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Pope-Patriarch Meeting Moved Churches Closer to Unity, Experts Say


Choice of words, gestures make big difference in ongoing dialogue.

“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.”

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