Starting all the way back in the early 1930s, Herbert Armstrong spoke out about a coming unity between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox.
Notice this excerpt from the October 1961 Plain Truth: “The pope will step in as the supreme unifying authority—the only one that can finally unite the differing nations of Europe. The iron jurisdiction over both schools and religion will be turned over to the Roman Catholic Church. Europe will go Roman Catholic! Protestantism will be absorbed into the ‘mother’ church—and totally abolished.”
Through the pages of the Plain Truth, Mr. Armstrong prophesied of this coming church unity. Notice, again: “The final—albeit short-lived—triumph of Catholicism is recorded in literally dozens of Bible prophecies. Right now—whether we want to believe it or not—the stage is being set for the greatest revolution in religion the world has witnessed. … The mighty problem of achieving unity is twofold. First, it involves reconciliation of the Orthodox Schism that officially commenced in 1054 and divided the churches in the East …. Second, it involves restoration to the Roman Communion all Protestantism which developed from 1517 onward” (November 1963).
The Vatican has broadcast the importance of its aim for unity for well over a century. Pope Leo xiii stated it in the opening comment of his June 29, 1896, encyclical to the church: “[N]o small share of our thoughts and of our care is devoted to our endeavor to bring back to the fold, placed under the guardianship of Jesus Christ, the chief Pastor of souls, sheep that have strayed. … [T]he most worthy of our chief consideration is unity. … We earnestly pray that He (‘the Father of Lights’) will graciously grant us the power of bringing conviction home to the minds of men” (Satis Cognitum [On the Unity of the Church]; emphasis added).
At that time Mr. Armstrong made those forecasts, reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants seemed impossible to most onlookers. In the 1930s, when a future church unity was being prophesied, nothing was further from the minds of Protestants. They would have said, “Unity? Never!” Injustices they had suffered at Catholic hands were still considered fresh wounds to most.
But today, some eight decades after Mr. Armstrong first broke that news to the world, we see the Anglican Church and Rome’s other Protestant daughters returning to the fold. And we see the Orthodox Schism being rapidly, almost supernaturally healed!
Early Steps Toward Unity
Catholic calls for unity garnered little attention from Protestants until the 1960s. Around that time, some of them began to take some tentative, gingerly steps toward the Catholic “mother” church. By the end of the 1960s, interfaith ecumenical prayer services had been held in practically every major city of the United States, and “pulpit switches” between priests and ministers were becoming widespread.
Anglicans and Catholics carried on private meetings with Lutherans throughout 1966. The Methodist Church also encouraged holding study groups together with Catholics.
In 1967, Catholics and Anglicans held an unprecedented joint service in Madrid at the British Embassy’s Church of St. George. The event caused some Protestant leaders at the time to seriously question the need for an ongoing Protestant movement. For example, Lutheran Bishop of Berlin Otto Dibelius said, “If the Catholic Church of 450 years ago had looked as it does today, there never would have been a Reformation.”
Likewise, Dr. Carl E. Braaten of Chicago’s Lutheran Theological Seminary concluded that it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify “a need for Protestantism as an independent movement.”
A decade later, for the first time in history, a pope visited the White House. The trip officially ended 200 years of estrangement between the U.S. government and the Vatican. While in the White House, Pope John Paul ii implored “all Christians—Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox—to transcend our present and past differences on this occasion, and to mark the papal visit as a sign and stimulus for reconciliation … and to pray for the unity we seek.” In its December 1979 issue, the Plain Truth called it “an event unthinkable just two decades ago.”
In 1982, Pope John Paul ii traveled to England, Scotland and Wales. There he declared in London’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, “Today, for the first time in history, a bishop of Rome sets foot on English soil”—and said he prayed his visit would “serve the cause of Christian unity.“ He conducted a service with the archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral, headquarters of the Church of England. In his sermon, he appealed to his audience, which included millions watching on television, to be “praying and working for reconciliation and ecclesiastical unity.”
In 1998, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation—which represents a majority of Lutherans worldwide, some 70.3 million believers—affirmed that Roman Catholics and Lutherans share a basic understanding. New York Times called the event “a triumph for supporters of the ecumenical movement, which has urged closer cooperation among churches” (June 26, 1998).
Pope John Paul ii undertook enormous effort to promote unity. He was the most traveled pope in history. During the 27 years of his papacy, he visited no fewer than 127 countries, many of them multiple times. All this travel was one clear sign of the pope’s tremendous effort to offer the olive branch to Catholicism’s protesting, or Protestant, daughter churches.
