In A.D. 410, Alaric and the Goths stormed the citadel of Rome and burned the city gates, symbolizing the conquest of the empire. Although eventually repelled, the attack set off a shock wave that rocked the Mediterranean world. Jerome, the great church father residing in Jerusalem at the time, expressed the collective anguish of the entire empire when he exclaimed, “The empire that has taken the world is itself taken.” Officials began to look for a scapegoat, and the Christian church, which promoted purity of worship and refused to participate in Roman civil religion, became an easy target. Augustine launched a defense, the “City of God,” an 890-page treatise arguing that if it weren’t for Christians, the empire would have collapsed centuries earlier.
Today, Rome stands at a remarkable crossroads. People routinely mock its politics while wildly celebrating its ancestry. In many respects the tensions that brought about its original demise have returned. And yet right in the middle of this ancient reality sits an enduring church.
I’m visiting Rome as part of a small contingent of non-Catholic Christians invited by Pope Francis to consider whether or not we can find common ground to advance the life and ministry of Jesus. I’m representing Christian higher education in North America. The members of our group come from all walks of life and all trajectories of the Christian faith, invited to build on Paul’s admonition that we find unity in the spirit as the Body of Christ.
My own physical journey to Rome tired the body but electrified the soul. I began my travels Saturday morning, May 31, taking two flights that lasted 17 hours. Upon landing, I was rushed to Olympic Stadium for the opening services of a two-day international conference lasting several hours each day. By the time I made it to bed, I’d been up nearly 40 hours except the time I was able to sleep while reclining on the plane.
In many respects, the time on the plane was rejuvenating as I read and reflected on what lay ahead. My whole adult life has been devoted to advancing the purposes of God in the world, but nothing could adequately prepare me for what I experienced.
The whole day was structured as a gathering crescendo for the visit of Pope Francis. More than 60,000 people waited in the scorching sun to see this embodiment of a living connection to the early church. His message of hope was punctuated by the plea that Christian bodies strive to set aside our differences and commit again to working together, seeking to find common ground to advance the life and ministry of Jesus.
As Pope Francis entered the Olympic Stadium (a remarkable structure built for the 1960 Summer Olympics capable of seating 72,000 for athletic events), wild enthusiasm greeted him. When he exited his Ford Focus sedan, a far cry from the Mercedes popemobile of recent predecessors, the crowd greeted him with spontaneous joy and celebration as he began the long walk to the stage. He spent the next hour exhorting the audience to follow Christ, to seek a vital relationship with God and to be born again.
Recently, Pope Francis has clearly stated that he wants to invite Christians everywhere to seek unity in Christ. His recent trip to the Holy Land included a visit with Bartholomew, patriarch of the Orthodox Church. Why does he desire to dissolve the long factions dating back hundreds of centuries? He believes that our post-Christian world has developed not simply indifference to Christianity but outright hostility, which corrodes the life-giving power of the Gospel. If we are to combat it, we will have to learn how to work together.
Of course, this appeal is not new. Catholics and Protestants in America have been working together for decades. But the desire that we do so as equals and not as adversaries is new.
As the day drew to an end, the pope departed with the plea that Christians make following Christ the center of their lives. This appeal doesn’t dissolve historic and real differences, but it re-centers our interaction with the right focus: the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus.
Tomorrow we return for our second day of the Convocation of Renewal before transitioning to the Vatican for our meetings with various members of the College of Cardinals and eventually our private audience with Pope Francis. Tonight, I’m reflecting on the hope within us and the necessity of working with all who are willing and able to advance the work of God in the world.