Last night Archbishop Gennadios and I were invited by Pope Francis to share in the giving of the Pontifical Blessing.
This took place in front of the 3000-strong congregation at the Papal Basilica of St Paul's outside the Walls, the venue for the final day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Rome. We were called to the side of the Papal Throne and he said "let's share this together". He received his papal pastoral staff, began the prayer and raised his hand. Archbishop Gennadios (the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch) and I raised our hands also. It was incredibly moving to be part of what (I think) was an unprecedented invitation, which said far more even than the words which were actually recited.
This invitation suggested that the blessing of God and the grace of God flow through our diversity in this moment of unity. It would be wrong to read too much into what happened, but in the minutes that followed the conclusion of the service, it was the talk of the evening. To me it seems a very poignant, unforgettable, and evocative sign of our essential unity in baptism and of our desire to share the blessings of God whenever there is opportunity; to bless and be blessed because we belong to the Church of the Triune God, which is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
The power of this action was preceded by a straight-from-the-heart homily, in which Pope Francis said,
"As Bishop of Rome and pastor of the Catholic Church, I want to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics towards Christians of other Churches which has not reflected Gospel values. At the same time, I invite all Catholic brothers and sisters to forgive if they, today or in the past, have been offended by other Christians. We cannot cancel out what has happened, but we do not want to let the weight of past faults continue to contaminate our relationships. God’s mercy will renew our relationships."
This immediately challenges Christians who aren't Roman Catholic to respond in the same way, asking for forgiveness for the wrongs we have done and the wounds we have inflicted on the body of Christ. This mutual confession automatically brings forth a sense of forgiveness, grace, and hope and we can be closer than we were before because of this. Such a movement of grace is indeed a blessing we can all share.
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