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Pope Francis Gives New Hope to Catholic-Orthodox Reconciliation

Part 2 of Catholic – Orthodox article

CC Thomas Berg

John Burger - published on 07/01/13

The more Francis rules the Church with collegiality, the more Eastern Orthodox feel comfortable with reunification

Is Pope Francis’ preference to refer to himself as “bishop of Rome” more than other traditional titles for the papacy a hopeful sign for Catholic-Orthodox relations?

That question was on the minds of those taking part in the recent Orientale Lumen Conference in Washington, D.C. The informal Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, which has been meeting since 1997, held discussions about steps toward full communion between Eastern and Western Christianity.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s first greeting from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica upon his election as Pope Francis struck not a few observers as downplaying his role of universal head of the Church with unlimited jurisdiction worldwide. 

“The diocesan community of Rome now has its bishop,” Pope Francis told the crowds in St. Peter’s Square March 13. “And now, we take up this journey: bishop and people. This journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches. A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us.”

The greeting impressed people like Father Thomas FitzGerald, dean and professor of Church history and historical theology at Hellenic College-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass. “I think for Orthodox ears, that’s good to hear,” he said during discussions at the Washington Retreat House June 17-20. “Everything else is kind of based on that understanding of him being bishop of Rome. I hope that might be a sign of some things to come in terms of the understanding of his role as the bishop of Rome, the pope, by the Catholic Church.” 

Father FitzGerald is a member of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, whose 2010 document “Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future,” was the subject of discussions by the Orientale Lumen gathering. Other members of the Consultation spoke at the conference, including Paulist Father Ronald G. Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Father Sidney Griffith, professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at the Institute of Christian Oriental Research of The Catholic University of America.

Also speaking were Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., an expert on the history of the Byzantine liturgy who taught for many years at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. 

“We wondered if we could put our heads together and suggest a way that the Bishop of Rome could exercise his ministry that would be both consistent with Catholic teaching and acceptable to the Orthodox,” Father Roberson said, explaining the origin of the 2010 North American Consultation vision statement. 

Pope John Paul II had asked for such suggestions in his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint.

Among other things, the vision statement suggests that the bishop of Rome “would be, by ancient custom, the ‘first’ of the world’s bishops and of the regional patriarchs. His ‘primacy of honor’ would mean, as it meant in the early Church, not simply honorific precedence but the authority to make real decisions, appropriate to the contexts in which he is acting.  His relationship to the Eastern Churches and their bishops, however, would have to be substantially different from the relationship now accepted in the Latin Church.

“In accord with the teaching of both Vatican councils, the bishop of Rome would be understood by all as having authority only within a synodal/collegial context: as member as well as head of the college of bishops, as senior patriarch among the primates of the Churches, and as servant of universal communion,” the vision statement continues. “The fundamental worldwide ministry of the bishop of Rome would be to promote the communion of all the local Churches: to call on them to remain anchored in the unity of the Apostolic faith…. In harmony with the Pope’s universal ecumenical ministry, the Roman curia’s relationship to local bishops and episcopal conferences in the Latin Church would become less centralized:  bishops, for instance, would have more control over the agenda and the final documents of synods, and the selection of bishops would again normally become a local process.” 

“Generally speaking the Vatican doesn’t comment on national dialogues,” Father Roberson told Aleteia. “I’m sure they would be pleased with this document, as a proposal for people to think about and see the real possibility of the role of the bishop of Rome in a united Church. I don’t think there’s anything there they’d object to.”

More Than Semantics

Father Taft noted that the new edition of the Annuario Pontificio,” the directory of personnel at the Holy See, contains a significant change in the way the Pope is referred to simply as “Bishop of Rome.” The other titles traditionally ascribed to the Pope, such as Successor of Peter, Vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff, are relegated to the following page.

He commented that Pope Francis’ emphasis on the title “bishop of Rome” is “not just a semantic difference. The primacy is of the see, not of the person. He is Pope because he is bishop of Rome, not vice versa.

