On the evening of his first day in Cairo, Pope Francis placed his hand on the glass covering a blood-splattered wall in the Coptic Church of Ss Peter and Paul. On December 11 last year, a 22-year-old ISIS operative detonated a bomb containing 26lbs of TNT inside the church. The explosion killed 29 people, mainly women and children, and injured 47 others. The church still bears the scars of the attack: aside from the blood, there are pockmarked pillars and scorched icons. After touching the wall, the Pope bowed his head in prayer for the victims.

It is hard to think of a more vivid illustration of what Pope Francis calls “the ecumenism of blood”: the notion that in terrorists’ eyes all Christians are one and that the 21st century’s abundant martyrs are bringing the world’s fractured communions together. As Francis honoured the dead, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II stood beside him. So too did the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. George Demacopoulos, co-director of the Orthodox Christian studies centre at Fordham University, New York, tweeted: “Today is the first time in history that the Patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople and Alexandria have ever been in the same place at [the] same time.”

The papal visit to Egypt marked a second milestone in Christian history. That evening Francis and Tawadros II signed a joint agreement on baptism. The Coptic Orthodox Church (which, despite its name, is not a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy) has never recognised the validity of Catholic baptisms. As a member of the Oriental Orthodox communion, which acknowledges only three ecumenical councils, the Coptic Church has insisted on re-baptising Catholics who wish to join it. No longer: in their joint declaration, the two leaders promised to “seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other”.

This was a triumph for Pope Francis’s distinctive ecumenical vision. Since his election in March 2013, he has not waited for theological agreements but has acted as if Christians were already united. He reached out quickly to Pope Tawadros, meeting him in Rome on May 10, 2013 – the 40th anniversary of the historic encounter between Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III, which launched the dialogue between Catholics and Copts. Francis and Tawadros II have declared May 10 an annual celebration of “friendship and brotherhood” between Catholics and Coptic Christians.

Some Catholics are uncomfortable with Francis’s apparent disregard for the nuances of theological dialogue. But he has grasped an important truth: that theological advances follow face-to-face encounters, rather than the other way around. If Church leaders don’t take bold steps towards unity, then theologians can only produce insipid, lowest-common- denominator agreements that give ecumenism a bad name.

Thanks to the joint declaration in Cairo, the Coptic Orthodox Church and Catholic Church now officially regard each other as authentically Christian. Full, visible unity may remain far off, but in just four years Pope Francis has managed to bring Copts and Catholics closer than at any time since the year 451. That is an impressive achievement.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection