For the first 1,000 years of Christian history we Western Christians enjoyed full, holy communion with our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Orthodox traditions. Pope Francis has made it clear since first being elected Bishop of Rome that he desires to reunite our ancient churches in this holy communion. Even his choice to limit his title to Bishop of Rome indicates his humility and earnest desire to reach out to the churches of the East. In announcing his desire to visit the Holy Land last week he shared that his “principal goal” is “to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras I that occurred 50 years ago.”
Pope Francis plans to meet with Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I in the Holy Land in May.
The meeting that took place on the Mount of Olives 50 years ago between Pope Paul and the Archbishop of Constantinople Athenagoras was a watershed experience in East-West relations. Pope Paul wrote a handwritten letter to Patriarch Athenagoras in 1963, and this was the first direct correspondence between a pope and patriarch since 1584 when Pope Gregory XIII informed Patriarch Jeremiah II about the reform of the calendar. After meeting on the Mount of Olives Athenagoras was asked why he came to Jerusalem and he answered, “To say good morning to my beloved brother the pope. You must remember that it is 500 years since we have spoken to each other.”
In 1965 the Catholic-Orthodox Joint declaration lifted the mutual excommunications dating back to 1054. The declaration stated the desire of Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras I “to overcome their differences in order to be again ‘one,’ as the Lord Jesus asked of his Father for them.”
These events were the beginning of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. This meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew is taking place at the request of the Patriarch.
At Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass on March 19, 2013, Patriarch Bartholomew attended, being the first Patriarch of Constantinople to attend a papal inaugural ever. He invited Pope Francis to join him in the Holy Land to commemorate and perhaps replicate the embrace between their predecessors. Pope Francis responded by embracing the Patriarch.
Pope Francis will visit the Holy Land May 24-26, where he and the Patriarch will celebrate an ecumenical meeting at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Christ’s burial in Jerusalem, which is shared among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Christians.
Since his election, Pope Francis has shown an ecumenical sensitivity that appeals to Orthodox Christians. He only presents himself and his title as Bishop of Rome “which presides in charity over all the churches.”
His words echo a joint document issued by the Catholic-Orthodox theological commission in 2007, which discussed ecclesiology, conciliarity and authority. “Both sides agree,” according to the document, “that Rome, as the church that ‘presides in love,’ according to the phrase of St. Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the churches’ order and that the Bishop of Rome was therefore the first among the patriarchs.”
In addition to his preferential option for the use of “Bishop of Rome” over “Pope,” Francis has also put emphasis on synodality, a model of church governance more characteristic of the Eastern Orthodox. Pope Francis has said, “Synodality should be lived at various levels. Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops, because it seems to me that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn more about the meaning of Episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality.”
May the churches of East and West continue along the path of full, visible and holy communion.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is coordinator, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.