Will Pope Francis revitalize ecumenism and interfaith dialogue?

As the world is starting to get to know Pope Francis better, positive attention has focused on his humility and simplicity, his initial pastoral and populist gestures, his shunning of some of the trappings and customs of his new office, on his Franciscan “program” and Jesuit formation, his commitment to the poor, and of course his provenance from Latin America and the global south.

Chicago columnist Eugene Kennedy, not usually prone to gushing reviews of anything related to the Vatican, even goes cosmic in his review: “This papal resignation and election complete the Copernican Revolution that revealed that the Earth was not the center of the universe by making it clear central Europe is no longer the center of the Catholic Church…. Some might even say this is how the Spirit breathes on the world with what Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called its ‘bright wings.’”

Of course, there are still plenty of skeptics on both the left (worried about allegations stemming from his actions and inactions during Argentina’s “Dirty War” and his rather incendiary rhetoric in condemning same-sex marriage) and the right (worried about his condemnation of “unjust distribution of goods”), who are pursuing questions and concerns of their own.

In addition to the positives already mentioned, it is comforting to see that the new pope also seems to have earned the respect of both his ecumenical and his interfaith partners in Argentina.

In comments released after Pope Francis’ election, the Anglican Bishop of Argentina and former Primate of the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone, Bishop Greg Venables called Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio “an inspired choice.”

Venable is quoted by the Anglican Communion News Service: “I have been with him on many occasions, and he always makes me sit next to him and invariably makes me take part and often do what he as cardinal should have done. He is consistently humble and wise, outstandingly gifted yet a common man. He is no fool and speaks out very quietly yet clearly when necessary.”

Most intriguingly—given the ecumenical difficulties Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to set up a separate ordinariate for Anglicans has created—Venable reports that then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio reached out to him at that very occasion. According to Venable, Bergoglio made it clear that he values the place of Anglicans in the church universal.

“He called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the church needs us as Anglicans.” The Anglican bishop added, “I consider this to be an inspired appointment not because he is a close and personal friend, but because of who he is in Christ. Pray for him.”

And in a positive report on the website of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religion, board member Leo D. Lefebvre, is convinced that “Pope Francis promises to be a forceful spokesperson for the poor, an eager and attentive partner in interreligious conversations, and a leader who reaches out to the entire world.”

According to Lefebvre, “Pope Francis has had deep experience in interreligious relations in Argentina.” He highlights, in particular, a book Bergoglio co-authored with Rabbi Abraham Skorka called Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra (On Heaven and Earth, Sudamericana, 2011). He quotes Bergoglio as saying in the book: “Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect for the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It assumes that there is room in the heart for the person’s point of view, opinion, and proposal. To dialogue entails a cordial reception, not a prior condemnation. In order to dialogue, it is necessary to know how to lower the defenses, open the doors of the house, and offer human warmth.”

In a latter passage of the book, Bergoglio comments on “the question of humility. It pleases me also to use the word ‘meekness,’ which does not mean weakness. A religious leader can be very strong, very firm without exercising aggression. Jesus says that the one who leads must be one who serves. For me, this idea is valid for the religious person of whatever religious confession. Service confers the real power of religious leadership.”

It is worth noting that only hours after his election, Pope Francis sent a message to Rome's Chief Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni inviting him to the inauguration Mass and telling him: “I very much hope to be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have experienced since the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed collaboration and at the service of a world that can be ever more harmonious with the will of the Creator."

These reports give reason for hope that the new pope may find ways to revitalize both the ecumenical movement and interfaith dialogue.

About the author

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds was the executive editor of U.S. Catholic. He is currently the director of communications for Maryknoll Lay Missioners.