By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A key step in the search for Christian unity is getting to know people of other churches and denominations and coming to appreciate their faith and spirituality, Pope Francis told a group of Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox students studying at Catholic universities in Rome.

The students are among hundreds who, since 1964, have received scholarships from the Catholic Committee for Cultural Collaboration to pursue degrees in Rome while living at Catholic seminaries and religious residences.

Pope Francis met the students and officials of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, which coordinates the program, during an audience Jan. 12.

The program, the pope said, “benefits the sister churches of the East and contributes to the preparation of clergy and laity who, thanks to their studies, will serve the mission of the one Body of Christ.”

Welcoming the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox students into the community and religious life of Catholic seminaries and clergy residences, is also important, the pope said.

“This vital and direct contact with concrete communities, in which all share the same desire to follow the one master, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to serve his church,” he said, “helps not only the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox students, but the Catholic ones as well, to overcome prejudices, to break down walls and to build bridges of dialogue and friendship.”

From the very beginning, he said, Jesus drew to him people of different cultures and spiritual traditions.

“Those first disciples who became apostles, and to whom our traditions trace their origins,” the pope said, “were quite diverse: disciples of the (John the) Baptist, zealots, fishers and tax collectors; vastly different in background, character and sympathies! Yet it is hard to think of a group that was more united.”

“They found their cohesiveness in Jesus,” he said. “Walking in his footsteps, they journeyed alongside one another. Their unity in charity was cemented by the Holy Spirit, who sent them far and wide, thus binding them all the more closely to one another.”

Christians today, no matter their nationality or denominational identity, need to do the same, Pope Francis said.

“Studying here in Rome, you have a great opportunity to share with one another who Christ is for you, where you encountered him, how he won your hearts and laid hold of your lives, and the variety of traditions by which you offer him praise and acknowledge him as your Lord,” he said.

By sharing those experiences, he said, “I believe that our past histories, marred by mistakes and misunderstanding, sins and stereotypes, can gradually be healed, in as much as they are considered anew as part of a much greater story, that of fidelity to Christ, who loved the church and gave himself up for her.”