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Catholic-Orthodox Communion: The Goal of Francis and Bartholomew

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patriarch bartholomew i of constantinople
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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.” 

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