Next month will mark a new era in relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. At least, that is what the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury will be hoping when they meet in the Roman church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio on October 5. The church marks the spot where St Gregory the Great sent out St Augustine of Canterbury and 40 companions to take the Gospel to Britain.
The service that evening will blend Catholic Vespers with Anglican Evensong. The Sistine Chapel Choir and the choir of Canterbury Cathedral will sing side by side. Both Pope Francis and Justin Welby will preach, and then, after a joint declaration is read out, they will send 17 pairs of Catholic and Anglican bishops on missions across the world.
It is good to remind ourselves occasionally just how far we have come since the days of Queen Elizabeth I. In Rome next month, the Archbishop of Canterbury will pray beside the Pope at the tomb of St Peter: an inconceivable act less than a century ago. In this new Elizabethan era, Anglicans and Catholics enjoy better relations than at any time in history.
Yet paradoxically the two communions have never been further apart on certain moral questions. That is why next month’s service is especially significant. The Pope and the Archbishop will not be sending out the bishops to address vexed theological questions. Rather, they will commission them to evangelise and to help the needy.
The two leaders are, of course, implicitly recognising that theological dialogue has reached an impasse (though it continues). With characteristic impatience with ecclesiastical procedure, Pope Francis wants the pairs of bishops to “walk together” as if the two communions were already one. This, he hopes, will inspire both sides to approach unity talks with a new urgency and creativity.
The Pope and the Archbishop should also consider encouraging the bishops to offer practical support to each other. Nothing, after all, builds unity as effectively as mutual service.
Consider the meeting of Anglican primates in Canterbury last January. The media had predicted that it would be a communion-breaking disaster. To their surprise, it wasn’t.
At the end of a fraught week of talks, guest speaker Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, asked the primates to wash each other’s feet. He paired up the most diametrically opposed primates and they knelt before each other towel in hand. Archbishop Welby said afterwards that he was “quite unravelled” by the sight of antagonists blessing each other. Vanier, a Catholic, had seemingly just saved the Anglican Communion.
If Catholics and Anglicans are to grow together further, then we must find ways of washing one another’s feet. Not necessarily literally, but through the thousand opportunities to be of service that each day presents us.
Otherwise, there is a risk that the new “practical ecumenism” will become mere activism: a way of keeping busy while the path to doctrinal unity is blocked.
The recent death of Fr Gabriele Amorth at the age of 91 sees the passing from the scene of one of Italy’s most famous and revered priests. Fr Amorth was not a bishop or a cardinal, but rather the exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. Throughout his long career, thousands of troubled souls had recourse to him, and he was kept endlessly busy by dispensing spiritual succour to them, while still finding time to write books and give interviews to the press.
His fame was fuelled in great part by popular fascination with the Devil and his works, an interest that has long survived many people’s faith in God. But it also owed a great deal to his devotion to his religious duties and the seriousness with which he took his faith.
Fr Amorth was convinced that the Devil was far more active than many believed, and he attributed many human failings to diabolical intervention. Though the Diocese of Rome received thousands of requests for his services, he estimated that only in about 100 cases was he sure that he was dealing with true cases of demonic possession.
But one thing was certain: Fr Amorth reminded people of the power of Satan just at a time when the concept of the Devil and all his works might have gone out of fashion. The modern tendency to dismiss Satan as unimportant was, he was sure, a grave mistake. In recent years, Satan has made a comeback in Catholic discourse, largely thanks to Pope Francis, who has spoken about the Devil numerous times in his sermons and other talks. Oddly, the secular press seems not to have noticed this trend in papal teaching, and it has not, as far as one can see, filtered down to local bishops and priests.
Should the Church be following the examples of Pope Francis and Fr Amorth, whose teaching predates that of the Pontiff? While some would regard this as a backwards step, it is surely right to encourage the faithful not to take the Devil lightly.