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At the Center: a Pope and the Future of the Papacy

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Pope Francis and bartholomew

John Burger - published on 05/27/14

A member of the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue explains the significance of Francis and Bartholomew's meeting in Jerusalem

At the center of everyone’s attention this past weekend in Israel and Jordan was a 77-year-old man dressed all in white.

And surely, at the center of an intense ongoing discussion in certain circles is the nature of the office he holds.

The reason Pope Francis made his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land was to meet with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, so the two men could mark the 50th anniversary of the historic embrace of their respective predecessors, Paul VI and Athenagoras, a meeting which led to the lifting of the mutual excommunications of 1054 and the beginning of the contemporary effort to bring the Orthodox and Catholic Churches back into full communion.

Msgr. Paul McPartlan, a member of the International Theological Commission and of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, is Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America. A priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster, England, he has also participated in international Anglican-Roman Catholic and Roman Catholic-Methodist dialogue. He recently authored a book proposing a way in which the papacy might serve a united Church, West and East: A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist, and Church Unity (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013).

He spoke to Aleteia about the significance of the meeting between Francis and Bartholomew.

Would you share with us your reaction to the joint declaration that Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew signed on Sunday and the statements they delivered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

I think it’s a very strong and important common declaration that the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch made.  It was wonderful to hear both the Ecumenical Patriarch and then Pope Francis deliver such strong messages of faith in the resurrection of Christ and hope for the Christian people and for the world that springs from the very place where they were speaking.

What does it mean for Catholic-Orthodox relations? How significant is this?

It’s a very important point of recognition of the fruits of the last 50 years and an important moment of recommitment to the way ahead. The meeting was obviously taking place to mark 50 years from the meeting of Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. That of course was really the  occasion that launched the recent efforts for reconciliation between Catholics and Orthodox in a very visible and wonderful way. So, 50 years on, it’s right for us—I mean, we are historical people—to remember with joy the important events that shaped us in the past and to recommit ourselves regularly to the necessary efforts on our historical journey.

So this was a very important moment, 50 years on. And it’s important for us to rededicate ourselves to reconciliation between our Churches. The Pope and the Patriarch called it a “new and necessary step” [on the ecumenical journey], and I think that’s right, both to remind ourselves of all the blessings that we have enjoyed over the past 50 years, of the progress we have made, but also then just simply to commit ourselves once again to all the effort that is needed to resolve our last remaining difficulties. And I thought there  was a very significant affirmation of the role of the international theological dialogue in the joint declaration that they issued and an important statement about  the nature of that dialogue.  There were a couple of sentences that were really very significant about the dialogue itself, when they said “this is no mere theoretical exercise, but an exercise in truth and love that demands an ever deeper knowledge of each other’s traditions, in order to understand them and to learn from them.” And they used the lovely phrase of Pope John Paul II, that ecumenical dialogue is always “an exchange of gifts.”  They very clearly rejected that idea which people sometimes have about ecumenical dialogue, that it’s seeking a lowest common denominator between the dialoguing partners.  The Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch said that it was about  “deepening one’s  grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church,” so it’s absolutely not seeking a lowest common denominator; it’s actually seeking together for a deeper understanding of the truth of the Gospel, and that is a completely different kind of exercise. It’s something that requires prayer, it’s something that requires great study and  great commitment, and it’s  a shared and holy task.

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