Many moons ago — just under a quarter of a century — I covered a major ecumenical event in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I believe it was a festive Divine Eucharist marking the departure of Bishop William C. Frey, as he exited to serve as dean and president of the Trinity School for Ministry.
One of the honored participants in the service was Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, who was a national level figure in Catholic ecumenical efforts (and today is a cardinal serving at the Vatican). It was natural for Stafford to be there, in large part because he had a positive working relationship with the charismatic Frey, who was a traditionalist on key doctrinal issues that affected ecumenical work in public life.
Stafford took part in the first half of the service, but did not formally vest to take part in the Holy Eucharist itself. As the rite moved into the sacramental prayers of the Mass, the Catholic archbishop moved to the side of the auditorium — where a prie dieu had been placed, allowing him to respectfully kneel in solitary prayer.
The symbolism was important: Stafford was there in prayer, but because the Catholic and Anglican churches are not in Communion, with a large “C,” he could not take part in the celebration of the Mass (with female priests, for example) or receive Communion. Stafford was there as a show of unity, to the degree allowed by the doctrines of the two churches.
I thought of this scene in the past while reading the current Associated Press report about the Vatican announcement that Pope Francis would visit the Holy Land this coming May. Of course, AP interpreted this move in terms of politics, as well as in ecumenical terms:
(VATICAN CITY) – Pope Francis says his upcoming trip to the Holy Land aims to boost relations with Orthodox Christians. But the three-day visit in May also underscores Francis’ close ties to the Jewish community, his outreach to Muslims and the Vatican’s longstanding call for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The announcement was made Sunday just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up three days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a new U.S. bid for peace.
Frankly, I will be shocked if the pope does not use this trip as an opportunity to spotlight the waves of persecution affecting Christians, and the faithful in other religious minorities, throughout the wider region — especially from Egypt to Pakistan.
But the mention of the Eastern Orthodox in the lede was significant. Then, later in the piece, there is this: