Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I wish to thank you for your gracious invitation to celebrate this parish anniversary with you. More than two hundred years have passed since the first public Anglican liturgy was held in Rome for a group of English residents in this part of the city. A great deal has changed in Rome and in the world since then. In the course of these two centuries, much has also changed between Anglicans and Catholics, who in the past viewed each other with suspicion and hostility. Today, with gratitude to God, we recognize one another as we truly are: brothers and sisters in Christ, through our common baptism. As friends and pilgrims we wish to walk the path together, to follow our Lord Jesus Christ together.
You have invited me to bless the new icon of Christ the Saviour. Christ looks at us, and his gaze upon us is one of salvation, of love and compassion. It is the same merciful gaze which pierced the hearts of the Apostles, who left the past behind and began a journey of new life, in order to follow and proclaim the Lord. In this sacred image, as Jesus looks upon us, he seems also to call out to us, to make an appeal to us: “Are you ready to leave everything from your past for me? Do you want to make my love known, my mercy?”
His gaze of divine mercy is the source of the whole Christian ministry. The Apostle Paul says this to us, through his words to the Corinthians which we have just heard. He writes: “Having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Cor 4:1). Our ministry flows forth from the mercy of God, which sustains our ministry and prevents it losing its vigour.
Saint Paul did not always have an easy relationship with the community at Corinth, as his letters show. There was also a painful visit to this community, with heated words exchanged in writing. But this passage shows Paul overcoming past differences. By living his ministry in the light of mercy received, he does not give up in the face of divisions, but devotes himself to reconciliation. When we, the community of baptized Christians, find ourselves confronted with disagreements and turn towards the merciful face of Christ to overcome it, it is reassuring to know that we are doing as Saint Paul did in one of the very first Christian communities.
How does Saint Paul grapple with this task, where does he begin? With humility, which is not only a beautiful virtue, but a question of identity. Paul sees himself as a servant, proclaiming not himself but Christ Jesus the Lord (v. 5). And he carries out this service, this ministry according to the mercy shown him (v. 1): not on the basis of his ability, nor by relying on his own strength, but by trusting that God is watching over him and sustaining his weakness with mercy. Becoming humble means drawing attention away from oneself, recognizing one’s dependence on God as a beggar of mercy: this is the starting point so that God may work in us. A past president of the World Council of Churches described Christian evangelization as “a beggar telling another beggar where he can find bread”. I believe Saint Paul would approve. He grasped the fact that he was “fed by mercy” and that his priority was to share his bread with others: the joy of being loved by the Lord, and of loving him.
This is our most precious good, our treasure, and it is in this context that Paul introduces one of his most famous images, one we can all apply to ourselves: “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (v. 7). We are but earthen vessels, yet we keep within us the greatest treasure in the world. The Corinthians knew well that it was foolish to preserve something precious in earthen vessels, which were inexpensive but cracked easily. Keeping something valuable in them meant running the risk of losing it. Paul, a graced sinner, humbly recognized that he was fragile, just like an earthen vessel. But he experienced and knew that it was precisely there that human misery opens itself to God’s merciful action; the Lord performs wonders. That is how the “extraordinary power” of God works (v. 7).
Trusting in this humble power, Paul serves the Gospel. Speaking of some of his adversaries in Corinth, he calls them “super apostles” (2 Cor 12:11), perhaps, and with a certain irony, because they had criticized him for his weaknesses even as they considered themselves observant, even perfect. Paul, on the other hand, teaches that only in realizing we are weak earthen vessels, sinners always in need of mercy, can the treasure of God be poured into us and through us upon others. Otherwise, we will merely be full of our treasures, which are corrupted and spoiled in seemingly beautiful vessels. If we recognize our weakness and ask for forgiveness, then the healing mercy of God will shine in us and will be visible to those outside; others will notice in some way, through us, the gentle beauty of Christ’s face.
At a certain point, perhaps in the most difficult moment with the community in Corinth, the Apostle Paul cancelled a visit he had planned to make there, also foregoing the offerings he would have received from them (2 Cor 1:15-24). Though tensions existed in their fellowship, these did not have the final word. The relationship was restored and Paul received the offering for the care of the Church in Jerusalem. The Christians in Corinth once again took up their work, together with the other communities which Paul visited, to sustain those in need. This is a powerful sign of renewed communion. The work that your community is carrying out together with other English-speaking communities here in Rome can be viewed in this light. True, solid communion grows and is built up when people work together for those in need. Through a united witness to charity, the merciful face of Jesus is made visible in our city.
As Catholics and Anglicans, we are humbly grateful that, after centuries of mutual mistrust, we are now able to recognize that the fruitful grace of Christ is at work also in others. We thank the Lord that among Christians the desire has grown for greater closeness, which is manifested in our praying together and in our common witness to the Gospel, above all in our various forms of service. At times, progress on our journey towards full communion may seem slow and uncertain, but today we can be encouraged by our gathering. For the first time, a Bishop of Rome is visiting your community. It is a grace and also a responsibility: the responsibility of strengthening our ties, to the praise of Christ, in service of the Gospel and of this city.
Let us encourage one another to become ever more faithful disciples of Jesus, always more liberated from our respective prejudices from the past and ever more desirous to pray for and with others. A good sign of this desire is the “twinning” taking place today between your parish of All Saints and All Saints Catholic parish. May the saints of every Christian confession, fully united in the Jerusalem above, open for us here below the way to all the possible paths of a fraternal and shared Christian journey. Where we are united in the name of Jesus, he is there (cf. Mt 18:20), and turning his merciful gaze towards us, he calls us to devote ourselves fully in the cause of unity and love. May the face of God shine upon you, your families and this entire community!
The occasion of this address by Pope Francis – that of the 200th Anniversary of the setting up of the first post-Reformation Anglican Church congregation in the City of Rome, which is at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church – marks a significant milestone in Roman Catholic/Anglican relationships. Never before in its history has the Anglican church of All Saints been host to the reigning Pontiff; a reality which marks out Pope Francis’ regard for his Anglican confreres, and his willingness to distance himself from the onetime former coolness of relationship between Rome and Canterbury.
In a unique ‘Questions and Answers’ session with the congregation, Pope Francis spoke of the spirit of cooperation existing between his own Roman Catholic and Anglican Bishops in Argentina that extended to joint experiences of mission to the local people
Who ever would have thought that a reigning Pontiff would take the trouble to take part in the worship of the Anglican Church of all Saints in Rome? However, Pope Francis – like his illustrious predecessors Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI – is keenly interested in demonstrating his belief that Anglicans are indeed a part of the Body of Christ, The Church, worthy of sharing the task of celebrating the extension of the Gospel in a world that needs it.
This Pope is dedicated to a high purpose – nothing less that the Unity of All Christians; a matter in which his Divine Master would have wanted him to pursue the possibility, despite the failure of both sides to come to an agreement on matters like the ordination of women; the continuance of an exclusively celibate priesthood; and the blessing of faithful same-sex relationships, it is now well-known that Pope Francis has actively supported the involvement of women in the administration of the Catholic Church. Also, he has made known his desire for the accommodation of penitent re-married divorcees to be allowed more easy access to the sacraments of the Church. As for his understanding of gay people, this was made known in his statement to reporters on a flight back to Italy when he asked the question: “Who am I to judge homosexual people who love the Lord?”.
This Bishop of Rome is a worthy successor of Pope John XXIII and Saint Peter himself.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand