11 February 2019
A man sits on his chair in a small village in the Toubkal region near Imlil, Morocco on 12 January 2019. Pope Francis plans to visit Morocco next month. (photo: CNS/Youssef Boudlal, Reuters)
Pope Francis’ trip to Morocco on 30-31 March will include a visit to a school training an international group of Muslim prayer leaders and preachers, including women.
He also will visit to a Caritas center assisting migrants, many of whom ended up in the North African country with hopes of eventually making it to Europe.
Returning to Rome from the United Arab Emirates on 5 February, Pope Francis told journalists he had hoped to go to Marrakech, Morocco, in December for the signing of the U.N. Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, but protocol dictated that he make a full visit to the country and there was not time in December.
The trip in March will include a full slate of formal events, including a meeting with King Mohammed VI and a visit to the mausoleum of King Mohammed V, who negotiated the country’s independence from France and ruled until his death in 1961.
The visit to Morocco, where more than 99 percent of the population is Muslim, will give Pope Francis an opportunity to continue the reflections on Christian-Muslim relations he began in Abu Dhabi in February. As he did in the United Arab Emirates, he is expected to highlight 2019 as the 800th anniversary of the encounter of St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt.
When the Vatican first announced the trip in November, it said the pope would visit both Rabat, the capital, and Casablanca. But the Vatican said on 9 February it had accepted “the proposal by Moroccan authorities to limit the trip to the city of Rabat to facilitate the visit of the Holy Father.”
View the full itinerary of the trip here.
18 January 2019
Tags: Pope Francis Muslim
In this image from 2015, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, Bishop Camillo Ballin, apostolic vicar of Northern Arabia, Sheik Nahyan and Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of Southern Arabia, cut a ribbon during the inauguration of St. Paul’s Church in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates next month.
(photo: CNS/courtesy of Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia)
When Pope Francis visits Abu Dhabi 3-5 February, he will visit a land where interreligious tolerance is mandated by law; while Catholics in the United Arab Emirates count their blessings for that, the pope is expected to nudge for something more.
Tolerance is praiseworthy, and Catholics in the Emirates do not take it for granted. But for Pope Francis, the next step — and often a big one — is mutual knowledge, respect and cooperation.
As the pope said in Bangladesh in late 2017, “respect and shaping a culture of encounter, dialogue and cooperation in the service of our human family” requires “more than mere tolerance. It challenges us to reach out to others in mutual trust and understanding, and so to build a unity that sees diversity not as a threat, but as a potential source of enrichment and growth.”
The Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia cares for the almost 1 million Catholics living in the Emirates, Oman and Yemen. The faithful belong to 16 parishes -- with Mass offered in a dozen languages in churches, chapels and meeting rooms, sometimes simultaneously.
In the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven emirates on the southeast edge of the Arabian Peninsula, the ruling families have donated land for Catholic and other Christian churches. But no bells call the faithful to prayer and no crosses can be visible from the street.
Islam is the state religion and the faith of almost all of its citizens. But citizens account for less than 20 percent of the Emirates’ population; most of the rest are foreign workers from almost every country in the world and include significant numbers of Catholics from India and the Philippines.
“We have experienced great benevolence from the leaders of the Emirates to be able to worship in the churches that have been built on land generously donated by them,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, head of the apostolic vicariate. “These gestures and the continuous efforts by the state to create an environment of tolerance and harmony in the community are very encouraging.”
The Catholic parishes run busy Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults programs, but only for foreigners. “Most of our RCIA candidates come from other Christian denominations or did not have a life in faith at all. Some are Hindu,” said Marcus Khoury, who assists with the program at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi.
Bringing adults into the Catholic faith is “a delicate matter where we have to be careful at all times,” Khoury said. “We are not allowed to proselytize among Muslims, and therefore have to make sure that our RCIA candidates were not originally Muslim.”
For Khoury, who worked for a year in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where Christianity can be practiced only in private homes, “Abu Dhabi is fortunately very open and relaxed when it comes to practicing other religions.”
Khoury works as in-house legal counsel specializing in construction and arbitration law. Many Muslims, he said, know just by his name that he is Christian, or at least from a Christian family. But “my Muslim co-workers rarely talk about religion with me. To a certain extent it still is a touchy subject, as one may risk being misunderstood as proselytizing and trying to convert Muslims when talking to them about Christianity.”
