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ROME — The persecution of Christians is nothing less than the persecution of Jesus Christ, Pope Francis said on Monday, at an ecumenical gathering marking the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Addressing Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant representatives in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, during Vespers for the Solemnity of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Pope said that Saul’s blinding encounter with the Risen Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1) on the road to Damascus enabled him to see the truth “that there is a real and transcendent union between the eternal and living Christ and his followers: Jesus lives and is present in them, and they live in Him.”
The Apostle’s conversion, he said, “was not primarily a moral change, but rather a transforming experience of the grace of Christ, and at the same time, a call to a new mission to proclaim to everyone the Jesus he previously had persecuted, by persecuting his disciples.”
Pope Francis urged Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to enter into Jesus’ prayer to the Father “that they may all be one […] so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21), and to invoke the intercession of Christians “past and present” who were martyred for their faith in Christ.
“Here before the tomb of St. Paul, apostle and martyr, we sense that our humble prayer [for Christian unity] is supported by the intercession of the multitudes of Christian martyrs, past and present,” he said.
“They responded generously to the Lord’s call, they gave faithful witness by their lives to the wonderful works that God has done for us, and they already enjoy full communion in the presence of God the Father. Sustained by their example — the example offered by the ecumenism of blood — and comforted by their intercession, let us make our humble prayer to God.”
In his homily to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants, Pope Francis also acknowledged the “sins of division” still tearing apart Churches and ecclesial communities, calling them “an open wound in the Body of Christ.” During the Jubilee of Mercy, he invited all those present to seek the Father’s forgiveness, and the grace to forgive:
“As Bishop of Rome and Pastor of the Catholic Church, I wish to ask mercy and forgiveness for the un-Gospel like behavior of Catholics toward Christians of other Churches. At the same time, I invite all Catholic brothers and sisters to forgive if they, today or in the past, have suffered offense by other Christians. We cannot erase what has been, but we do not want to let the weight of past faults continue to contaminate our relationships. God’s mercy will renew our relationships.”
Find a full translation of the Pope’s homily, including unscripted remarks, here.
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.