Motorcycle tragedy could derail Francis on Christian unity

Death of friend

History sometimes turns on tragedies. A random motorcycle accident last Sunday in England might change the arc of Pope Francis’ papacy in relation to ecumenism, writes John Allen in The Boston Globe.

Christians, of course, are fond of preaching peace and brotherhood, but anyone looking at the notoriously splintered Christian landscape can see they often don’t practice that gospel. Thoughtful leaders on all sides have long tried to mend differences, with little effect, and there has been mounting hope that Pope Francis will be the one to finally move the ball, in part because of his long history of friendship with other Christians.

Francis is set to travel this week to the southern Italian city of Caserta to see a few of his old Protestant friends, and to pray with them. The get-together unfolds under the shadow of the loss of someone who was supposed to be there, Bishop Tony Palmer of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, who got to know the future Pope while ministering in Argentina.

Born in England and raised in South Africa, Bishop Palmer was riding his motorcycle July 20 on a highway near Bath in the United Kingdom when he crashed head-on into a car driving in the wrong lane. A 10-hour emergency surgery failed to revive him. In his early 50s at the time, Bishop Palmer leaves behind his wife and two teenage children.

Bishop Palmer had emerged as a new ecumenical star in January when he visited Pope Francis in Rome and recorded a video message from the Pope on his iPhone for a conference of Pentecostals in Texas hosted by American televangelist Kenneth Copeland. It was an impromptu appeal for unity and friendship, with Francis passing along a 'spiritual hug.'

Francis, of course, knows plenty of people all over the world, and one shouldn’t oversell how close his connection with Bishop Palmer actually was. Although the Bishop described the Pontiff as one of his three 'spiritual fathers', a Vatican spokesman last week balked at characterising them as 'friends,' preferring the formula 'close acquaintances.'

Yet Palmer clearly had entrée. He told Copeland’s assembly that he believed God intended to use their connection to accomplish something big, saying he and Francis had made a covenant to work together for the 'visible unity of Christians.'

Palmer will be tough to replace as a papal contact, because he occupied a rather unique spot on the ecumenical landscape.

FULL STORY Will tragedy derail Pope Francis on Christian unity? (The Boston Globe)

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