At work and at school, Bishop Hinder said, Catholics interact with their Muslim sisters and brothers and people of other faiths, so friendships are formed and cultures shared.
But the visit of the pope, which will include “the first ever public Mass in the country,” will bring even more attention to the Catholic community, the bishop said, so Catholics want “to put our best foot forward to shine during this time.”
Feras Hamza is a Dubai-based professor and Islamic historian who has participated in high-level Christian-Muslim dialogue programs. He told Catholic News Service, “The lived reality of day-to-day interaction, co-existence and social exchange -- economic, cultural or otherwise -- is itself a form of continuous dialogue” and one that best describes “the state of Christian-Muslim relations in the UAE.”
“Christians and Muslims in the UAE do not need to discuss their scriptures to demonstrate ‘dialogue,’“ he said. “‘Religion’ cannot be singled out from what anthropologists would call ‘culture,’“ and people’s “values may be anchored in and shaped by religious traditions, but they ultimately have life and meaning only in communal exchange and in the everyday.”
A sign of how seriously the UAE takes tolerance, he said, is the appointment of a Cabinet “minister of state for tolerance” and the proclamation by Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed, the UAE president, of 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance.”
In addition to focusing on dialogue with his Muslim hosts, Pope Francis will devote time to the international community of Catholics living in the Emirates. Those Catholics include lawyers like Khoury and financiers, doctors, nurses, teachers and tens of thousands of maids and construction workers.
For many of the domestic and blue-collar workers, a job in the Emirates is a great opportunity to work and send money home to their families. But policing their working conditions has not been easy; the government continues to enact protections, such as making it illegal for an employer to confiscate the worker’s passport, regulating the fees employers can withhold from paychecks, mandating a maximum 12-hour work day for domestics and guaranteeing one day off each week.
The Catholic parishes are one of the few places in the Emirates where foreign workers of all countries and categories come together.
Khoury, the lawyer, said his French-language community at St. Joseph’s includes people from France, Belgium, Lebanon, Iraq, Cameroon and Egypt. It lets him “break through the otherwise typical expat bubble in which expatriates-foreigners largely stick to their own nationality and social class.”
Many of the migrants are unmarried. Bishop Hinder said that through their involvement in parish communities “they end up becoming each other’s support system for spiritual growth and in personal relations.”
And while the government has made strides in protecting workers, “there are sometimes unfortunate situations where migrant workers find themselves in dire straits if companies close down or salaries are not paid,” the bishop said. “All parishes have set up community-service initiatives to help in this type of case,” with volunteers providing legal assistance, parishioners collecting food and clothing and sponsors coming forward to pay for a stranded worker’s plane ticket back home.
As guests in a foreign land, Bishop Hinder said, Catholics know their actions speak louder than words, and “living in peace and harmony becomes a natural priority.”
“We do not take anything for granted,” the bishop said, “but we are thankful to the Lord for his grace in being able to live and share our faith in the communities we live in.”
16 January 2019
Tags: Muslim Arabs
In this image from 2014, Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires and Pope Francis embrace after visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The pope has written the introduction to an Italian book of Christian and Jewish commentaries on the first five books of the Bible. Rabbi Skorka wrote one of the commentaries. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
A few decades of respectful Catholic-Jewish dialogue pale in comparison to “19 centuries of Christian anti-Judaism,” Pope Francis said, so Catholics must continue to ask forgiveness and forge new bonds of respect and friendship with the Jewish community.
“We must work with greater intensity to ask pardon and repair the damage,” the pope said in an introduction to a new Italian book of Christian and Jewish commentaries on passages from the first five books of the Bible, which are known collectively as the Torah or Pentateuch.
Pope Francis said the volume of commentaries, “The Bible of Friendship,” is an important tool for helping Catholics recognize the Jewish roots of their faith and for promoting concrete Catholic-Jewish cooperation in helping others.
“It is of vital importance for Christians to discover and foster knowledge of the Jewish tradition in order to understand themselves more authentically,” the pope said, and studying the Bible is an essential part of that effort.
Reading the Hebrew Scriptures together, he said, helps people discover the richness of the word of God. “The common objective will be to witness together to the love of the Father throughout the world.”
“The values, traditions and great ideas that characterize Judaism and Christianity must be placed at the service of humanity without ever forgetting the sacredness and authenticity of friendship,” he said.