Observers also took note of Pope Francis’ radically different style: his opting to take the cardinals’ bus back to the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse and live there rather than in the Apostolic Palace and his standing to receive the initial greeting of all the cardinals rather than sitting on a throne as they approach the new “Prince of the Apostles.”

The Pope’s appointment one month after his election of a commission of eight cardinals to study a reform in the Roman Curia added speculation that a change in the way the Pope runs the Church could be afoot. 

In another part of the conference, Father Taft contended that “papal authority as it is presently exercised and as some Catholics would propound it, as an authority without limits, is not necessitated, justified, or mandated by New Testament teaching on the Church or Peter…. Papal authority as conceived and exercised today is totally extraneous not only to the Orthodox tradition but also to the collegiality ecclesiology of Vatican II, which says the pope governs the Church not alone but together with the College of Bishops.” 

The fear that in a reunited Church, a pope as “first among equals” would have a primacy “without teeth,” is contradicted by a recent example, Father Taft said. In that case, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, who is considered “first among equals” in the Orthodox communion, exercised “vigorous intervention” and imposed ecclesiastical sanctions on the Patriarch of Jerusalem, beyond his jurisdiction.

Some Orientale Lumen Conference participants speculated on a yet-to-be-announced ninth cardinal on the panel—an Eastern Catholic prelate, possibly Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Ukraine.

‘Humble, Prayerful’

For his part, Metropolitan Tikhon found the vision statement’s historical description of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understanding of primacy and the status of the pope of Rome to be “very well laid out.” He said he met Pope Francis briefly after his inaugural Mass in March.

“I was blessed this year to attend the inauguration of Pope Francis and be present for that historic moment when the presence and words of Bartholomew, to be in the room together with them as they greeted each other and briefly greet Francis,” Tikhon told the gathering of some 60 Orthodox and Catholic lay persons, religious, priests, and bishops. “We’d decided to offer him an appropriate gift—a prayer rope and icon of the Mother of God. We didn’t exchange many words, but I sensed a genuine love for Christ, for the Mother of God and a common sense of our need to ground ourselves in prayer and in our mutual seeking for that personal union with Christ because this is that which modern man seeks, the healing of his soul, which is broken and divided, affecting our hearts, minds and bodies. There can be no external unity without an equally solid effort toward the healing of our hearts, healing of the brokenness in our own communities.”

Tykhon said Francis’ election gives him hope for improved relations between Catholics and Orthodox, “but I don’t have much to base it on. The papacy is just beginning. The initial impression I have is very positive, more based on a personal sense, which I think is important, but as far as there being any changes or official policy I don’t have any insights into the inner workings of the Vatican or any of that. But it’s always hopeful when there’s a humble, prayerful man leading the Church.”

In a brief interview with Aleteia, the head of the Orthodox Church in America quipped, “I guess it depends on who gets his ear. He seems humble, which is always a good sign.”

The Ecumenical Patriarch

Patriarch Bartholomew’s attendance at the Pope’s inaugural Mass also “was very significant,” said Father FitzGerald. “I don’t know how that happened, but somehow the Patriarch was invited to be there or invited himself. The very fact that he was there and played a prominent role, after the installation, especially, [was noteworthy]. I think it was significant that the new Pope recognized that the relationship with the Orthodox was significant, in some sense preeminent.” 

Father Taft said, “Nothing like that happens in Rome by chance,” while Father Griffith said that he’s heard from “people in the dicastery for Christian unity that no one is invited to these events. It’s always, ‘Let us know if you’re coming.’ But something had to happen to coordinate that, and that’s something that’s not been revealed to mere mortals.” One attendee at the conference found another gesture to be significant. Joseph Bernard, a member of a Byzantine Catholic parish in Virginia Beach, Va., said in an interview that just before Pope Francis celebrated Mass to begin his ministry, he visited the tomb of St. Peter in the crypt of the basilica that bears his name. “And who met him there? All his brother patriarchs and major archbishops of the Catholic Church,” Bernard said. These patriarchs and major archbishops lead, for example, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Chaldean Church and others and are in a way similar to the patriarchs of the various Orthodox Churches.

Said Bernard, “He understands he is one with them. I really like the way the guy is thinking.”

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