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Rev. Miriam Spies and Pope Francis at the World Council of Churches Central Committee meeting. (Credit: WCC, Magnus Aronson)

The moment the Pope asked me to pray for him

A United Church minister on the impact of a simple gesture from a powerful man.

By Miriam Spies

"Pray for me."

Three words that warmed my heart, that invited me into relationship, a relationship based on mutuality and respect rather than on power and hurtful healing theology. Within church circles, ecumenically and inside our United Church, I have met leaders with a bit of trepidation.

When noticed in my wheelchair, I have been greeted with the words, "I will pray for you" or "Bless you." In those moments, I am seen as someone to be pitied or in need of healing. Often, they leave so quickly that I cannot explain how I don’t believe in curing disability, nor do I think God does. I believe disability is part of God’s vast array of creation and I am as beloved and gifted by God’s grace as they are. When others cannot affirm this, I feel belittled and used.

I was in Geneva, Switzerland earlier this month for a meeting of the Central Committee, the highest governing body of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in-between assemblies. I represent the United Church of Canada on the committee.

Though the Catholic Church is not a member, they participate as observers. As head of the church and a head of state, the pope has only visited the WCC twice before. So Pope Francis’ visit to our Central Committee meeting, celebrating our anniversary and marking a deepening of ecumenical relationships, was significant!

Upon arrival that morning, I saw that almost every clergywoman wore a collar. It was a simple gesture, marking our importance as leaders in our denominations, recognizing that the Catholic Church ordains only men.

Three words that warmed my heart, that invited me into relationship, a relationship based on mutuality and respect rather than on power and hurtful healing theology.

In his address, WCC General Secretary Olav Fyske Tveit said, "We should not let anything or anybody – and particularly not our differences as churches – deter us from aspiring to and doing what fulfills this missional imperative (of God’s love)." We all have differences, and we mourn that these keep us from sharing at Jesus’ table together, and yet we celebrate God’s love and seek to share it with each other and the world.

With that love, I celebrated that His Holiness Pope Francis came to be with us. During his sermon, he said, "I have desired to come here, a pilgrim in quest of unity and peace. I thank God because here I have found you, brothers and sisters already making this same journey." I was not on the list of those who were personally greeting him but was invited to do so at his request. This isn’t something you decline!

Once Pope Francis blessed the congregation, he made his way to the three of us waiting to greet him. On my right was professor Georges Tamer, working in Germany and living with a disability. On my left stood a young girl who appeared to have cancer, a daughter of a staff member. My cynical mind thought I was being used as a photo-op "with the vulnerable/marginal."

Yet, Pope Francis held out his hand with a warm smile, and after hearing from me, said, "Pray for me." He saw me as a sister on the same pilgrimage of justice and peace, where we are called to walk, pray, and work together.

The moderator of the Central Committee, Dr. Agnes Aboum, remarked that, "As an African saying goes, 'If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.'" Indeed, relationships based on mutuality, grounded in God’s love, take time.

And so, with the Spirit moving us toward unity, toward love for each other, I am continuing to pray for Pope Francis. I hope others will pray for me, with that same love and mutuality Jesus offers to all of his disciples, so we all might walk, pray and work together, challenging and supporting each other along the pilgrimage.

Author's photo
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