“For Jews as for Christians there is no doubt that love of God and love for one’s neighbor summarize all the commandments,” he said. “Therefore, Jews and Christians must feel like brothers and sisters, united by the same God and by a rich, common spiritual patrimony on which to base and continue to build the future.”
17 December 2018
Tags: Pope Francis Jewish-Catholic relations
Pope Francis holds a baby on the eve of his 82nd birthday during a 16 December audience with children and families from the Santa Marta Dispensary, a Vatican charity that offers special help to mothers and children in need, at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/Giuseppe Lami, EPA)
If the Holy Family lived in Rome and the baby Jesus had a cold or flu, Mary and Joseph certainly would bring him to the Vatican pediatric clinic for help, Pope Francis said.
The Vatican’s St. Martha Dispensary was founded in 1922 and, staffed by volunteers, it provides medical care and basic necessities to any child in need; most of the clients are immigrants.
Dozens of children, their parents and the clinic volunteers anticipated Pope Francis’ 82nd birthday, singing for him and giving him a large cake on 16 December. His birthday was the next day.
“I wish you all a merry Christmas, a good holy Christmas, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you do. Really,” the pope said. “And, I also hope that no one gets indigestion from a cake that big. Thank you!”
In brief comments to the women religious who run the clinic and to the doctors and others who volunteer there, Pope Francis said, “Working with children isn’t easy, but they teach us much.”
“They taught me something: to understand the reality of life, you must lower yourself, like you bend down to kiss a child. They teach us this,” he said. “The proud and haughty cannot understand life because they are not capable of lowering themselves.”
Everyone who works at the clinic gives children something, the pope said. “But they give us this proclamation, this teaching: bow down, be humble and you will learn to understand life and understand people.”
7 November 2018
Tags: Pope Francis
U.S. Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, arrive for a press conference at the Vatican on 7 November. The Knights are preparing for a major meeting in Rome.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
The 30,000 members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem fund about 80 percent of the annual budget of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, ensuring that Catholic parishes and seminaries, schools and hospitals in Israel, Palestine and Jordan continue to function, said U.S. Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien.
The cardinal, grand master of the Vatican-based order, said the knights and dames of the order come from 40 countries and pledge their prayers, their financial support and personal visits to the Holy Land to support the local Catholic communities there and to encourage ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
Every five years, leaders of the order from around the world gather for their general assembly, called a “consulta.” The meeting was scheduled for 13-16 November in Rome and was expected to include an audience with Pope Francis.
Meeting with reporters on 7 November, Cardinal O’Brien said the knights and dames “do not become involved in local government or political questions” in the Holy Land but offer support to the local Catholic Church there in cooperation with the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
Cardinal O’Brien said the order provides about $15 million each year in grants to Catholic projects in the Holy Land. Most are run by the Latin patriarchate, but the Maronite and Melkite Catholic churches also receive assistance.
The knights and dames of the Holy Sepulchre have given priority to education and formation programs, said Leonardo Visconti di Modrone, governor general of the order. By supporting 35 nursery schools and 41 elementary and high schools in Israel and Palestine, he said, the order’s members hope “to improve their quality and, through them, to make a fundamental contribution to the pacification of the region.”
About 57 percent of the 19,000 students in the schools are Christian, and most of the others are Muslim, he said. But all of them learn “our values of dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect,” which should help “overcome that violent confrontation that for years has martyred peaceful coexistence among people of different ethnic and religious groups.”
Cardinal O’Brien said each member of the equestrian order pledges to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at least once in his or her lifetime, but most go regularly. The pilgrimage is built around prayer and visits to the holy sites, but always includes visits to schools, clinics, parishes and other projects funded by the knights and dames.
The funds are disbursed as grants, the cardinal said, and members of the grant-making committee visit the Holy Land three times a year to monitor the projects.
The order’s headquarters near the Vatican occupies a small part of the 15th-century Palazzo della Rovere; most of the order’s building was rented out to a company that ran it as the Hotel Columbus. The order’s contract with the hotel company expired years ago and, after a court-ordered eviction was issued in 2016, the hotel closed in May.
Visconti said the Italian government is insisting that restoration work be carried out on the hotel’s 15th- and 16th-century frescoes, and plumbing and other work is underway. But, he said, the knights and dames hope to have a new company renting the building and running it as a hotel soon, because the rental income covers the order’s administrative costs, allowing all donations to go directly to the Holy Land.
