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Catholic-Orthodox Communion: The Goal of Francis and Bartholomew

Pope Francis and patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople – en

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John Burger - published on 05/27/14

Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch embrace, but what will it take to move forward?

The encounter between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I was largely symbolic, Catholic and Orthodox experts agree, but it was an important boost to the 50-year-long dialogue that is facing perhaps its greatest challenge.

Francis, leader of the world’s billion-plus Catholics, and Bartholomew, patriarch of the ancient Orthodox See of Constantinople, met in Jerusalem Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting of their respective predecessors, Paul VI and Athenagoras. The 1964 encounter saw the lifting of the mutual excommunications of 1054 and launched the contemporary effort to find a path to unity between Eastern and Western Christianity.

During a press conference on his way back to Rome Monday, Francis revealed that in their private meeting prior to Sunday’s public liturgy, he and Patriarch Bartholomew "spoke about the unity we create as we walk together."

"Unity cannot be created in a congress on theology," the Pope said. "He confirmed that Athenagoras said to Paul VI: ‘We go ahead together, calmly, and put all the theologians together on an island where they can discuss among themselves, and we walk ahead in life!’ There are many things we can do to help each other. For instance, with the Churches. In Rome, as in many cities, many Orthodox go to Catholic churches. Another thing we mentioned, that may be considered in the pan-Orthodox Council, is the date of Easter, because it is somewhat ridiculous to say, ‘When is your Christ resurrected? Mine was resurrected last week.’ Yes, the date of Easter is a sign of unity. … We also spoke a lot on the problems of ecology, and the need to work together on this issue.

The May 25, 2014, meeting—the original reason for the papal pilgrimage—saw the two religious leaders sign a common declaration in which they said they were taking a “new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity.” Francis and Bartholomew entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and stood in front of the tomb of Christ, praying together and reading separate statements. They entered the tomb, where they knelt in prayer and reverenced the stone slab on which Christ lay, and then ascended the stone steps to the place of the crucifixion.

The common declaration the two leaders signed is, in the estimation of Msgr. Paul G. McPartlan, a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, “a renewed commitment to undertaking that dialogue between us.” That renewal comes at a time, he pointed out, “when 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.”

In fact, the international dialogue had been working on a statement about the role of the bishop of Rome during the first millennium of Christianity but, according to Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, put it aside because members of the dialogue were unable to agree on the historical evidence. Instead, the dialogue is working on a draft statement of theological aspects of the Petrine ministry, he said.

Nevertheless, “we are still making progress,” Msgr. McPartlan said, “and I think 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.” 

Examples of what unites the two Churches include the Creed, the apostolic tradition, the priesthood and episcopate and the Seven Sacraments.

The big stumbling block is the question of the role of the pope of Rome and what role he would play in a united body where the Orthodox Churches are headed by autocephalous bishops.

Msgr. McPartlan and others found it significant that Pope Francis invoked a proposal made in a 1995 encyclical by his predecessor, St. John Paul II, to rethink the role of the papacy.

“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, that 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 of service of love and communion,” said Msgr. McPartlan, who is also the Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America in Washington. “And I thought 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.”

Said Father Roberson, a Paulist priest who staffs dialogues on the national level with Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and other churches, “I think there’s a general realization that Christians are not going to be reconciled without cracking this particular problem because whatever sort of reconciliation or agreement is reached eventually, the pope is going to have a role in that. The Petrine ministry has got to be a part of the picture.”

“To Orthodox, [Francis’ invocation of Ut Unum Sint is a] kind of affirmation of the fact that we recognize that as a critical issue that needs resolution,” added Father Thomas FitzGerald, professor of Church history and historical theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts. “The reconciliation kind of hinges on how we both examine the whole issue of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. … It’s an ongoing discussion. Both Churches have to reflect more deeply upon the inter-relationship between primacy and conciliarity. To us that’s the key. You can’t talk about primacy without conciliarity or synodality, and you can’t talk about synodality without primacy.”

He said that Pope Francis’ recent discussion about “the synodical approach to things” pricked Orthodox ears: “where is that proper interrelationship between primacy and conciliarity?”

To explain such a concept, Father FitzGerald pointed to the most basic level of Catholic or Orthodox life: the weekly or daily celebration of the Eucharist.

“I think throughout the life of the Church, we see this principle in action, and it begins right at the local Eucharist,” he said. “The priest is presiding at the Eucharist, and he presides in the midst of the community faithful. You can’t really do a Eucharist without the people; the people can’t do a Eucharist without the presiding officer, the priest. … The priest is the one who offers the gifts in the name of the whole community, and the community is there to say ‘Amen’ to what the priest has to say, the prayers of the Church. Throughout the rest of the structure of Church life, it works itself out as well, sometimes better than at other times: the relationship between bishop and clergy, the relationship between archbishop and bishop, and ultimately at the level of patriarchs and popes. The lay people can see this is what we do at the Eucharist: we have one who presides in love in the community, leads us in prayer, proclaiming the scriptures, commenting on the scriptures, offering the gifts and offering the great prayer of thanksgiving.”

But any change in attitudes toward the role of the pope will have to go both ways. George Demacopoulos, director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in New York, opines that among his fellow Orthodox, “there has to be much more willingness to see the effectiveness in some role of primacy because the current Orthodox ecclesiastical structure that lacks…some central figure to bring these guys together, that’s not getting us anywhere either. I mean, it’s not coincidental that there hasn’t been a significant gathering of Orthodox bishops since the Byzantine Empire. You don’t have that centralizing structure to bring the Orthodox world together.”

With that in mind, it may take a few more pilgrimages to the Holy Land before any further steps are taken.

John Burgeris News Editor for’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.

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