Yet as successful as John Paul was in his life’s work of bringing Catholics and Anglicans together, it was his death that ushered in a new phase of rapid reconciliation.
Out of Many—One
With an estimated 4 million mourners paying their respects in Rome, John Paul ii’s funeral is believed to have been the largest single gathering of Christianity in history. It rallied together what was, at the time, the largest gathering in history of heads of state (besides United Nations meetings), even surpassing the 1965 funeral of Winston Churchill. Among the attendees were four kings, five queens, 70 prime ministers and presidents, and 15 or more leaders of other religions.
Among these was Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, who became the first Anglican leader in history to attend a pope’s funeral. Williams called John Paul ii “one of the very greatest” Christian leaders of the 20th century. The Australian said his decision to attend the funeral signaled that “the rift between Anglicans and Catholics stemming from the Reformation could finally be healed …” (April 12, 2005).
John Paul ii’s death swept Protestant churches up in the euphoria of papal adulation. This frenzy prompted the Guardian to print the headline “It’s as if the Reformation Had Never Happened.”
John Paul ii’s successor, Pope Benedict xvi, sought to capitalize on the euphoric sentiments resulting from John Paul’s death, and from the start of his papacy said his “primary task” was to unify all Christians. However, though his goal was the same as John Paul’s, his approach toward achieving it was decidedly less diplomatic.
In 2007, the “mother” church restated the doctrines of “Dominus Iesus,” a document Benedict had signed in 2000, saying non-Catholics were “gravely deficient,” and that Protestant churches are “not churches in the proper sense.” The restatement also said Orthodox churches suffer from a “wound” because of their failure to accept the pope’s authority.
In October 2009, Pope Benedict made this historic offer to all of the “gravely deficient” Anglicans: Any who wished to could retain their Anglican practices, yet be granted membership in the Roman Church, and any married Anglican clergy could be accepted as priests in a newly established Catholic/Anglican community. The offer was attractive to the numerous Anglicans who had been angered by their church’s increasingly liberal stance on issues such as the ordination of female clergy and homosexual priests. Around 900 Anglicans, including 61 clergy, entered the Catholic Church during a special service on Easter in 2011, and defections have steadily gained momentum since then.
Around that time, a convert from Lutheranism named Tim Drake, who now works as a prominent Catholic journalist and radio host, wrote an article for the National Catholic Register titled “The Lutheran Landslide.” He said: “One of the most underreported religious stories of the past decade has been the movement of Lutherans across the Tiber. What first began with prominent Lutherans, such as Richard John Neuhaus (1990) and Robert Wilken (1994), coming into the Catholic Church, has become more of a landslide that could culminate in a larger body of Lutherans coming into the [church] collectively” (March 25, 2011).
In October of that year, Benedict ushered in another historic change. Back in 1701, the Act of Settlement had been enshrined into British law, forbidding the monarch from marrying a Catholic. Benedict applied some pressure. And without putting up any semblance of resistance, the British scrapped the centuries-old law.
The next great victory in the “mother” church’s goal of re-assimilating the Protestants came in January 2013. That month, the Catholic Church and several large Protestant churches signed an agreement to recognize baptisms performed by each other. In March of that year, Justin Welby became the archbishop of Canterbury. With strong links to the Catholic Church, and as a leader of the Anglican Communion, he has been instrumental in continuing to bring Anglicans closer to Rome.
Also in March 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis. He wasted no time at passionately working toward “full communion” with the Anglican Church, a euphemistic way of describing the abolition of Anglicanism by assimilation.
In June 2014, during his second meeting with Welby, Francis made a shocking statement: “We … feel ashamed when we ponder the distance between the Lord’s call and our meager response. Beneath His merciful gaze, we cannot claim that our division is anything less than a scandal and an obstacle to our proclaiming the gospel of salvation to the world. … The goal of fullunity may seem distant indeed, yet it remains the aim which should direct our every step along the way.”
Welby’s reply was no less stunning: “I am profoundly grateful for … your passion for reconciliation,” he said. “I have sought to imitate … [y]our apostolic exhortation ….” These are the words of a man eager to steer his church back into the Catholic fold.
