Pope Francis met with fraternal delegates of the Orthodox Churches, other Christian churches, and world religions on Wednesday, March 20. These representatives had come to Rome for Francis’ inauguration Mass on Tuesday. Prior to the Wednesday’s meeting, the Holy Father and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople had a 20-minute private conversation. Father Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, said the discussion was both “beautiful and intense.” Over the past week, Francis and Bartholomew have set a foundation for further cooperation and dialogue by reaffirming their joint desire to cooperate as Christian brothers in promoting the stewardship of God’s creation, helping the poor and suffering, and witnessing to life in Christ.
Bridge-building between Catholic and Orthodox Christians has not missed a beat following the papal election. It is well known that Pope Francis served as the ordinary for Eastern Catholics in Argentina so he is very familiar with the liturgical traditions of the East. “He knows our Tradition very well,” says Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, “as well as our Liturgy.” Shevchuk was ordained a bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Buenos Aires in 2009 and has worked closely with the current pope.
When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in simple regalia and humble manner, he used gestures and phrases that Eastern Church hierarchs could not fail to notice. He spoke of the Church of Rome as the church “which presides in love” and referred to himself as the bishop of Rome concerned for the Christians of the city of Rome. Referring to Roman primacy as a “primacy of love” harkens back to the famous second-century quote from St. Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Roman church. This choice of wording, which describes the Rome episcopate in terms of pre-schism ecclesiology, could not have been a coincidence.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s attendance at the events this week in Rome likely marks the first time ever that a patriarch of Constantinople has been present for the inauguration of a pope. “This is a profoundly bold step in ecumenical relations between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics,” says George E. Demacopoulos, Ph.D., historian for the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. “One that could have lasting significance.”
Demacopoulos noted that for the first six centuries, the bishop of Rome was usually chosen from among the priests and deacons of the city. News spread slowly in the first millennium and travel was much more complicated than it is today. The distance between the two cities would have prevented the bishop of Constantinople from attending an inauguration ceremony in Rome. Following the Byzantine re-conquest of the Italian peninsula in the sixth century and until the eighth century, Demacopoulos tells us, “the election of a new Roman bishop [and a new Ecumenical Patriarch] required the approval of the Byzantine emperor.”
“Under such an arrangement,” explains Demacopoulos, “papal elections took longer but there still would be no reason for an Eastern Patriarch to travel to Rome for the installation.” As East and West grew apart culturally, the relationship between Rome and Constantinople was neglected. “Between the ninth and 15th century there are only one or two occasions where a Roman bishop and an Ecumenical Patriarch ever met in person.” The patriarchal sees of Rome and Constantinople have not been in union since 1054.
Considering the history of Rome-Constantinople relations, Demacopoulos sees this as a monumental event for both Christian history and unity:
It demonstrates in unprecedented fashion the extent to which the Ecumenical Patriarch considers the relationship with the Roman Catholic Church to be a priority. The Christian world has been divided for so long that the establishment of an authentic reunion will require courage, leadership, and humility. It will also require a foundation in common faith and concerns. It would appear as though the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic traditions have a renewed opportunity to work collectively on issues of mutual concern. With our Lord’s assistance, that common cause can be transformed into more substantive theological work. But such work requires a first step and it would appear as though Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is willing to take such a step.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit
Pope Francis was very much aware of the presence of the fraternal delegates at the installation Mass on Tuesday. The themes of Christian love for the poor and protecting the environment are chords that resonate in the heart of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. As a sign of fraternal unity, the gospel was read in Greek, the language of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Following the Mass, Patriarch Bartholomew told members of the press that he was very impressed with Francis, whom he had met for the first time: “This pope is a good shepherd of his faithful… He has shown a real closeness to his people.” Holy Father Francis stated that during the liturgy he experienced “in an even more urgent way the prayer for unity among believers in Christ.” As the representatives of the Christian Churches gathered together to pray, Pope Francis said he could “see somehow foreshadowed that full realization [of unity], which depends on the plan of God and on our loyal collaboration.”
