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 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.