By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — For the good of all people, the care of the poor and the future of the Earth, religions must cooperate in reminding modern men and women that God exists and has a plan for their lives and their behavior, Pope Francis said.
“The Catholic Church knows the importance of promoting friendship and respect among men and women of different religious traditions,” he said, repeating the entire phrase twice for emphasis March 20 during a meeting with the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Jain delegations that had come to the Vatican for his inauguration.
The Catholic Church, he said, “is equally aware of the responsibility that all have for this world, for creation — which we must love and protect — and we can do much good for those who are poor, weak and suffering, to favor justice, to promote reconciliation, to build peace.”
“But more than anything,” he said, “we must keep alive in the world the thirst for the Absolute. We must never allow a one-dimensional vision of the human person to prevail — a vision that reduces the person to what he produces and consumes.”
“This is one of the most dangerous, insidious things of our age,” Pope Francis told his guests from other Christian churches and other religions.
Too much violence, he said, has resulted from “the attempt to eliminate God or the divine” from people’s personal and social lives.
To be open to the transcendent, to seek God, is part of being fully human, and continues to exist in the human heart, he said.
The pope told the religious leaders that he and they have an obligation to be close to people who do not belong to a faith community, but who are “searching for the truth, goodness and beauty.” Such people, he said, “are our precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity in building peaceful coexistence among peoples and in safeguarding creation.”
Before meeting the entire group, the pope held private meetings with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the “first among equals” of Orthodox bishops and a frequent visitor during Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, and with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of ecumenical relations for the Russian Orthodox Church.
At the beginning of the audience with all of the religious leaders, Patriarch Bartholomew addressed the pope, congratulating him on his election and emphasizing the importance of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the search for Christian unity as a sign of the credibility of the Gospel message and a way of strengthening the good Christians can do in the world.
“We have an obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, cure the sick and, more in general, to care for those in need,” the patriarch said, acknowledging how much Pope Francis did that as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
He said Pope Francis’ choice of a simple papal style is a sign of his focus “on the essential, which fills with joy the hearts” of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, because it demonstrates the priority of “justice and mercy” in Christian teaching.
In his talk to the group, Pope Francis spoke explicitly about the Second Vatican Council for the first time in a public speech, and he quoted the council’s description of Muslims as people who “adore the one, merciful God.”
Pope Francis sat in a simple chair, not a throne, as he met the delegates in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace. Sitting closest to him on one side was Patriarch Bartholomew and on the other was Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome.
He offered special greetings to members of the Jewish community “with whom we have a very special spiritual bond,” because, as the Second Vatican Council said, the beginnings of the Christian faith are found in God’s relationship with the Jewish people.
“With the help of the Most High, may we continue that fraternal dialogue that the council hoped for and which, in effect, has been realized, bearing much fruit, especially in the last decades,” he said.
Greeting the Christian delegates, Pope Francis said he wanted to continue Pope Benedict’s Year of Faith and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the council’s opening, “promoting a kind of pilgrimage toward that which is essential for every Christian: a personal and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Pope Francis said the heart of Vatican II’s message was “precisely the desire to proclaim this perennially valid treasure of faith to the people of our time.”
The pope said that with so many Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant communities present at his inauguration March 19, he felt even more strongly the call to work and pray for Christian unity, especially because the Mass offered a bit of a foretaste of how good it is for Christians to pray together.
“For my part, I want to assure you of my firm commitment to continuing the journey of ecumenical dialogue in the footsteps of my predecessors,” he said.
Firmly believing in Christ and giving a “free, joyful and courageous witness” to the faith “will be our best contribution to the cause of unity among Christians, a service of hope for a world still marked by divisions, contrasts and rivalries,” Pope Francis said.
“The more we are faithful to his will in our thoughts, words and deeds, the more we really and substantially will move toward unity,” the pope said.
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