18 October 2018
Tags: Jerusalem Holy Sepulchre
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, leave a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican 18 October. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Firm in their faith in Jesus and working together, Orthodox and Catholic young people can resist forces trying to remove all traces of faith from society and even could reverse that trend, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk told the Synod of Bishops.
Speaking to the synod on 18 October as one of the “fraternal delegates” or ecumenical observers at the gathering, Metropolitan Hilarion said that, since the fall of communism, young people have been returning to the Orthodox Church in Russia.
And, he said, “the upbringing of youth in the Christian spirit is a project that we, the Orthodox, are willing to implement together with the Catholics.”
Since 2015, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican have cooperated to promote exchange programs for their seminarians and young clergy. The Orthodox visit the Vatican and the Catholics spend time in Russia, which “helps us to overcome misconceptions, enriches us spiritually and lays the foundation for cooperation between our churches.”
At a time when young people are bombarded by conflicting information about what they should want and what they should strive for, Christian leaders must help young people learn the art of discernment, he said.
“The contemporary mission of the church,” Metropolitan Hilarion said, is “to teach the younger generation to distinguish good from evil, truth from falsehood, the genuine and truly valuable from that which is instant, transient and superficial.”
Young people need the moral values the church teaches, and they need prayer, liturgy and the sacraments, he said. But “the most important and necessary thing that we can offer all generations is Christ crucified and risen.”
“A cultural, psychological and spiritual abyss separates the contemporary young people from Christ, from his spiritual and moral teaching,” Metropolitan Hilarion said. “Our task is to help young people to overcome this abyss, to feel that they need Christ and that he can transform their life and fill it with content, meaning and inspiration.”
14 September 2018
Tags: Ecumenism Russian Orthodox
Pope Francis meets on 14 September with 150 participants at a Vatican meeting to coordinate Catholic humanitarian and reconstruction aid for the people of Syria and Iraq. The aid, Pope Francis said, is "a source of light in the present and a seed of hope that will bear fruit in the future." (photo: CNS/Vatican Media)
The way Catholics and Catholic organizations listen and respond to pleas for help from people trapped in or forced to flee war zones “is a source of light in the present and a seed of hope that will bear fruit in the future,” Pope Francis said.
Meeting on 14 September with 150 representatives of Catholic agencies and others assisting victims of the wars in Syria and Iraq, Pope Francis said that each day he places before the Lord “the sufferings and the needs of the churches and people of those beloved lands as well as those who work to assist them. This is true. Every day.”
The pope repeated his plea to the international community to help find a way to restore peace throughout Syria and to guarantee the conditions that will allow the millions of people displaced by the fighting in Syria and Iraq to return home.
The September gathering at the Vatican was the sixth formal meeting designed to coordinate Catholic aid to the region.
In preparation for the meeting, a Vatican study estimated that in 2018 more than 3.9 million Syrians and Iraqis would benefit from more than $229 million of aid and reconstruction efforts funded by the Catholic Church and its members.
The Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development surveyed 84 Catholic organizations, agencies, bishops’ conferences, dioceses and religious orders involved in providing assistance to Syrians and Iraqis in their homelands or in neighboring countries.
“Although in Syria the conflict is continuing in some areas of the country -- where basic needs still have to be met -- the survey shows how for the first time we are looking toward the future, including in crisis response activities, with the end of the acute phase of the emergency in most sectors of intervention and a transition to the early recovery phase,” the report said. In 2014, the largest sector of spending was on food aid, while for 2019 the priorities are education, livelihood and jobs, health and psycho-social support.
The Catholic aid comprises both humanitarian assistance -- offered to anyone in need -- and support for the local Christian communities and their return and rebuilding efforts, the dicastery said.
Because of “the real risk that the Christian presence may disappear” from the region, Pope Francis said all Catholics should be offering prayers for and concrete charity to support their brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq, encouraging them “not to give in to the darkness of violence and to keep alive the light of hope.”
The Catholic response, he said, reminds him of passages from the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is hatred, let me bring love. ... Where there is despair, let me bring hope. Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.”
23 August 2018
Tags: Syria Iraq
Pope Francis listens as Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, speaks during an audience with participants in the annual meeting of the International Catholic Legislators Network, at the Vatican on 22 August. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
Catholic legislators must defend religious freedom around the globe, but they must take care to ensure they do not fall into the trap of showing disrespect toward or intolerance of other religions while doing so, Pope Francis said.
