Originally published in Christian Examiner
Since 1964, the Catholic Church has recognized Christians of other denominations as “separated brethren” who might still enjoy salvation through the mother church in Rome – a conclusion only reached after four centuries of contentious relations and warfare between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and a millennium-long rift with the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Now, Pope Francis is seeking “mercy and forgiveness” for the way the Catholic Church has treated those religious dissenters.
During a homily Monday in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Francis said “there cannot be an authentic search for Christian unity without trusting fully in the Father’s mercy. We ask first of all for forgiveness for the sins of our divisions, which are an open wound in the Body of Christ.”
“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,” Francis said.
The pontiff’s remarks came at the conclusion of a weeklong emphasis on praying for Christian unity and as part of the Jubilee year in which the church is focusing on the theme of mercy. At the beginning of the evening prayers, Pope Francis invited other religious leaders, including Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Metropolitan Gennadios and Anglican Archbishop David Moxon, to join him in the final blessing.
The church leaders had walked through the basilica door together, Pope Francis said, to remind them “the only door which leads to salvation is Jesus Christ our Lord, the merciful face of the Father.”
Such ecumenical gestures are increasingly more common among Catholic leaders, but whether or not Rome can be fully reconciled with its “separated brethren” remains to be seen. There are long standing differences.