Pope Francis’ Culture of Encounter

The pope's upcoming trip to the Holy Land continues a tradition of building ecumenical and interfaith relationships

Pope Francis embraces Catholicos Karekin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, during a meeting at Vatican. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
Pope Francis embraces Catholicos Karekin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, during a meeting at Vatican. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
Pope Francis is cultivating a “culture of encounter.” And his garden is not just within the Catholic Church, but includes Christians from other churches as well as members of other world religions.

This is not a new style for him. When he was still Cardinal Bergoglio in the archdiocese of Buenos Aires in Argentina, his financial manager was an evangelical into whose office he would regularly come, and with whom he would read some scripture, share some prayer, and drink some tea. When another asked him why he did that, his response was: “People do that with their friends!”

He was making a point about his relationship with evangelicals. Indeed, Cardinal Bergoglio’s election as pope received a glowing response in evangelical circles throughout the Americas. Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism in America, ran three high-profile pieces detailing the reaction of leading evangelicals who had worked with him during his decades of ministry in Latin America, or were familiar with it.

Juan Pablo Bongarrá, president of the Argentine Bible Society, recalled when Bergoglio once attended a weekly worship meeting organized by Buenos Aires’ charismatic pastors. “He mounted the platform and called for pastors to pray for him,” Bongarrá said. “He knelt in front of nearly 6,000 people, and [Protestant leaders] laid hands on him and prayed.”

“We evangelical leaders that know him are very happy with his election,” Bongarrá said. “We have had a good relationship with him for many years. We think that a new time is coming for the Catholic Church, because our brother wants to promote evangelism.”

Ecumenical leaders present at Pope Francis’ installation included Bartholomew I, the first Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to attend a papal installation since the East-West schism of 1054. The attendance of Eastern Orthodox leaders at the new pope’s inaugural Mass was a sign of their hopes for closer communion. And the successor of Peter responded by greeting the successor of the other Galilean fisherman as “my brother Andrew.”

In his audience with religious leaders on the occasion of his inauguration, Francis’ chair was on the ground  — the same level as all the other religious leaders — and not on a raised platform.

The moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee, Rev. Dr. Walter Altmann, a Lutheran pastor from Brazil, identified the election of Pope Francis as a “transition in Christianity.” “My expectation is that his mandate can be marked by intense and deep ecumenical dialogue and cooperation,” Altmann said.

In his first year as pope, Francis reached out to Muslims, washing the feet of both Muslims and Christians in a prison cell on Holy Thursday and sending a letter to Muslims around the world at the end of their month of fast, Ramadan. His theme in the letter was building mutual respect for one another in our educational processes:

“(W)e have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers, and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices. We all know that mutual respect is fundamental in any human relationship, especially among people who profess religious belief. In this way, sincere and lasting friendship can grow.”

This past January, Pope Francis hosted a dozen rabbis from Argentina for a kosher luncheon prepared by the Vatican kitchen. In an interview with Vatican Radio, one of the rabbis, Abraham Skorka, with whom the former Cardinal Bergoglio had written a book about faith, said the delegation came to Rome to “show our affection, our support and seal our friendship, not just personal, but as a group.”

Pope Francis’ recent predecessors would be delighted, and it augurs well for his upcoming May 24-26 trip to the Holy Land. Pope (Saint!) John XXIII recognized that the Church had to reassess its whole relationship with the Jewish people, which was the inspiration for Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), the Second Vatican Council’s document on relations with other religions.

And Pope (Saint!) John Paul II began living it out with his visit to the chief rabbi in the synagogue in Rome and in his speech to young Muslims at Casablanca in 1985; in inviting representatives of all the world’s major religions to Assisi, Italy, in 1986 to pray for peace; in his visit to Yad Vashem and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 2000; and in his visit to the Ummayyad Mosque in Damascus in 2001.

Why is Pope Francis going to Jerusalem now? Because while at the Vatican, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew invited Pope Francis to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to commemorate and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between their predecessors, Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in 1964, where they rescinded the excommunications at the root of the Great Schism in 1054 between the churches of the East and West. Their declaration did not completely end the 1054 schism, but rather showed a desire for greater reconciliation between the two churches. When Pope Francis meets with Patriarch Bartholomew they will sign a new joint declaration that will hopefully be another significant step toward restoring communion between Rome and Constantinople and the other patriarchates of Orthodoxy.

In Jerusalem, Pope Francis will also visit the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on the Esplanade of the Mosques; the Western Wall, a sacred place of prayer for Jews; the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem; and the two Chief Rabbis of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem.

This trip is another example of Pope Francis showing us how important it is to encounter others and build relationships of trust and friendship. That is the way God’s love, peace and understanding become concrete and real in our world.