The pope met on 22 August with participants in the annual meeting of the International Catholic Legislators Network and the group’s “freedom summit.”
According to the group’s website, the network began in 2010 “as an independent and nonpartisan international initiative to bring together practicing Catholics and other Christians in elected office on a regular basis for faith formation, education and fellowship.”
Pope Francis told participants that the Christian politician is called “to try, with humility and courage, to be a witness” to Christian values and to propose and support legislation in line with a Christian vision of society and of the human person.
The situation of Christians and other religious minorities in some parts of the world has “tragically worsened” due to “intolerant, aggressive and violent positions” even in countries that claim to recognize the freedom of religion, he said.
While defending religious freedom is part of the obligation to promote the common good, Pope Francis cautioned the legislators about the rhetoric and actions they use to do so. There is “the real danger of combating extremism and intolerance with just as much extremism and intolerance, including in attitudes and words,” he said.
29 January 2018
Tags: Pope Francis Lebanon
Pope Francis and Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, release doves at the end of the pope’s meeting with the Ukrainian Catholic community at the Basilica of Santa Sophia in Rome on 28 January. (photo: CNS/Remo Casilli, Reuters)
Pope Francis’ visit to the Ukrainian Catholic Basilica of Santa Sophia in Rome combined elements of his parish visits with elements of his visits to centers for migrants and refugees.
While the basilica is a fully functioning parish, most of its members are migrant women working in Rome and sending money home to their families in Ukraine.
In his speech to the community gathered at Santa Sophia 28 January, Pope Francis offered his own reflection on “The Vibrant Parish: a Place to Encounter the Living Christ,” which is the theme of a multiyear renewal effort in Ukrainian Catholic parishes around the world.
“A vibrant parish is a place to encounter the living Christ,” he said. “I hope that you always will come here for the bread for your daily journey, the consolation of your hearts, the healing of your wounds.”
A vibrant parish, he said, also is the place to pass on the faith to the younger generations.
“Young people need to perceive this: that the church is not a museum, that the church is not a tomb,” the pope added. They need to see that “the church is alive, that the church gives life and that God is Jesus Christ, the living Christ, in the midst of the church.”
But Pope Francis also spoke about the loneliness of being a migrant, the hard work and low pay many Ukrainian women receive in caring for children or the elderly in Italy and, particularly, the worry and concern over the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine.
The pope also used the visit as a way to underline the importance of remembering the past and honoring those who dedicated their lives to preserving and sharing the faith, including under the harshest conditions, when the Ukrainian Catholic Church was outlawed by the Soviet Union and its bishops and many of its priests were imprisoned.
The first person he honored was the late Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, who was exiled to Rome after 18 years in Soviet jails and gulags. The cardinal built the basilica as a cathedral for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which was banned in its homeland.
Pope Francis said the cardinal wanted it “to shine like a prophetic sign of freedom in the years when access to many houses of worship was forbidden. But with the sufferings he endured and offered to the Lord, he contributed to building another temple, even grander and more beautiful, the edifice of living stones which is you,” the pope told the faithful.
Pope Francis attends a meeting with the Ukrainian Catholic community at the Basilica of Santa Sophia in Rome. (photo: CNS/Remo Casilli, Reuters)
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of Kiev-Halych and head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, welcomed Pope Francis to the basilica. He said that while officially there are about 200,000 Ukrainians living in Italy, the number is probably double that. About 17,000 people attend the Divine Liturgy each week in one of 145 Ukrainian Catholic communities in Italy; they are served by 65 priests, the archbishop said.
The archbishop also said he hoped Pope Francis’ visit to the basilica would be just the first step toward a papal visit to Ukraine.
Pope Francis urged the community members to remember all those who suffered in Ukraine to preserve the faith and to hand it on, including mothers and grandmothers who baptized their children or grandchildren at great risk when Ukraine was under Soviet domination.
That same commitment to faith and desire to share it, he said, is seen today in the Ukrainian women who work for Italian families and become witnesses of faith to them.
“Behind each of you there is a mother, a grandmother who transmitted the faith,” the pope said. “Ukrainian women are heroic, thank the Lord.”
