Pope Francis, right, talks with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welb on… (Alessandra Tarantino /…)
LONDON -- The neophyte holders of two of Christendom’s most venerable posts met for the first time Friday and spoke of fostering unity and understanding between their sometimes rival branches of the faith.
Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby exchanged warm words at the Vatican even as they acknowledged that relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion had historically been, as the pontiff put it, “not without pain.”
The Anglican Communion has its origins in the split from Rome by Henry VIII of England, who sought to divorce the first of his six wives but was refused permission by the pope.
Francis, a lifelong cleric, and Welby, a former oil executive, were installed as heads of their respective churches in March, within two days of each other. Both men have said that they neither wanted nor sought their current jobs, which were thrust on them by others.
Together they are the spiritual leaders of nearly 1.3 billion Christians, 1.2 billion of whom are Catholics. The Anglicans include members of the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Although the two denominations have made a push in recent years for greater dialogue and common cause, tensions bubbled over again in 2009 when then-Pope Benedict XVI offered theologically conservative Anglican priests and congregations a path, in effect, to defect to Rome.
Francis said Friday that he was grateful “for the sincere efforts the Church of England has made to understand” the reasons for his predecessor’s controversial move, which angry Anglicans saw as little more than a divide-and-conquer ploy.
Welby also reached out with emollient words and an acknowledgment that strife between the two churches was a poor witness to a common faith.
“It is only as the world sees Christians growing visibly in unity that it will accept through us the divine message of peace and reconciliation,” he said.
Since taking office, the two men have found themselves singing from the same hymnbook on at least two issues: materialism and marriage. Both have condemned what they see as a growing culture of uncaring capitalism and greed that scorns society’s weakest members, and both have spoken out against same-sex marriage, which Britain is on the verge of making legal.
“Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor, so that they are not abandoned to the laws of an economy that seems at times to treat people as mere consumers,” the pope said.
Besides his meeting with Francis, Welby visited the tomb of St. Peter beneath the monumental basilica named for the apostle in Vatican City, and prayed at the tomb of Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005.
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