In their private meeting on Wednesday morning, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew invited Pope Francis to travel as a pilgrim to Jerusalem with him in 2014—an event that would mark the 50th anniversary of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue in the modern era. This dialogue began in 1964 when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras made a similar journey to Jerusalem, which led to a renewed effort between these two ancient patriarchal sees to restore communion.
Bartholomew also invited Francis to the Phanar in Istanbul this year for the feast of St. Andrew (November 30). The Phanar is the neighborhood where the cathedral and residence of the Ecumenical Patriarch are found in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). Benedict XVI met Bartholomew there for the feast of St. Andrew in 2006.
At the official gathering on Wednesday, Bartholomew greeted Holy Father Francis on behalf of all the fraternal delegates: “We wholeheartedly congratulate you on the inspired election and deserved assumption of your new high duties.” And if there were any doubt as to whether or not the Ecumenical Patriarch noticed the Pope’s words on election night, Bartholomew went on to address Francis as, “First Bishop of the venerable Church of Senior Rome, defined by the primacy of love.”
Bartholomew recalled Francis’s predecessor and honored Benedict XVI as a man of “meekness, theology, and love.” He spoke of the “task and responsibility” of building Christian unity that Bartholomew had shared with Benedict and would now share with the Holy Father:
The unity of the Christian Churches is surely our foremost concern as one of the fundamental prerequisites for the credibility of our Christian witness in the eyes of those near and afar. In order to achieve this unity, we must continue the inaugurated theological dialogue so that we may jointly appreciate and approach the truth of faith, the experience of the saints, and the tradition of the first Christian millennium shared by East and West alike. It should be a dialogue of love and truth, in a spirit of humility, meekness, and honesty.
In light of the economic crisis, Bartholomew spoke of his desire to cooperate in a joint effort to alleviate the sufferings of others. He expressed admiration for the model already given by Pope Francis and the witness of his “long and fruitful ministry as a Good Samaritan in Latin America, where [he] pastorally witnessed…the bitterness of human pain and suffering.” He spoke of securing peace through justice and, in the spirit of the Holy Father’s inauguration homily, the Patriarch of Constantinople quoted the gospel mandate to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, treat the suffering, and generally care for the needy so that we may hear from our Lord: ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.’ (Matt. 25.34)”
Likewise, Patriarch Bartholomew praised the “lifestyle of simplicity” lived by the Pope: “This fills the hearts of everyone—your faithful and all people in general—with a sense of hope.” Bartholomew implied that such a lifestyle inspires Christians to live generously with love and mercy toward their fellow man.
Patriarch Bartholomew bemoaned the fact that Christian unity has been historically separated by geo-politics and secular ideas: “Throughout the 2,000-year history of the Church of Christ, certain truths of the sacred Gospel were misinterpreted by some Christian groups, resulting in secular misconceptions that have unfortunately spread in Christian circles today.”
Most importantly, the Patriarch focused on the need to help others encounter the person of Christ and become holy. Future unity among Christians will be the fruit of sharing the common missionary mandate—to tell the good news of Jesus to all of creation:
Thus, the burden of our obligation and responsibility is to remind ourselves, each other, and the entire world that God became human in Jesus Christ in order that we may lead a divine way of life. Indeed, “God is the Lord and has appeared to us.” The one who created all things in the beginning, who guides and provides for all things, descended to the depths of death on the cross in order that, through His resurrection, He may demonstrate that “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” and in His name alone, to serve His people, so that we may all be united, and that Christ may be all things and in all things.
Both the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches share a common heritage in the sacramental life: baptism, Eucharist, chrismation, repentance, anointing, marriage, and holy orders. The Ecumenical Patriarch pointed to the sacramental way of salvation as the primary mission of the earthly Church:
This world is the domain where we realize this spiritual way of life, where we achieve our integration into the body of Christ, and where we are brought through Him into eternal life. The Church consecrates this earthly life, although it does not consummate its mission in this earthly life. We all realize and recognize this truth, which is why—as pastors and faithful alike—we travel this way of truth, acquiring the heavenly through the earthly.
