Archbishop and Pope spend an ecumenical weekend together

by
15 March 2012

by Pat Ashworth in Rome

Together: Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury arrive at San Gregorio Magno al Celio, in Rome, to celebrate papal vespers REUTERS

Together: Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury arrive at San Gregorio Magno al Celio, in Rome, to celebrate papal vespers REUTERS

VESPERS in Rome last Saturday was “marked by a profoundly ecumen­ical character”, Pope Benedict XVI said, after he and the Archbishop of Canterbury knelt together to pray and to light candles.

The Pope hoped that the sign of their joint presence before the altar in the Monastery of San Gregorio al Celio would be “a stimulus for all the faithful — both Catholic and An­glican — encouraging them . . . to renew their commitment to pray con­stantly and work for unity, and to live fully in accordance with the ‘ut unum sint’ that Jesus addressed to the Father.”

It was not a historic meeting: the two men have prayed together in West­minster Abbey, and the service replicated landmark visits by pre­vious Archbishops of Canter­bury. But in a weekend built around the millennium celebrations of the Benedictine Camaldoli community, from which Gregory dispatched Augustine’s mission to England, it was an opportunity to reflect on the common roots and shared past of the two Churches, and to discuss the common issues of the present day.

Earlier in the day, the discussions in a private audience had focused on the Middle East, human rights, and the evangelisation of Europe. The unprecedented invitation to Dr Williams to address the Synod of Bishops on the latter theme in Rome in October has earned the Arch­bishop great respect here. He de­scribed the audience afterwards as encouraging. “It’s always possible to talk very directly with the Pope about matters of common concern,” he said.

“There was encouragement in knowing that we shared the same sense of frustration about the Middle East — and we shared some­thing of what we were hearing from our people there: the desperate wish that the Christian communities would be able to be a bit more open to the future, and yet the under­stand­ing that they are more vulner­able than they have been for a long time.” Dr Williams and the Pope are likely to speak jointly about the situation nearer to Easter.

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There was no evasion of the matter of obstacles to full and visible unity. In his homily at vespers, Dr Williams reminded the Pope of how their predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie, had described the state of communion: “certain yet imperfect”.

“‘Certain’, because of the shared ecclesial vision to which both our com­munions are committed as be­ing the character of the Church both one and particular — a vision of the restoration of full sacramental com­munion, of a eucharistic life that is fully visible, and thus as witness that is fully credible, so that a confused and tormented world may enter into the welcome and transforming light of Christ.

“And yet ‘imperfect’, because of the limit of our vision, a deficit in the depth of our hope and patience. Our recognition of the one Body in each other’s corporate life is unstable and incomplete; yet without such ulti­mate recognition, we are not yet fully free to share the transforming power of the gospel in Church and world.”

The subject of the Ordinariate came up in a frank question-and-answer session in which Dr Williams warmly engaged with seminarians at the Venerable English College. Asked what he thought of it, he described it as a “simply over-ambitious” pas­toral vision. It had not derailed the rela­tionship between the two Churches, and had been “neither an ecu­menical breakthrough nor an ecu­menical slap in the face”.

But there had been a lack of “proper consultation”. It was “an ef­fort at improving pastoral provision, but there are better ways of doing that,” he told the students, observing that, against expectations, a certain number of priests had joined, but not many lay people.

The seminarians asked him, too, about equality legislation, for which he urged “a more pragmatic, min­imal approach”, describing it as “veer­ing dangerously towards box-ticking”. On same-sex marriages, it was “almost impossible to have a sensible discussion”.

In a Lent sermon on the cleansing of the Temple, delivered at the Anglican-Episcopal church of St Paul’s Within the Walls, a multi­national church with an intensive min­istry to refugees, he likened the clamour of the Temple to the deaf­ening noise of the South Wales steel­works of his boyhood.

The Temple manufactured reli­gion: “intense, busy, active all day and every day, making a product with which God would be suitably impressed”.

The importance of monastic life in the ecumenical conversation was the thread running through the week­end: ecumenical dialogue is one hallmark of the Camaldoli. The Archbishop left Rome on Monday to travel to the Abbey of Montecassino, where, in the context of the re-evangelisation of historically Chris­tian countries, he returned to the theme of the converting power of “poverty and vulnerability, of silence and praise, of labour and fidelity”.

Dr Williams's tour is no Roman holiday



REACHING the inner sanctum of the papal palace is a journey de­signed to impress and overwhelm, writes Pat Ashworth. It’s a sea of marble, a galaxy of frescoes, a pro­gression of ante-rooms where the thrones become ever more golden, and even the most ornate of clocks dares not break the hushed silence.

Warm friendships have developed in so many places in Rome that the Archbishop says that he feels neither “like a rival empire nor a country cousin” when he visits the Pope. “When you go to St Peter’s, it’s meant to make you feel rather insig­nificant, but that’s not been the experience of recent years,” he observes.

Minutes later, in startling con­trast, he has the chance to touch base with the Taizé community, which has a small flat just a stone’s throw from the residence of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. We cram into the tiniest of im­provised chapels for midday prayer, led by Brother Alois, and sit round the kitchen table for a simple pasta lunch.

Up to 30,000 young people are expected to be in Rome in Novem­ber for an international Taizé meet­ing, and Brother Alois has a vision of them praying in all the basilicas. What a thing that would be, he says, passionate about the power of shared liturgy and a life lived accord­­ing to the Beatitudes.

The conversation roams over Europe. Sixty per cent of people in Berlin have identified themselves in a survey as having no faith, Brother Alois says; so the re-evangelisation of the continent is no mere text­book exercise. There is easy fellow­ship here, in a place where the Arch­bishop has strong links and feels very much at home.

This weekend originated as a monastic weekend in a great jubilee year, though, in view of the invita­tion to the Synod of Bishops in November, it is regarded as a helpful moment for Dr Williams to be in Rome. He fits in a wide-ranging in­terview with Vatican Radio before moving on, with speed, to the set-piece event of papal vespers at San Gregorio Magno.

Here, with afternoon sunshine softened and diffused by the netting that stretches below the roof, it is like waiting for the bride to arrive. The Pope’s jewel-encrusted mitre glistens. His frailty is evident, but his voice is strong. The exchange of homilies goes down well.

It is dark by the time the Arch­bishop goes on to vigil mass in the breathtaking Santa Maria in Trasta­vere, dating from the third century. It’s packed with young people, many of them volunteers with the com­mun­ity of Sant’Egidio, widely respected for their work with people on the margins.

Dinner with the community doesn’t start until late in the eve­ning, and the Archbishop has been up since the early hours of the morn­ing. Here, too, the conversa­tion buzzes, and ranges over the plight of Europe. “The encouraging thing is to know that there’s creative energy in these communities, that it’s not in any sense paralysed, that all of us live in Churches full of crises and problems, but it doesn’t stifle,” Dr Williams responds, when I ask him what he draws from com­munities like these.

Everything this weekend is about ecumenism, with a constant plea for this not to be regarded with tunnel vision as a special area of work in a special box, but, rather, as something that everyone does un­selfconsciously.

It is evident in the easy relationship that exists in Rome between those of both Churches who work here on the ground, such as Canon David Richardson of the Anglican Centre and Mgr Mark Langham of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity; in the relaxed presence of the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker; and in the interaction with the English College.

And it flows on: the packed multinational service with the English-speaking congregations; a banquet at the monastery which breaks the Lenten fast for this millennium celebration; another address and more questions and answers at the millennium conference that follows.

The seminarians want to know everything, from the influence of Dostoevsky to the place of bishops in the House of Lords. They elicit from Dr Williams, too, the strains of being Archbishop of Canterbury. “What’s the worst thing?” they ask. “Being constantly on show,” he responds, “knowing everything you say will be trawled over for idiocies and inconsistencies.”

And the best? “The privilege of seeing the Church at its best; the grace of being allowed to see the Church working.”

The importance of monastic life in the ecumenical conversation was the thread running through the week­end: ecumenical dialogue is one hallmark of the Camaldoli. The Archbishop left Rome on Monday to travel to the Abbey of Montecassino, where, in the context of the re-evangelisation of historically Chris­tian countries, he returned to the theme of the converting power of “poverty and vulnerability, of silence and praise, of labour and fidelity”.



REACHING the inner sanctum of the papal palace is a journey de­signed to impress and overwhelm, writes Pat Ashworth. It’s a sea of marble, a galaxy of frescoes, a pro­gression of ante-rooms where the thrones become ever more golden, and even the most ornate of clocks dares not break the hushed silence.

Warm friendships have developed in so many places in Rome that the Archbishop says that he feels neither “like a rival empire nor a country cousin” when he visits the Pope. “When you go to St Peter’s, it’s meant to make you feel rather insig­nificant, but that’s not been the experience of recent years,” he observes.

Minutes later, in startling con­trast, he has the chance to touch base with the Taizé community, which has a small flat just a stone’s throw from the residence of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. We cram into the tiniest of im­provised chapels for midday prayer, led by Brother Alois, and sit round the kitchen table for a simple pasta lunch.

Up to 30,000 young people are expected to be in Rome in Novem­ber for an international Taizé meet­ing, and Brother Alois has a vision of them praying in all the basilicas. What a thing that would be, he says, passionate about the power of shared liturgy and a life lived accord­­ing to the Beatitudes.

The conversation roams over Europe. Sixty per cent of people in Berlin have identified themselves in a survey as having no faith, Brother Alois says; so the re-evangelisation of the continent is no mere text­book exercise. There is easy fellow­ship here, in a place where the Arch­bishop has strong links and feels very much at home.

This weekend originated as a monastic weekend in a great jubilee year, though, in view of the invita­tion to the Synod of Bishops in November, it is regarded as a helpful moment for Dr Williams to be in Rome. He fits in a wide-ranging in­terview with Vatican Radio before moving on, with speed, to the set-piece event of papal vespers at San Gregorio Magno.

Here, with afternoon sunshine softened and diffused by the netting that stretches below the roof, it is like waiting for the bride to arrive. The Pope’s jewel-encrusted mitre glistens. His frailty is evident, but his voice is strong. The exchange of homilies goes down well.

It is dark by the time the Arch­bishop goes on to vigil mass in the breathtaking Santa Maria in Trasta­vere, dating from the third century. It’s packed with young people, many of them volunteers with the com­mun­ity of Sant’Egidio, widely respected for their work with people on the margins.

Dinner with the community doesn’t start until late in the eve­ning, and the Archbishop has been up since the early hours of the morn­ing. Here, too, the conversa­tion buzzes, and ranges over the plight of Europe. “The encouraging thing is to know that there’s creative energy in these communities, that it’s not in any sense paralysed, that all of us live in Churches full of crises and problems, but it doesn’t stifle,” Dr Williams responds, when I ask him what he draws from com­munities like these.

Everything this weekend is about ecumenism, with a constant plea for this not to be regarded with tunnel vision as a special area of work in a special box, but, rather, as something that everyone does un­selfconsciously.

It is evident in the easy relationship that exists in Rome between those of both Churches who work here on the ground, such as Canon David Richardson of the Anglican Centre and Mgr Mark Langham of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity; in the relaxed presence of the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker; and in the interaction with the English College.

And it flows on: the packed multinational service with the English-speaking congregations; a banquet at the monastery which breaks the Lenten fast for this millennium celebration; another address and more questions and answers at the millennium conference that follows.

The seminarians want to know everything, from the influence of Dostoevsky to the place of bishops in the House of Lords. They elicit from Dr Williams, too, the strains of being Archbishop of Canterbury. “What’s the worst thing?” they ask. “Being constantly on show,” he responds, “knowing everything you say will be trawled over for idiocies and inconsistencies.”

And the best? “The privilege of seeing the Church at its best; the grace of being allowed to see the Church working.”

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