On the evening of his first day in Cairo, Pope Francis placed his hand on the glass covering a blood-splattered wall in the Coptic Church of Ss Peter and Paul. On December 11 last year, a 22-year-old ISIS operative detonated a bomb containing 26lbs of TNT inside the church. The explosion killed 29 people, mainly women and children, and injured 47 others. The church still bears the scars of the attack: aside from the blood, there are pockmarked pillars and scorched icons. After touching the wall, the Pope bowed his head in prayer for the victims.
It is hard to think of a more vivid illustration of what Pope Francis calls “the ecumenism of blood”: the notion that in terrorists’ eyes all Christians are one and that the 21st century’s abundant martyrs are bringing the world’s fractured communions together. As Francis honoured the dead, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II stood beside him. So too did the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. George Demacopoulos, co-director of the Orthodox Christian studies centre at Fordham University, New York, tweeted: “Today is the first time in history that the Patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople and Alexandria have ever been in the same place at [the] same time.”
The papal visit to Egypt marked a second milestone in Christian history. That evening Francis and Tawadros II signed a joint agreement on baptism. The Coptic Orthodox Church (which, despite its name, is not a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy) has never recognised the validity of Catholic baptisms. As a member of the Oriental Orthodox communion, which acknowledges only three ecumenical councils, the Coptic Church has insisted on re-baptising Catholics who wish to join it. No longer: in their joint declaration, the two leaders promised to “seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other”.
This was a triumph for Pope Francis’s distinctive ecumenical vision. Since his election in March 2013, he has not waited for theological agreements but has acted as if Christians were already united. He reached out quickly to Pope Tawadros, meeting him in Rome on May 10, 2013 – the 40th anniversary of the historic encounter between Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III, which launched the dialogue between Catholics and Copts. Francis and Tawadros II have declared May 10 an annual celebration of “friendship and brotherhood” between Catholics and Coptic Christians.
Some Catholics are uncomfortable with Francis’s apparent disregard for the nuances of theological dialogue. But he has grasped an important truth: that theological advances follow face-to-face encounters, rather than the other way around. If Church leaders don’t take bold steps towards unity, then theologians can only produce insipid, lowest-common- denominator agreements that give ecumenism a bad name.
Thanks to the joint declaration in Cairo, the Coptic Orthodox Church and Catholic Church now officially regard each other as authentically Christian. Full, visible unity may remain far off, but in just four years Pope Francis has managed to bring Copts and Catholics closer than at any time since the year 451. That is an impressive achievement.
An analogy too far
Pope Francis has done more to prick the world’s conscience about refugees than anyone else on the planet. He has described Europe’s migrant crisis as the “biggest tragedy” since World War I. Last month, however, he went even further, comparing migrant holding centres to concentration camps.
Nazi analogies are usually best avoided, and this was unfortunate for a number of reasons. First of all, it is inaccurate. The current arrangements made for migrants in Italy and elsewhere are nothing like Auschwitz or Belsen, which is what most of us picture when we hear the phrase “concentration camp”. Secondly, to use this comparison is to diminish the unique horror of the Holocaust, an episode in human history that has no parallels. One can understand, therefore, why the Pope’s words were particularly troubling to Jewish groups.
On his return from Egypt, in the airborne press conference, a German reporter asked the Holy Father whether he wished to clarify his remark. But he replied: “There was no linguistic lapse. There are concentration camps, sorry: refugee camps that are true camps of concentration.” Moreover, he added that people in the migrant centres were “closed in and can’t leave”.
There is another point here, which may seem banal but is worth mentioning. The Holocaust, along with its extreme moral wickedness, was also entirely illegal according to the laws of Germany at the time. Today, in the migrant crisis, border controls are legal, and, as all of us know who have crossed a frontier, people are obliged to respect the law of the country they are visiting with regard to visas and passports.
Pope Francis is right to seek to shake us out of our indifference. All the more reason to use language with great caution. If his ultimate goal is to change hearts and minds, then his analogies must not simply be shocking, but also accurate.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.