Bartholomew ended his remarks by expressing confidence in Pope Francis’ ability to provide leadership to the Christian community, “together with all those who are willing and able,” for the effective reversal of “secular trends” so that humanity may “be restored to its ‘original beauty’ of love.”
Pope Francis: The way of unity
The delegates met in Clementine Hall, where they were received by Pope Francis, who sat in an armchair rather than the usual papal throne. The Holy Father thanked Bartholomew and greeted him with the words, “My brother Andrew.” This off-the-cuff fraternal greeting was ecumenically significant because St. Andrew, the brother of Peter, is the patron of Constantinople. The patriarch is recognized as Andrew’s successor in the same way the pope is recognized as the successor of Peter.
Pope Francis recalled the fact that he has entered his “apostolic ministry” during the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI. “With this initiative, which I wish to continue and which I hope serves as a stimulus for each of us in our journey of faith, [Benedict] wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, proposing a type of pilgrimage to what is essential for every Christian: a personal and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died and rose again for our salvation. The heart of the Council’s message lies precisely in the desire to proclaim this ever-valid treasure of the faith to the persons of our time.”
Pope Francis then recalled the words of Pope John XXIII at the opening of Vatican II: “The Catholic Church considers it her duty to actively work so as to bring about the great mystery of that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to His Father in heaven on the eve of his sacrifice. Yes, dear brothers and sisters in Christ,” continued Francis, “we all feel intimately joined in our Saviour’s prayer at the Last Supper, to his call: ‘that they may be one’.”
Then, echoing the words of the Ecumenical Patriarch and his own namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope encouraged his listeners to preach the gospel by living it: “Let us call on our merciful Father that we may fully live that faith that we received as a gift on the day of our baptism and to be able to witness to it freely, joyfully, and courageously. This will be the best way we can serve the cause of unity among Christians, a service of hope for a world that is still marked by divisions, differences, and rivalries.”
“For my part,” the Holy Father continued, “I wish to assure you, following in the path of my predecessors, of my firm will to continue on the path of ecumenical dialogue.”
The Pope then addressed the Jewish delegates, the Muslims, and representatives of other religions: “I really appreciate your presence. In it I see a tangible sign of the desire to grow in mutual respect and cooperation for the common good of humanity.”
Again Pope Francis touched on themes from his Tuesday homily about being responsible for all of creation, especially the protection of the most vulnerable in the world—the poor, the weak, and the suffering. “But, above all, we must keep alive the thirst for the Absolute in the world, not allowing a one-dimensional vision of the human person, in which humanity is reduced to that which it produces and consumes, to prevail. This is one of the most dangerous pitfalls of our times.”
We know how, in recent times, violence has produced an attempt to eliminate God and the divine from the horizon of humanity, and we feel the value of witnessing in our societies to the original openness to the transcendent that is inscribed in the human heart. In this, we also feel close to all men and women who, although not claiming to belong to any religious tradition, still feel themselves to be in search of truth, goodness, and beauty, God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and who are our precious allies in the effort to defend human dignity, in building a peaceful coexistence between peoples, and in carefully protecting creation.
The common Christian vision of environmental stewardship, peace, justice, loving evangelization, and the pursuit of holiness through encounter with Christ and the sacramental life of the Church shared and articulated by Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis this past week was a huge step toward unity between these brother Churches. Although there was nothing wholly unique about the vision that was expressed, it is certainly clear that both patriarchs desire to further the dialogue between Orthodox and Catholics begun in 1964 and continue to cooperate as Christian brothers for the common good of humanity according to the gospel.
It is also notable that the Holy Father also received Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who came representing the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. Father Lombardi stated that Pope Francis and Metropolitan Hilarion spent some time discussing their mutual love for icons and that the Metropolitan delivered a personal message from the Patriarch to Pope Francis, as well as an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary.