(Photo: Reuters/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis, the leader of the 1.2 billion-large Roman Catholic Church, met for the first time on Friday The Most Rev. Justin Welby, the head of the 80-million strong Anglican Communion, as the two Christian leaders talked about the differences, the similarities, and the road ahead for the two traditions.
The Vatican leader noted that the visiting Welby was officially installed as senior bishop of the Church of England just days after Pope Francis was elected to succeed Benedict XVI, meaning that the two leaders "will always have a particular reason to support one another in prayer."
The Anglican ordination of women as priests has been one of the main causes of strain between the two Christian traditions, since only men are allowed to serve as priests in the Catholic Church.
And the Church of England, while maintaining its opposition to gay marriage, lifted a ban on gay male clergy who seek to be bishops from living with their partners, under the condition they remain celibate, in a controversial decision in January that was debated between liberal and conservative voices within the Church of England.
Pope Francis noted that the relations between the two large Christian traditions has been long, complex and "not without pain," but said that recent decades have been "marked by a journey of rapprochement and fraternity."
"These firm bonds of friendship have enabled us to remain on course even when difficulties have arisen in our theological dialogue that were greater than we could have foreseen at the start of our journey," the pontiff offered.
Relations between Anglicans and Catholics were put to the test in 2009 when Pope Benedict XVI offered Anglicans dissatisfied with the direction of their church a chance to join the Catholic Church while keeping some of their traditions. Pope Francis praised the Church of England on Friday for making efforts to understand Pope Benedict's reasoning.
Pope Francis also praised Welby and Anglicans for their cooperation in defending Christian values, such as the sanctity of marriage and the sacredness of human life, and described gua meeting on Friday as "an opportunity to remind ourselves that the search for unity among Christians is prompted not by practical considerations, but by the will of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, who made us his brothers and sisters, children of the One Father."
For his part, Welby said that he has found inspiration in Catholic social teachings, and that he feels himself at home at the Vatican.
"Your Holiness, we are called by the Holy Spirit of God, through our fraternal love, to continue the work that has been the precious gift to popes and archbishops of Canterbury for these past fifty years, and of which this famous ring is the enduring token. I pray that the nearness of our two inaugurations may serve the reconciliation of the world and the Church," the Archbishop of Canterbury said.
Welby also acknowledged that the differences between how Anglicans and Catholics present the Christian faith cannot be denied, but said that a "firm foundation of friendship" will enable the two churches to talk about the important issues and "bear one another's burdens."
"We must love those who seek to oppose us, and love above all those tossed aside – even whole nations – by the present crises around the world. Also, even as we speak, our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer terribly from violence, oppression and war, from bad government and unjust economic systems. If we are not their advocates in the name of Christ, who will be," the Anglican leader concluded.
Following a joint prayer service, Welby praised Francis as a man of "extraordinary humanity, on fire with the Spirit of Christ."
The Archbishop of Canterbury revealed that the two leaders had joked about the closeness of their appointments to their respective ministries, but also talked about other issues, such as what makes for just social and economic systems.
"Obviously there are big issues (in Anglican-Catholic relations) such as the ordination of women to the episcopate, but where I see a great deal of hope is a welling up of a sense that we cannot tolerate complacently that we live separately....there's a sense of vigor which is important and also important work on the theological level," Welby further reflected on the meeting between the two.
The full text of both speeches can be found on the Vatican Radio website.