Some historians and history text books contend that there was a single moment in history in the year 1054 AD when the churches of East and West divided one from the other, described as the Great Schism. This can give the false impression that all was well during the first millennium of Christian history until that fateful day that Cardinal Humbert and Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius decided to officially divide the churches of East and West. Actually, the divide began centuries before, beginning with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 with disagreements over the nature of Christ.
These Christological divisions deepened and were coupled with a growing cultural divide including language, liturgy and geography. The collapse of the Roman Empire and rise of Islam exacerbated the divide over the centuries. What really cemented the divide was the deplorable sack of Constantinople by Western forces in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. Pope St. John Paul II formally apologized for this heinous act in 2001 while visiting Athens.
Healing these deep rooted memories and bridging our theological divide will take time and demand more dialogue and rapprochements. It will also have to include discussions on the future role of the papacy in a unified church. The icebreaking event that began the opening of the modern conversation between Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches was the new ecumenical view promulgated by the Second Vatican Council in abandoning the notion of “return.” This new view was symbolized by the historic meeting on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, when they lifted the excommunications of 1054 and sought to “remove both from memory and from the midst of the church” our unfortunate divisions.
Pope St. John Paul II continued the search for unity with the East in his historic agreement in 1994 with the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church bridging the ancient divide over the Christological divide caused by the Council of Chalcedon leading to the sharing of the Eucharist with the Assyrians in 2001. He also challenged all Christians in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May be One), to find new ways of thinking and acting to bring about Christian unity. This of course would include a discussion of the role of the Bishop of Rome in a unified Christianity.
Pope Benedict continued the path of unity with the divided churches of the East culminating in his visit to Constantinople in 2006. He enjoyed warm relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch during his pontificate. In a roundabout way even his resignation from the papacy served the cause of Christian unity by diminishing the ultramontanism (exaggerated view of the authority of the pope) that had crept into the Catholic understanding of the papacy over the centuries. Some have said that his resignation opened a way to revisit the understanding that marked the first millennium’s understanding of the role of the pope as primus inter pares (first among equals.)
From the first moments of his papacy, Pope Francis has built upon the past and in a short time made momentous strides in the cause of reunification with the East. Standing on the loggia of St. Peter’s basilica on the day of his election he reminded us that the Church of Rome “presides in charity over all the churches,” harkening back to a phrase attributed to St. Ignatius of Antioch in the second century. Already in the short time that he has been “Bishop of Rome,” the title he prefers, he has invited the Patriarch of Constantinople to be present at his inaugural liturgy (the first time that this has happened in the history of the church), met with Patriarch Bartholomew in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting of Paul and Athenagoras and has just returned from a visit to Turkey with the explicit goal of furthering ties with the Orthodox Church.
In his opening address at the Patriarchate upon his arrival, Pope Francis made eminently clear his reason for making his pilgrimage to Constantinople on the feast of St. Andrew (patron saint of Constantinople and brother of St. Peter), “The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome…is communion with the Orthodox churches. How can we credibly proclaim the message of peace which comes from Christ, if there continues to be rivalry and disagreement between us?”
May the churches founded by our Apostolic Brothers, Andrew and Peter, once again share holy Communion!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.