The war in Eastern Ukraine, which has been continuing for four years, also was on the minds and hearts of the pope and the Ukrainian faithful. Archbishop Shevchuk said that while “Russian aggression” continues, the international community has forgotten about the fighting.
Pope Francis told the Ukrainian community, “I know that while you are here, your hearts beat for your country and they beat not only with affection, but also with anguish, especially because of the scourge of war and the economic difficulties.
“I am here to tell you that I am close to you, close with my heart, close with my prayers, close when I celebrate the Eucharist,” the pope told them. “I beg the Prince of Peace to silence the weapons.”
Before leaving the basilica, Archbishop Shevchuk took Pope Francis down to the crypt to pray at the tomb of Bishop Stefan Chmil.
Earlier, Pope Francis told the people in the basilica that when he was 12 years old and then-Father Chmil, a Salesian, was ministering in Buenos Aires, he would serve Divine Liturgy for the priest.
Being an altar server three times a week, he said, he learned from Father Chmil “the beauty of your liturgy,” but also about what was happening in Ukraine under communism and “how the faith was tried and forged in the midst of the terrible atheistic persecutions of the last century.”
You can watch a video about his visit below.
25 January 2018
Pope Francis presides over an ecumenical prayer service 25 January with Orthodox Metropolitan Gennadios of Italy and Malta and Anglican Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, the archbishop of Canterbury’s personal representative to the Holy See, at Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The service marked the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
(photo: CNS/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)
When different Christian churches recognize the validity of one another’s baptisms, they are recognizing that God’s grace is at work in them, Pope Francis said.
“Even when differences separate us, we recognize that we are part of the redeemed people, the same family of brothers and sisters loved by the one Father,” the pope said 25 January an ecumenical evening prayer service closing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The week ends on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and the papal vespers are celebrated at Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, the church where, according to tradition, the apostle is buried.
At the beginning of the prayer service, Pope Francis stood before what is believed to be St. Paul’s tomb, accompanied by Orthodox Metropolitan Gennadios of Italy and Malta and Anglican Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, the archbishop of Canterbury’s personal representative to the Holy See.
The theme of the 2018 week of prayer was “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,” which is taken from the song of Moses and Miriam in the Book of Exodus. It is a song of praise to God for having saved the Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea.
In his homily, Pope Francis said the early church theologians saw the parting of the Red Sea, the drowning of the Pharaoh’s forces and the safe passage of the Israelites as an image of baptism.
“Our sins are what was drowned by God in the living waters of baptism,” he said. “Sin threatened to make us slaves forever, but the force of divine love overpowered it.”
Precisely because Christians have experienced God’s “powerful mercy in saving us,” they can pray together and sing God’s praises, he said.
Related: Praying for Christian Unity
Another lesson from the crossing of the Red Sea, the pope said, is that while it involved individuals being saved by God, it also involved a community.
And after St. Paul was knocked off his horse and converted, he said, “the grace of God pushed him to seek communion with other Christians, immediately, first in Damascus and then in Jerusalem.”
“That is our experience as believers,” the pope said. “Bit by bit as we grow in the spiritual life, we understand better that grace reaches us together with others and that it is meant to be shared with others.”
“When we say we recognize the baptism of Christians from other traditions, we are confessing that they, too, have received the forgiveness of the Lord and his grace is working in them,” Pope Francis said. “And we accept their worship as an authentic expression of praise for what God has accomplished.”
But, he said, like the Israelites who wandered through the desert after passing through the Red Sea, Christians today face difficulties in their journey together. Some even face the danger of martyrdom simply because they are Christians.
And, like people of many religious traditions, there are millions of Christians in the world who fleeing from conflict and poverty or who are victims of human trafficking or are starving “in a world increasingly rich in means and poor in love,” the pope said.
But united in baptism and strengthened by God’s grace, he said, Christians are called to support one another and, “armed only with Jesus and the sweet power of his Gospel, to face every challenge with courage and hope.”
Earlier in the day, meeting with a delegation from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, Pope Francis said the greatest ecumenical challenge is to proclaim together faith in God and Jesus Christ to an increasingly secularized world.
And acting together on that faith, he said, Christians must ask for God’s grace to become instruments of his peace.
“May he help us always, amid divisions between peoples, to work together as witnesses and servants of his healing and reconciling love, and in this way to sanctify and glorify his name,” the pope told the Finnish delegation.