Rome — Pope Francis and Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby met twice this week in Rome for symbol-laden encounters, where they jointly commissioned 19 pairs of bishops from their two global faith communities to go back to their home countries sharing joint prayer and mission.
The two also issued a joint statement Wednesday evening, declaring that while there continue to be "serious obstacles" blocking the path to full unity between their two churches that their clergy and faithful should not "undervalue that certain yet imperfect communion that we already share."
"New circumstances have presented new disagreements among us, particularly regarding the ordination of women and more recent questions regarding human sexuality," said Francis and Welby, nodding towards the differences between their churches' teachings on priestly ordination and gay relationships.
"While, like our predecessors, we ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us, we are undeterred," stated the two Christian shepherds. "We trust in God's grace and providence, knowing that the Holy Spirit will open new doors and lead us into all truth."
Francis and Welby signed the statement together after celebrating a joint vespers service at Rome's church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio, where 6th-century St. Augustine of Canterbury was prior of a monastery before being sent by Pope Gregory the Great to evangelize England.
In a moving moment towards the end of the prayer service, the two exchanged deeply symbolic gifts: Francis gave Welby a replica of Pope Gregory's crozier, while Welby gave the pontiff his own pectoral cross. The cross, a symbol of reconciliation between peoples, is made of nails taken from the roof of Coventry Cathedral, which was bombed during the Second World War.
To a standing ovation in the small church, Francis immediately placed the cross around his neck and wore it for the rest of the service. The moment echoed one from 50 years ago: When in the first formal encounter between a pope and an Archbishop of Canterbury in 1966, Pope Paul VI gave Archbishop Michael Ramsey his pastoral ring.
During the service, which featured the singing of both the Sistine Chapel Choir and the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, Francis homilized "that God wants his people to be one, and he desires above all that pastors be completely committed to this."
The pontiff said that when preparing for a new mission in their communities, Catholics and Anglicans should always ask themselves if there might be a way to include the other community in their work.
"We must always follow the example of the Lord himself, his pastoral method," said the pope. "This means going out in search of the lost sheep, bringing back the stray to the sheepfold, binding the wounds of those in pain, caring for the sick. Only in this way will those who are scattered by reunited."
"Our ministry is that of dispelling the gloom … with the nonviolent power of a love that conquers sin and overcomes death," said Francis. "May we joyfully acknowledge and celebrate together the heart of our faith. May we focus on it ever anew."
The pontiff also said that he and Welby have a duty as shepherds to "prod those sheep who huddle together too closely, and urge them to move forward."
"The mission of shepherds is to help the sheep entrusted to them go forth and actively proclaim the joy of the Gospel, not to remain huddled in closed circles, in ecclesial 'micro-climates,'" said the pope.
In his remarks at the end of the service, Welby said that when Christians fight amongst each other "we not only disobey the explicit prayer and command of Our Lord, but also we become shepherds who devour the sheep."
"While we rejoice that our Good Shepherd is the one who rescues, we also know that we are called to be his feet and hands and mouth," said the archbishop.
"My prayer is always that as God's family, we are those who look out into a world that is like sheep without a shepherd, where the weak, the unborn, the trafficked, the dying, are treated as inconveniences," said Welby. "Not only do we look, but we respond, saying to the Good Shepherd, 'here we are, send us.'"
The Rome meetings between the pontiff and Anglican Communion leader came in the context of a week-long summit of the 19 pairs of Catholic and Anglican bishops, who were selected by the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission to accompany each other in ministry.
The climax of the summit, which began in Canterbury Cathedral Oct. 1, came at the end of the vespers service on Wednesday, when Welby and Francis together commissioned the 19 bishops, sending them out of the Rome church to go out into the world jointly.
Among the 19 were two from the U.S.: Episcopal Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee, and Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore. Among the others commissioned were also Anglican Bishop Dennis Drainville of Quebec, and Catholic Bishop Gary Gordon of Victoria.
Each of the 19 pairs come from different countries, spanning six continents. The Commission for Unity and Mission is jointly led by Regina, Canada, Catholic Archbishop-designate Donald Bolen and David Hamid, the Anglican Suffragan Bishop of Europe.
In their joint statement, Welby and Francis expressed hope that the 38 Christian prelates might go into the world "to give voice to our common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to bring relief to the suffering, to bring peace where there is conflict, to bring dignity where it is denied and trampled upon."
This week's summit of Anglican and Catholic bishops also marked the 50th anniversary of the Anglican Center in Rome, an ecumenical organization staffed by the Anglican Communion that aims to foster better relations with the Catholic church.
Welby has led the Anglican Communion since March 2013, when he replaced Archbishop Rowan Williams.
Francis and Welby met again Thursday morning at the Vatican's apostolic palace, where the pontiff also met the primates of many of the provinces of the Anglican Communion.
Video clips of Thursday's encounter between the pontiff and the archbishop showed Francis leaning back in his chair in a deep belly laugh after Welby was overheard giving the punch line to a joke about the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist: "You can negotiate with a terrorist!"