In words and gestures, Pope Francis and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch moved the dialogue between the Eastern and Western Church a few steps closer to full communion this past weekend, say theological experts in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.
Francis traveled to Istanbul to meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in what has become a customary courtesy call on the Feast of St. Andrew, the patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The two Christian leaders have already developed a close bond, beginning with Bartholomew attending Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica—the first time a Patriarch of Constantinople has done such a thing since the Great Schism of 1054.
Delegates from the Patriarch of Constantinople, regarded as the “first among equals” of the Orthodox Churches, return the favor when they visit Rome on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, who are said to share an interest in, among other things, environmental issues, met this May in Jerusalem to commemorate the historic encounter of their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, 50 years earlier—considered the start of the modern ecumenical movement. The following month, Francis hosted Bartholomew at the Vatican in a special prayer service for peace in the Middle East.
The effort to reestablish full communion between the ancient Churches of East and West has certainly had its ups and downs over the past half century, but there is general agreement that there are no major theological issues that should keep the two sides from reuniting. The major hurdle that needs to be overcome, according to experts, is a common understanding of the role of the papacy in a reunited Church. The Orthodox acknowledge the Pope of Rome as one of the original patriarchs but deny that he has jurisdiction over the other patriarchs, such as Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Moscow. It caught the attention of many in the Orthodox world when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, newly elected to the papacy, presented himself as the “Bishop of Rome.” He has used the phrase often in subsequent appearances and addresses, suggesting to some that he is trying to return to an understanding of Rome as one Church among several apostolic sees.
Francis’ visit to the Phanar this weekend came, coincidentally, just after the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, which acknowledged that the “Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them.”
Francis restated that message in his comments Sunday, at the end of a Divine Liturgy celebrating the patron saint of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
“He said very clearly that the Catholic Church seeks only one thing with the Orthodox, and that is communion on the basis of a shared profession of faith,” said Msgr. Paul G. McPartlan, a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. “So the simple desire for communion on the basis of a shared profession of faith is what he focused on. In other words, there was no mention of any matters of jurisdiction, which is something that often the Orthodox suspect the Pope wants to have with regards to the East.”
For his part, the Ecumenical Patriarch in his address Sunday acknowledged the need for primacy at the universal level, said Msgr. McPartlan, who is also acting dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America. “He acknowledged that the common tradition that Catholics and Orthodox share recognizes in the constitution of the Church a primacy of love, honor and service within the framework of collegiality,” he said. “In other words, the Orthodox do acknowledge that there ought to be a primacy at the universal level in the life of the Church, very much within the framework of collegiality.”
He said that the Patriarch’s statements echoed a common declaration the Joint International Commission issued in 2007 at Ravenna, Italy.
“So I think there was potentially a remarkable convergence between what the Ecumenical Patriarch said and what the Pope said,” commented Msgr. McPartlan, who participated in the Ravenna talks. “Both of them were saying nothing particularly new but just giving a very focused statement to things that had already been said by the Ravenna statement… And on the Catholic side Pope Francis was echoing the Second Vatican Council. But they were bringing a new clarity to very important things that had already been said, so we can see much more clearly what we are trying to achieve and see the issues in a sort of crystal clarity.”
The issue of papal primacy is still being worked out by theologians, and nobody expects it to be solved by even a high-level meeting in Istanbul. This year’s plenary session of the Joint International Commission in Amman, Jordan, “made progress” but didn’t reach a solution, Msgr. McPartlan said.
On the Orthodox side, there is still fear that Rome intends to impose its authority over the bishops in the East, said Father Emmanuel Lemelson, an American priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and president of the US-based Lantern Foundation. “The Eastern Church would recognize the place of honor of the Bishop of Rome — and always has — as first among equals. Everyone would acknowledge that, but what would it mean in terms of governance, in terms of our ecclesiology?”
“We need to find the balance between primacy and synodality at the universal level in the life of the Church, and we need to draw on the experience of the first millennium as far as possible to do that,” said Msgr. McPartlan—the first millennium being critical because that is when the Churches were in communion. “This is a question I looked at in my book of last year, A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist and Church Unity. I proposed, from a Catholic point of view, very much looking at the teaching of Vatican II and the history of the Church in the first millennium, how universal primacy might function in the reconciled Church. I identified three services the universal primate could be seen as fulfilling in the Church:
- moderating disputes in the Church as the final court of appeal in the Church so that issues can finally be resolved in the Church;
- presiding at ecumenical councils. All the councils in the first millennium were presided by the emperor, and now there is no emperor;
- serving Eucharistic communion; he is the sign and the servant of that unity which the whole Church has in and through the one Eucharist that we all celebrate.
“One of the very clear statements of Vatican II in Unitatis Redintegratio 15 is that Catholics recognize that Orthodox have true sacraments, apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, and that’s the very acknowledgment that Pope Francis was referring to on Sunday…they are indeed Churches. The tragedy is that we are divided, so what we are seeking again is communion.”
But if the choice of words was important this weekend, so were non-verbal signals. Combined with his frequent self-reference as “bishop of Rome,” Pope Francis’ gesture of bowing before the Ecumenical Patriarch and asking for his blessing sent a strong message to Orthodox observers, according to Father Lemelson.
“Francis is truly humble leader. In his great humility and love he knelt before the Patriarch and asked for his blessing as the bishop of Rome, not as the pope,” said Father Lemelson, who was present for the Divine Liturgy in the Patriarchal Church of St. George. “He asked the Patriarch to bless the Church of Rome. That is much closer to the historical, synodal understanding of primacy than we have seen in the last millennium.”
Orthodox are also watching the Franciscan reform of the curia. “He wants to bring more of a synodality back to the Catholic Church. You see it the way he deals with his synod itself, the College of Cardinals,” Father Lemelson said.
Both Msgr. McPartlan and Father Lemelson agreed that the growing closeness between East and West comes at an important time, with Christians in many parts of the world, including in the Patriarch’s own country, coming under increasing pressure from Islamic fundamentalists and other threats.
“What a critical time in history for this to happen,” said Father Lemelson. “When someone is beheaded [by members of the Islamic State group], they don’t ask, ‘Are you Catholic or Orthodox?’”
“I think it’s incumbent on us Orthodox now — we must respond in love,” the priest concluded. “We cannot respond with absurd or thoughtless insinuations or suspicions or misundertanding toward our Catholic brothers. We have to get beyond these ego-barriers, and the only way to do that is in love. If these two world leaders can do this, if they can respond to one another like that, so can we.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.