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In words and gestures, Pope Francis and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch moved the dialogue between the Eastern and Western Church a few steps closer to full communion this past weekend, say theological experts in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.
Francis traveled to Istanbul to meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in what has become a customary courtesy call on the Feast of St. Andrew, the patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The two Christian leaders have already developed a close bond, beginning with Bartholomew attending Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica—the first time a Patriarch of Constantinople has done such a thing since the Great Schism of 1054.
Delegates from the Patriarch of Constantinople, regarded as the “first among equals” of the Orthodox Churches, return the favor when they visit Rome on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, who are said to share an interest in, among other things, environmental issues, met this May in Jerusalem to commemorate the historic encounter of their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, 50 years earlier—considered the start of the modern ecumenical movement. The following month, Francis hosted Bartholomew at the Vatican in a special prayer service for peace in the Middle East.
The effort to reestablish full communion between the ancient Churches of East and West has certainly had its ups and downs over the past half century, but there is general agreement that there are no major theological issues that should keep the two sides from reuniting. The major hurdle that needs to be overcome, according to experts, is a common understanding of the role of the papacy in a reunited Church. The Orthodox acknowledge the Pope of Rome as one of the original patriarchs but deny that he has jurisdiction over the other patriarchs, such as Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Moscow. It caught the attention of many in the Orthodox world when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, newly elected to the papacy, presented himself as the “Bishop of Rome.” He has used the phrase often in subsequent appearances and addresses, suggesting to some that he is trying to return to an understanding of Rome as one Church among several apostolic sees.
Francis’ visit to the Phanar this weekend came, coincidentally, just after the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, which acknowledged that the “Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them.”
Francis restated that message in his comments Sunday, at the end of a Divine Liturgy celebrating the patron saint of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
“He said very clearly that the Catholic Church seeks only one thing with the Orthodox, and that is communion on the basis of a shared profession of faith,” said Msgr. Paul G. McPartlan, a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. “So the simple desire for communion on the basis of a shared profession of faith is what he focused on. In other words, there was no mention of any matters of jurisdiction, which is something that often the Orthodox suspect the Pope wants to have with regards to the East.”
For his part, the Ecumenical Patriarch in his address Sunday acknowledged the need for primacy at the universal level, said Msgr. McPartlan, who is also acting dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America. “He acknowledged that the common tradition that Catholics and Orthodox share recognizes in the constitution of the Church a primacy of love, honor and service within the framework of collegiality,” he said. “In other words, the Orthodox do acknowledge that there ought to be a primacy at the universal level in the life of the Church, very much within the framework of collegiality.”
He said that the Patriarch’s statements echoed a common declaration the Joint International Commission issued in 2007 at Ravenna, Italy.