First thing's first: I am a Protestant. To be specific, I am a Pentecostal by both birth and choice.
My late parents spent their lives as pastors with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador (PAONL). I followed in their footsteps, serving as a pastor for 15 years and an equal number of years as editor and archivist with the PAONL.
That being said, I have never been hung up on denominational labels. I would just as soon worship with an Anglican as with a Pentecostal, with a Salvationist as with a member of the United Church of Canada, with a Seventh-day Adventist as with a Roman Catholic. I have even attended a service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as Mormons. And, I have been present for a service in a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I read with profit the writings of such religious leaders as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Moderator of the United Church of Canada, and the General of the Salvation Army. Goodness gracious, I even read the writings of the General Superintendent of my own denomination! To be perfectly transparent, I also read atheists and agnostics.
I recently read a book by Pope Francis.
Vincent Cardinal Nichols, in his Foreword to the Pope’s book, "The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church," writes: "Pope Francis is now well-known and much-loved throughout the world, not just by Catholics, but by very many others besides — including those who profess no religious allegiance." Say what you will, there is no doubt the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires has made a "remarkably positive impression," though perhaps not so much on the Mafia!
Pope Francis’ book is a collection of texts lifted from his homilies, addresses and official teaching documents. His writing, Nichols suggests, "catches our attention, engages our imagination, and moves us to action — and even makes us laugh out loud!" Any — and everyone — bishops, priests, deacons, pastoral workers, indeed every Christian — will benefit from the "great encouragement and consolation" the pontiff provides.
As I read Pope Francis through Protestant eyes, I looked for those moments when he presented the bigger picture, Christianity in its broader scope. I was not disappointed by what I read.
Addressing a group of newly appointed bishops taking part in a conference on Sept. 19, 2013, he speaks about "concern for other churches and for the universal Church."
In an address to the International Congress on Catechesis on Sept. 27, 2013, he states, with keen insight, what happens whenever Christians are enclosed in and confined to their own groups, movements, parishes, in short, their little worlds: "we remain closed, and the same thing happens to us that happens to anything closed: when a room is closed, it begins to get dank. If a person is closed up in that room, he or she becomes ill!"
Speaking to a general audience on Nov. 25, 2013, he pleads with his listeners "to look beyond our own boundaries" for, he exclaims, "we are ... one family in God!"
"Unfortunately," he observes trenchantly, "we see that in the process of history, and now too, we do not always live in unity … And if we look at the divisions that still exist among Christians" — he includes Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants — "we are aware of the effort required to make this unity fully visible." He admits "we often have a lot of trouble putting (unity) into practice. It is necessary to seek to build communion, to teach communion, to get the better of misunderstandings and divisions, starting with the family, with ecclesial (church) reality, in ecumenical dialogue too. Our world needs unity; this is an age in which we all need unity."
In his online presence, Keith Fournier refers to Francis as "a Pope of Christian unity" who, on June 19, 2013, declared: "we Catholics must pray with each other and other Christians."
The Pope’s reflections on unity mirror Jesus’ prayer for his followers in the biblical book of John: "that all of them may be one." I often wonder what exactly is meant by this invocation.
Francis’ reflections on unity are but one — albeit an important — aspect of his beliefs and convictions. Other chapters in his book discuss such practical topics as embracing God’s mercy, the revolution of freedom, listening to the cry of the poor, a house that welcomes all, conveying hope and joy, hospitality and service, refugees and those uprooted from life, and the commitment to peace.
His voice on a variety of subjects, unity included, is a breath of fresh air to both Roman Catholics and Protestants.
"The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church" is published by Loyola Press, Chicago, Illinois.
— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org