history behind it. Ever since the Second Vatican Council, the hope and prayer for unity have taken on a new sense of urgency, as well as a new focus and understanding.
A Legacy of Division. At the end of this month, the Church will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, that an Augustinian monk and theology professor named Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was common practice for thinkers to post their questions like this, and Luther only wanted to open an academic discussion on some unresolved questions about the use of indulgences in Catholic spirituality.
Somehow his theses took on a life of their own, and what followed over the next few years was nothing short of a revolution. Rather than sparking reforms in the Catholic Church—which was Luther’s original intent—his actions initiated a series of divisions within Christianity, divisions that have grown and deepened over the centuries. Religious wars broke out, alliances between nations fell apart, families were split, and cherished doctrines and devotions were jettisoned. This went on for nearly 450 years as Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and many other groups became locked in a seemingly endless cycle of enmity and antagonism.
But then, about a hundred years ago, things started to change. The Holy Spirit began to open new doors for unity and to inspire people to walk through those doors. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was started, and a new religious order—the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement—was formed with the express purpose of praying and working toward unity among Christians. Relations between the churches began to thaw as pastors and theologians alike started asking what Christian unity could look like.
Milestones on the Way. Then came the Second Vatican Council. In preparation for this worldwide gathering of bishops, Pope John XXIII created a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity as one of the preparatory commissions for the council. The secretariat was tasked with inviting leaders of other churches to take part in the council as official “observers.” Once the council opened, John commissioned this office to assist in preparing official documents on Christian unity, world religions, and religious freedom. So the march toward unity gained speed and prominence in the Church. Here are some of the most important milestones that have brought us to where we are today:
In January 1964, Pope Paul VI met Orthodox patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. The two embraced and shared words of welcome and honor for each other’s traditions. It was the first time in more than five hundred years that leaders of the two divided churches had been together.
The council fathers issued their Decree on Ecumenism in November 1964. In this short document, the bishops confessed that people on “both sides” of the divisions “were to blame” (3). They also urged Catholics to “recognize the riches of Christ in the lives of their separated brethren” (4) and called on everyone—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox—to work together for the common good and to pray together “for the unity of the Church” (8).
With the close of the council, bishops and theologians began a series of dialogues with representatives from nearly every Christian tradition. These dialogues continue to this day and have borne fruit in greater understanding and respect. Participants emphasize that the discussions are not aimed at conversions, but at enabling people to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ to seek a way forward.
After the council, the Catholic Church also began collaborating with the World Council of Churches both in missionary projects and in advancing the cause of social justice.
In May 1995, Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical letter on ecumenism, That They May Be One. He urged Catholics to make a “serious examination of conscience” and ask the Lord’s forgiveness for any ways they have deepened the divisions between Christians (82). He also invited leaders from other traditions to join him in finding a way to exercise his ministry as pope, perhaps in “a new situation” that could lead to greater unity (95). Finally, he urged Catholics to focus on our “‘universal brotherhood’ of Christians” and to let the theologians work out the theological differences (42).
In October 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Foundation issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The result of years of dialogue and prayer, it announced that both churches had reached a “common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ” (5). They agreed too that the condemnations they had imposed on each other centuries ago were no longer valid.
The new millennium has brought even more movement. In addition to greater understanding between different churches and increased contact between the Vatican and other Christian leaders, we can see a growing openness to the gifts and blessings that come from believers from other traditions. And nowhere is this openness more obvious than in Pope Francis’ surprise video to his Pentecostal brothers.
What Can I Do? So here we are, five hundred years after Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and we are closer to unity than we have ever been. Still, as Pope Francis said, the “miracle of unity” has just begun. On a theological level, much more needs to happen. Theologians and dialogue partners have many more hours and days and years of discussion ahead of them. Liturgical and canon law experts have thousands of unanswered questions—including questions they haven’t even thought of yet. And historians have countless episodes from the past to research and reassess before they understand how and why all these divisions have occurred.
So much needs to happen that the obstacles can seem insurmountable. And so much depends on these experts that it can seem we can’t do anything to help. But that’s not true at all. Each of us, in our own way, can be just as active.
We can join Jesus in his plea for unity: “I pray . . . that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (John 17:20, 21). If unity is a miracle, as Pope Francis has said, then it won’t come about through discussion alone. We should never underestimate what God can do when his people pray!
We can examine our attitudes toward our brothers and sisters from different traditions. Is there any sense of superiority over them? What about animosity or judgmental thoughts? Pope John Paul II said that the Holy Spirit can soften our hearts if we confess any sins that foster division. Remember, unity is a matter of love, not just of agreement.
We can seek out opportunities to work with and pray with our brothers and sisters. Many churches will have special services during this anniversary. Try to attend one or two so that you can enjoy the unity that we already share. Many churches and Christian organizations also sponsor faith-based volunteer projects like homeless shelters and food banks. Think about joining one so that you can learn more about your fellow believers by working side by side with them. Nothing breaks down division and prejudices more than personal encounter!
Yes, the miracle of unity has begun! May we all work and pray for it to continue, step-by-step, believer by believer.