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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.
So I think it was a very significant endorsement of the true nature of theological dialogue—and a renewed commitment to undertaking that dialogue between us, especially at the moment when, of course, the topic that we are considering in the ecumenical dialogue is, as we all know, one of the most difficult issues of all between Catholics and Orthodox, namely the whole question of primacy in relation to synodality, especially at the universal level in the life of the Church, and in a particular way, the role of the pope himself as the universal primate.
Where are we in the dialogue? Are we at a standstill?
We are still making progress. The joint declaration acknowledges all the blessings of the last 50 years or so, and it’s very important to note that what unites Catholics and Orthodox is much more extensive than what divides them. In the early years of our theological dialogue, especially in the 1980s, there was a real determination to state commonly what unites us, and very important statements were made about the Church and the Eucharist and the Trinity, and the sacraments and faith. These were really landmark statements in the 1980s, and they stressed what we have in common, and that was a very important basis upon which then to tackle what we know divides us, the issues that are difficult between us, especially the issue of primacy, of course, comes to mind here.
So we have already established a very considerable common ground, and now we know that the way ahead is bound to be more difficult because we’re now tackling the issues that we know have historically been very difficult and problematic between us. But to see the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch both proclaiming the Gospel together was, again, just a wonderful reaffirmation of our common faith in the resurrection of Christ and in the power of Christ and the hope and the boundless energy that his resurrection gives us, so that even if we do face very difficult issues like resolving the question of primacy we know that absolutely nothing is impossible for God, for Christ our Lord and with the power of his Spirit, if we just reaffirm our trust in the Lord and in the boundless power of his resurrection we know that nothing can ultimately stand in our way if we are seeking the holy goal of Church unity and reconciliation between us.
And I thought it was very interesting that Pope Francis in his remarks renewed very explicitly the call of Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint in 1995, the desire to have a dialogue so as to find a way of exercising the papal ministry that would be faithful to its true nature but nevertheless “open to a new situation,” so that it could be seen by all to be “a service of love and communion.” It was very significant that Pope Francis explicitly repeated those words of St. John Paul II because those were very important, open and welcoming words, encouraging dialogue about universal primacy, because if, as Catholics believe, the Lord has given this ministry to his Church and it’s one of the very precious gifts he has given to us, then we must want to seek the right way to exercise it so that Christians can indeed appreciate that it is a wonderful gift that the Lord has given to us.
So it’s very important for us to engage in that dialogue because we need to be united. Both Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recalled the prayer of Jesus in Jerusalem at the Last Supper, praying, “Father, that they may one so that the world may believe.” We‘re acutely aware that disunity and the lack of full communion between Catholics and Orthodox impedes the preaching of the Gospel, and that is something that we ought to find intolerable. It is surely the Lord’s will that Catholics and Orthodox find reconciliation so as to share the Eucharist together and go out from it together to proclaim the good news, united, to the world, and we must renew our determination to achieve that.
John Burger is News Editor for Aleteia.org’s English edition. He has worked as a reporter and editor for over 21 years, and his work has appeared in Catholic Digest, Catholic World Report, Crisis, Family Foundations, Fathers for Good, Human Life Review, and the National Catholic Register.