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

“Do I try to build walls or bridges?” Pope Francis encouraged his congregation to ask themselves in an Advent Mass homily on Dec. 4. Last summer, the pope and a CRC employee built a bridge with one another.

Miriam Spies has been praying for Pope Francis, the ecumenical-minded leader of the Roman Catholic Church, ever since the two met in late June 2018 at a meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, Switzerland.

An ordained minister of the United Church of Canada (UCC), Spies was in Geneva for the 70th anniversary of the Central Committee, the governing body of the WCC. At that time, she was serving as a young families and young adults minister at St. Paul's UCC in Dundas, Ont. She later became a Communications and Volunteer Specialist and advocate for the Christian Reformed Church’s offices of Disability Concerns and Safe Church Ministry.

“As we met to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the WCC, we were delighted to welcome and worship with Pope Francis. As the Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC . . . Pope Francis’s visit to our Central Committee meeting, celebrating our anniversary and marking a deepening of ecumenical relationships, was significant,” said Spies.

In fact, Francis helped to celebrate the 70th anniversary by leading worship one day in the Ecumenical Centre Chapel.

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."

Focusing on the slow but steady movement of ecumenism and the inclusion of all people in the church over the centuries, Frances also said: “We are heirs to the faith, charity, and hope of all those who, by the nonviolent power of the gospel, found the courage to change the course of history, a history that had led us to mutual distrust and estrangement, and thus contributed to the infernal spiral of continual fragmentation.

“Thanks to the Holy Spirit, who inspires and guides the journey of ecumenism,” Pope Francis said, “the direction has changed, and a path both old and new has been irrevocably paved: the path of a reconciled communion aimed at the visible manifestation of the fraternity that even now unites believers.”

After the service, Francis was to bless and have his photo taken with those people whose names were on a list. Initially, Spies was not on the list, but during the worship service, someone came over and told her that the pope had seen Spies, who has cerebral palsy, in her wheelchair and wanted to meet her. He also wanted to meet two others who were with her.

“Once Pope Francis blessed the congregation, he made his way to the three of us waiting to greet him,” said Spies.

On her right was Georges Tamer, a professor of Islamic studies in Germany who lives with a disability. On her left stood a young girl who appeared to have cancer and was the daughter of someone connected to organizing the event.

“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, he said, ‘Pray for me’.”

The request from the Holy Father startled her and reminded her of how, when she meets with church leaders and others, they will often speak to her with a tone of pity, suggesting she must be in need of healing. They will often say: "I'll pray for you."

Spies is bothered by that common reaction because, for the most part, she said, “I love my life with cerebral palsy, and changing that reality would change who I am.”

And so Pope Francis, who has been known to identify with the disabled and people on the margins, saw her, said Spies, “as a sister on the same pilgrimage of justice and peace, where we are called to walk, pray, and work together.”

The brief conversation with the pope opened her to a relationship with Francis in a partnership together as Jesus' disciples, she said. “It was a brief moment that will be a lasting teaching in grace and discipleship,” she added.

Thinking of this, she recalled what the moderator of the Central Committee, Agnes Aboum, remarked at the meeting: "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.

“So, with the Spirit moving us toward unity, toward love for each other, I am continuing to pray for Pope Francis,” said Spies.

“I hope others will pray for me, with that same love and mutuality Jesus offers to all of his disciples, so that we all might walk, pray, and work together, challenging and supporting each other along the pilgrimage.”