At the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Homily of Pope Francis, delivered at Vespers on the Solemnity of the Conversion of St. Paul, at the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
January 25, 2016
“I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:9-10). The Apostle Paul thus summarizes the meaning of his conversion. Coming after after a blinding encounter with the Risen Christ (cf. 1 Cor 9.1) on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, his conversion is not primarily a moral change, but rather a transforming experience of the grace of Christ, and at the same time, the call to a new mission, to proclaim to everyone the Jesus who before he persecuted by persecuting his disciples. At that moment, in fact, Paul understood that a real and transcendent exists between the eternal and living Christ and his followers: Jesus lives and is present in them and they live in him. The vocation to be an apostle is based not on the human merit of Paul, who considered himself “the least” and “unfit,” but on the infinite goodness of God, who chose him and entrusted him with the ministry.
St. Paul also bears witness to a similar understanding of what happened on the road to Damascus in the First Letter to Timothy: “I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him, but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:12-14).
God’s superabundant mercy is the sole reason upon which Paul’s ministry is based, and at the same time it is what the Apostle must proclaim to everyone.
St. Paul’s experience is similar to that of the community to which the Apostle Peter sent his First Letter. St. Peter addresses himself to the members of small and frail communities exposed to threats of persecution, and he applies to them the glorious titles attributed to the holy people of God: “A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). For those first Christians, as today for all the baptized, it is a source of comfort and of constant wonder to know that we have been chosen to be part of God’s plan of salvation, put into effect in Jesus Christ and in the Church. “Why Lord? Why me? Why us?” Here we touch upon the mystery of mercy and God’s choice. The Father loves everyone and wants to save everyone, and he therefore calls some, “conquering” them by His grace, so that through them His love may reach everyone. The mission of the whole people of God is to proclaim the marvelous works of the Lord, first and foremost the Paschal mystery of Christ, through which we have passed from the darkness of sin and death to the splendor of His new and eternal life (cf. 1 Peter 2:10).
In light of the Word of God we have heard, and which has guided us during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we can truly say that all of us who believe in Christ have been called to proclaim the mighty acts of God (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Beyond the differences which still separate us, we joyfully recognize that, at the origin of our Christian life, there is always a call that comes from God himself. We are able to make progress on the path to full visible communion between Christians not only when we draw closer to each other, but above all to the extent that we are converted to the Lord, who through His grace chooses us and calls us to be his disciples.
And converting means allowing the Lord to live and work in us. For this reason, when Christians of different Churches listen to the Word of God together and seek to put it into practice, they make important steps towards unity. And it is not only the call which unites us; we also share the same mission: To proclaim to all the might acts of God. Like St. Paul, and like the faithful to whom St Peter writes, we too cannot fail to proclaim God’s merciful love, which has conquered and transformed us. As we journey toward full communion among ourselves, we can already develop many forms of collaboration, to go together, to promote the spread of the Gospel. And by walking and working together, we realize that we are already united in the name of the Lord.
During this extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, let us keep in mind that there can be no authentic quest for unity of Christians without entrusting ourselves fully to the Father’s mercy. We first ask forgiveness for the sin of our divisions, which are an open wound in the Body of Christ. 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.
In this atmosphere of intense prayer, I extend fraternal greetings to his Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios, representing the Ecumenical Patriarch, to His Grace David Moxon, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s personal representative in Rome, and all the representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial communities who are gathered here this evening. With them we passed through the Holy Door of this Basilica to remind ourselves that the only door which leads to salvation is Jesus Christ our Lord, the merciful Face of the Father. I also cordially greet the young Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox students who are here in Rome with the support of the Committee for Cultural Collaboration with the Orthodox churches, working through the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, as well as the students from the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey who are visiting Rome to deepen their knowledge of the Catholic Church.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us join in the prayer that Jesus Christ addressed to the Father “that they may all be one […] so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). Unity is the gift of mercy from God the Father. Here before the tomb of St. Paul, apostle and martyr, kept here in this splendid Basilica, we sense that our humble prayer is supported by the intercession of the multitudes of Christian martyrs, past and present. 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.
Translation by Diane Montagnaof Aleteia’s English edition.