Healing the Schism
The Catholic Church has also long desired to restore its influence over the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split from Rome in the Great Schism of 1054. As in the case of the Protestants, in recent years Catholic leaders have been making great strides toward that end.
In 1964, Pope Paul vi and Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras i met and expressed regret at the “reprehensible gestures” of the Great Schism. Those gestures were the excommunications that both groups served one another, and the two leaders rendered these excommunications null and void during their meeting. It was a massive step toward unifying the two faiths.
The next step came in November of 1979 when John Paul ii made a historic three-day visit to Turkey. He held a summit with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Demetrios i, stating a resolute determination to end the “intolerable scandal” of divisions within the Christian-professing world.
In 2000, John Paul mapped out a deal with Orthodox leaders aimed at ending that “scandal” by establishing the primacy of the pope over Orthodox bishops. But the deal stalled, and John Paul did not live to see it come to fruition.
A year after John Paul’s death, Pope Benedict made global headlines after deciding to drop “patriarch of the West” from his list of official titles. Why? The Eastern Orthodox synod said the move implied that the Catholic Church still sought “universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome over the entire church.” The pope retained the titles “vicar of Christ” and “supreme pontiff of the universal church.” He cast off the title “patriarch of the West” not because it gave him too much jurisdiction, but not enough.
In November 2006, Benedict traveled to Istanbul for a meeting with Bartholomew i, head of the Orthodox Church. There, he reiterated the words of his predecessor, saying, “The divisions which exist among Christians are a scandal to the world.”
In October 2007, Benedict and Orthodox leaders resurrected the deal that John Paul had initiated years earlier. They came to an agreement that established the primacy of the pope over all Catholic and Orthodox bishops—though some disagreement remains over exactly what authority that grants the Catholic leader.
As significant as Pope Benedict’s strides toward Orthodox reconciliation were, however, they proved to be just an opening act for his successor, Pope Francis i.
Before becoming pope, Francis became expert in merging Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practices. According to the Associated Press, “Francis is familiar with Orthodox traditions from 14 years of heading the Argentine church’s commission on Eastern Rite Christians, which is within the Catholic fold but follows Orthodox religious customs, including some married clergy in lower ranks.”
At Francis’s behest, Bartholomew traveled to Rome in March 2013 to personally attend the new pope’s installation ceremony. The event was presented in the media as something that hadn’t happened for a millennium, since the Great Schism divided Christian East from Christian West. But Vatican experts believe it was actually the first time in history that a bishop of Constantinople attended the installation of a bishop of Rome. George Demacopoulos of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University called it “an extraordinary event in the history of Christianity” and “a powerful symbolic gesture for the cause of Christian unity.” Francis responded to Bartholomew’s grand gesture with something else totally unprecedented: He had the reading of the Gospel at his installation ceremony sung in Greek, instead of Latin.
In May 2014, Francis undertook a two-day trip through the Middle East that coincided with a visit to the area by Bartholomew. The two held a meeting with the motto “So that they may be one,” accompanied by a logo depicting an embrace between St. Peter and St. Andrew—the patrons of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Since then, Francis and Bartholomew have continued calling each other “brother Peter” and “brother Andrew,” and have kept working toward unity. But what sort of unity can be expected to spring from the steps of reconciliation? Will it be a meet-in-the-middle-type of reconciliation? Or are we about to see a more profound reunification?
True Unity on the Horizon
For now, the Vatican is willing to compromise to draw in its daughters. But that won’t always be so. As Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote in May 2007, “Indeed, biblical prophecy indicates that full unity will not be achieved purely voluntarily. At a certain point, the mother church will abandon its efforts to woo her daughters back by flatteries and instead revert to the age-old method of preserving ‘Christian’ unity by exerting physical force.”
In the end, this coming reconciliation between the Vatican and its protesting daughters will not usher in the peace mankind so desperately desires: just the opposite! It will bring about the fulfillment of the great prophecies of Revelation 13. These prophecies speak of a universalist religion that imposes its will upon the Earth with crusading power. It will enforce a social contract that dictates not only who will work but who will eat! (Revelation 13:16-17).
For well over 50 years, Herbert Armstrong prophesied of this great religious power and its coming global dominance. But he looked beyond the great time of trial this religious power and the empire it leads will bring to this world. He prophesied of another empire—an empire that will soon overcome all other imperial and religious forces to finally impose justice on all mankind—the very Kingdom of God under the divine rule of the Author of pure religion, the living Jesus Christ!