Pope affirms commitment to ecumenical, interfaith outreach

The reaction of religious leaders around the world to the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis on March 13 was uniformly positive and has sparked renewed hopes for the Church’s ongoing ecumenical and interreligious dialogues, which have made considerable progress over the last decades.  

At the time of his election, Pope Francis received congratulations from every major religious group, including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, as well as the Orthodox churches and ecclesial communities such as the Lutherans and the Anglican Communion. Notable, too, was the enthusiasm of the evangelical communities in Argentina and beyond. 

Continuing on path

In a statement of the aspirations for even greater advances in dialogue, dozens of representatives of the world’s religions and Christian communities attended Pope Francis’ Inauguration Mass on March 19. Of particular significance was the appearance of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Communion, an event that has not happened since the start of the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054.  

Also notable was the presence of Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni. It was the first time that Rome’s chief rabbi has attended a papal inauguration, and Pope Francis had invited him specifically. Pope Benedict XVI had invited Di Segni to his inauguration on April 24, 2005, but he could not attend because it was the first day of Passover.  

Pope Francis confirmed his own desires for continued dialogue the next day when he had a special audience with leaders of 33 Christian churches and ecclesial communities — including Patriarch Bartholomew; Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, the “foreign minister” of the Patriarchate of Moscow; a representative of the Armenian Orthodox Church; an Anglican representative; and the secretary of the World Council of Churches — 16 Jewish leaders and representatives of the Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain communities.  

“For my part, I wish to assure you that, in continuity with my predecessors, it is my firm intention to pursue the path of ecumenical dialogue,” the pope told those gathered.  

He then gave his public support to the work of the Vatican offices charged with moving ahead with the Church’s outreach efforts: the Pontifical Council for Ecumenical Dialogue and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Mutual responsibility

The address also provided a blueprint for his direction in interreligious outreach. He noted particularly the representatives of Judaism and Islam. He spoke of “a most special spiritual bond” with the Jews and pledged “greater progress in that fraternal dialogue which the [Second Vatican] Council wished to encourage and which has indeed taken place, bearing no little fruit, especially in recent decades.” He reiterated that Muslims “worship God as one, living and merciful,” noting as well that their presence was “a tangible sign of a will to grow in mutual esteem and in cooperation for the common good of humanity.”  

That common good, the pope stressed, encompasses the mutual responsibility for the whole of creation, care of the poor and those who suffer, and the promotion of reconciliation and peace. In addition, he spoke of the crucial need to keep alive “the thirst for the absolute, and to counter the dominance of a one-dimensional vision of the human person, a vision which reduces human beings to what they produce and to what they consume.”  

Pope Francis warned all of the gathered believers of the attempt “to eliminate God and the divine from the horizon of humanity” and saluted “all those men and women who, although not identifying themselves as followers of any religious tradition, are nonetheless searching for truth, goodness and beauty — the truth, goodness and beauty of God.” 

Orthodox relations

During his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Bergoglio demonstrated a particular capacity for outreach and dialogue with all of the other religious groups in Argentina. He developed friendships with the heads of the local religious communities and held interfaith services on several occasions, including the memorable evening in November 2012 when he invited representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, evangelical and Orthodox communities to the cathedral to pray for peace in the Middle East. Last December he lit the first candle on the menorah at Temple NCI-Emanu El during a Hanukkah ceremony in Buenos Aires. It is likely he will use similar gestures in his outreach to foster trust and dialogue.  

While relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch are excellent, dealings with the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, the largest of the Orthodox churches, will be more complicated. Interestingly, Cardinal Bergoglio had firsthand experience of the pastoral care of Eastern Catholics, serving as their ordinary (bishop) in Argentina because they were without an ordinary of their own, experience that will surely inform his discussions with the Orthodox.  

Metropolitan Hilarion attended Francis’ Installation Mass, but he made it clear in interviews that major issues remain between the two churches. An acutely critical concern is the presence of the Byzantine Catholic Church in Russia and Ukraine, which has been growing in numbers and was severely persecuted under the Soviet Union. Still, as with Pope Benedict, the Russian Orthodox saluted Francis’ election and focused on his love for the poor as a reflection of his choice of the name Francis, and Russian leaders point to the joint Orthodox and Catholic concern for wider cultural and moral decline in Europe. 

Evangelical ties

Most remarkable of all was the positive reaction to Pope Francis’ election by the evangelicals, above all in Argentina. Then-Cardinal Bergoglio had cordial relationships with evangelical pastors at a time when there is concern in parts of Latin America about the aggressive proselytizing among Catholics by the Pentecostals and evangelicals. The future pope met regularly and prayed with evangelical leaders, who admired his humility and what they saw as his Bible-oriented approach to evangelization.  

For his part, Cardinal Bergoglio found much support from the evangelical community for his work among the poor and also his effort to resist the radical social agenda of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in particular her campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010.  

Matthew E. Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.