The roots of dialogue

Catholics and Anglicans: 50th anniversary of the meeting between Geoffrey Fisher and John XXIII

The visit that Dr. Geoffrey Francis Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Anglican Church, wished to pay to Pope John XXIII on 2 December 1960 was in truth a strictly private one according to the Vatican ceremonial, “a courtesy visit” as Fisher himself called it. Nonetheless it acquired an almost official character, both due to the emphasis given to it in the press and because it undoubtedly had the character of an historic event: it was in fact the first meeting, since the Reformation, between a Roman Pontiff and a senior representative of the Anglican Communion. It was the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, headed at the time by Cardinal Tardini, that wished to play down somewhat the importance given to the meeting by the press. However, it was a meeting that took place in an atmosphere of great cordiality, though with a ceremonial reduced to the minimum, without photographs and without even an official communiqué being issued afterwards. Eyewitnesses recalled Fisher’s first greeting to the Pope: “Your Holiness, it’s four centuries since we’ve met”.That December fifty years ago was a time of grace for the Church of Rome, undoubtedly favourable to dialogue with other Churches. The “machine” of the Vatican Council had been set in motion; the Council’s ecumenical spirit could already be felt, not least due to the momentum given by the creation of the Secretariat for Christian Union (what is now the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity), established by John XXIII in June 1960 with the aim – so the Pope himself explained it – “of manifesting our love and our benevolence for the Christians separated from this Apostolic See, so that they may follow the work of the Council and more easily find the way to reach the unity invoked by Christ”.Fisher’s visit to the Vatican had broken the ice between Catholics and Anglicans. But a further six years or so had to elapse before the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, could meet, this time officially, Paul VI in the Vatican on 23 March 1966. On the following day, in St. Peter’s Basilica, he signed together with the Pope a “common declaration” which sanctioned the start of dialogue between the two Churches. So began the work of the mixed Commission, which would be sealed by the visit to Rome of the then Anglican Primate, Archbishop Donald Coggan, on 28 April 1977. This was followed by other historic meetings in the common search for unity. The protagonists changed, but not the goal. John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie met for the first time at Accra, in Ghana on 9 May 1980, both making a pastoral visit to Africa. They then met for the second time in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 May 1982 (and the visit of a Pope to the symbolic mother-church of Anglicanism was unprecedented), during Karol Wojtyla’s pastoral visit to Great Britain. They met once again in Rome in 1989, when the Pope and the Anglican Archbishop prayed together in St. Peter’s and in the church of San Gregorio Magno, historically linked to the evangelizing mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury in England.The most recent visit in this series is that in September this year between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Benedict XVI during his apostolic journey to the UK for the beatification of Cardinal Newman. The Pope, in the speech he addressed to the Anglican Primate, wished to pay tribute to his illustrious predecessor and to recall the protagonists of that first courageous approach of fifty years ago that broke the ice between the two Churches: “The context in which the dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church takes place has evolved in an impressive manner since the private meeting between Pope John XXIII and Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in 1960”. And once again it was Benedict XVI who dedicated his catechesis at the general audience on 1st December to a great female figure who is venerated both by Catholics and by Anglicans: namely, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), considered one of the greatest mystics of all time. “Just as it is true that God is our Father – wrote Juliana in her Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love (considered the first book written by a woman in the English language) – so it is true that God is our mother”.

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