When Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Papal Household, was invited to speak in Westminster Abbey at the inauguration of the 10th General Synod of the Church of England, there was never any doubt that his theme would be ecumenism and his message would be that of Christian unity. But this was no ordinary proclamation of generic charismatic blessings or exhortation to evangelisation in the spirit of Alpha. In the presence of the Queen and Supreme Governor, the Pope’s preacher invoked the names of Luther and Cranmer, and even lauded the theological and spiritual virtues of the Reformation. Considering Westminster Cathedral still lists the name of Thomas Cranmer as “deprived for heresy” (despite the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham drawing substantially on the Book of Common Prayer), this is a hermeneutic rapprochement indeed. Fr Cantalamessa said:
We need to go back to the time of the Apostles: they faced a pre-Christian world, and we are facing a largely post-Christian world. When Paul wants to summarise the essence of the Christian message in one sentence, he does not say, “I proclaim this or that doctrine to you.” He says, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), and “We preach… Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). This is the real “articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae”, the article by which the Church stands or falls.
This does not mean ignoring the great theological and spiritual enrichment that came
from the Reformation or desiring to go back to the time before it. It means instead
allowing all of Christianity to benefit from its achievements, once they are freed from
certain distortions due to the heated atmosphere of the time and of later controversies.
Justification by faith, for example, ought to be preached by the whole Church — and with more vigour than ever. Not in opposition to good works – the issue is already settled – but rather in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves thanks to their science, technology or their man – made spirituality, without the need for a redeemer coming from outside humanity. Self-justification! I am convinced that if they were alive today this is the way Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer would preach justification through faith!
Unity is not a simple matter. One has to start with the big Churches, those that are well structured, putting together that which unites them, which is vastly more important than what divides them; not imposing uniformity but aiming at what pope Francis calls “reconciled diversities”. Nothing is more important than to fulfil Christ’s heart desire for unity expressed in today’s gospel. In many parts of the world people are killed and churches burned not because they are Catholic, or Anglican, or Pentecostals, but because they are Christians. In their eyes we are already one! Let us be one also in our eyes and in the eyes of God.
The Anglican Church has a special role in all of this. It has often defined itself as a “via media” (a Middle Way) between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Christianity. From being a “via media” in a static sense, it must now become more and more a via media in a dynamic sense, exercising an active function as a bridge between the Churches. The presence among you of a priest of the Catholic Church, in circumstances of such special significance, is a sign that something of the kind is already happening.
It is interesting to read his view that “The Anglican Church has a special role” under Pope Francis, considering that Pope Benedict XVI was of the view that the the Church of England is not “not a church in the proper sense”, but rather an “ecclesial community”.
It is interesting, too, that he believes Christian unity does not begin in and with the hearts of individuals, but “with the big Churches” (upper-case ‘c’), because they are “well structured”. If theological, doctrinal, pastoral and ecclesial diversities are to be reconciled without imposing uniformity, we are, as the friar says, left with preaching Christ crucified, and Him alone. In an age where Christians are increasingly persecuted and united in the ecumenism of blood, it is imperative that denominational wrangles do not hinder our apprehension and proclamation of Jesus.
If the Pope’s preacher – his personal minister of the Word – can bring the church that calls itself Catholic to talk of celebrating the fifth centenary of the Reformation, it is important, as he exhorts, not to waste this opportunity by remaining “prisoners of the past, trying to establish each other’s rights and wrongs:
The situation has dramatically changed since then. We need to start again with the person of Jesus, humbly helping our contemporaries to experience a personal encounter with Him. “All things were created through him and for him”; Christ is the light of the world, the one who gives meaning and hope to every human life – and the majority of people around us live and die as if He had never existed! How can we be unconcerned, and each remain “in the comfort of our own panelled houses”? We should never allow a moral issue like that of sexuality divide us more than love for Jesus Christ unites us.
Ay, there’s the rub.