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Recalling the prophetic embrace of Athenagoras I and Paul VI

The exchange of visits in fifty years ago between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras marked a new epoch in East-West relations.

Statue of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Atenogoras I that is next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel. (

Asbury Park, a small seaside city on the Jersey Shore, is known for its famous beachfront boardwalk with delightful cafes, restaurants, shops, and live music. It is also known as a launch pad for many American music legends, including New Jersey natives Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Jon Bon Jovi, and others. Another celebrity, of a very different sort, stands on the Asbury Park boardwalk, just next to the Paramount Theatre, saluting the board-walkers and concert lovers with a big smile. One would probably not expect to find an impressive bust of a distinguished Church leader standing on the boardwalk overlooking the ocean. The statue is that of Patriarch Athenagoras I (1887-1972), 268th Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. He wears a traditional headdress of the Greek Orthodox clergy and a medallion on a necklace around his neck. The statue was dedicated in 1975 by the City of Asbury Park and has been on the boardwalk since then. The bust has really no explanation attached, except that he was a “Man of Love”. Athenagoras visited Asbury Park four times for Holy Cross day observances when he was serving as Archbishop of North and South America, a position he held for almost two decades. In fact, the blessing of the waters of the Atlantic at Asbury Park was initiated by Athenagoras.

I was thrilled to have bumped into the statue of a “man of love” who blessed the Atlantic and has left behind a legacy of in the ecumenism of love and charity between East and West. The bust reminded me of two important half-century-anniversaries in the history of ecumenism, initiated by two extraordinary prophets and pioneers of ecumenism: Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I and Blessed Pope Paul VI in July and October 1967, in Istanbul (Phanar) and Rome respectively.

The embrace and kiss of peace

The 1967 meetings between pope and patriarch took place three years after a significant event in Church history and in the history of modern ecumenism: the January 1964 embrace and kiss of peace (osculum pacis) between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras on Mount of Olives. It was the first time since 1438 (at the Council of Florence) that a Roman pontiff and a patriarch were meeting. Moreover, it was the first time a Roman pontiff left Rome and was headed to Jerusalem. Athenagoras I and Paul VI, were searching for unity by going to the source of unity—Jerusalem—thus fulfilling the commandment left by Christ that His disciples “may be one” (Jn 17:21). The encounter in Jerusalem is an ecumenical metaphor: East meeting West, Rome meeting Constantinople, two equal but diverse ecclesiastical traditions were meeting in Jerusalem, at the place where it all started, at the place where Jesus, the Son of God, died and resurrected, and where forgiveness and salvation of the world started. Thus, Jerusalem opened the channels of communication and shattered centuries-old walls of estrangement between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The following year, on December 7, 1965, through a joint declaration, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras informed the Christian world of the removal of the sentences of excommunication pronounced in 1054. The two leaders, with visionary intuition, understood the urgency of Christian unity and so sealed the Vatican II commitment to ecumenism.

Fifty years ago, on July 25-26, 1967, Paul VI visited Phanar, the Seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and met with Athenagoras; then, on October 26, 1967, Patriarch Athenagoras visited Rome. Paul VI declared 1967 a “Year of the Faith” celebrating 1,900th anniversary of the martyrdom of the holy apostles Peter and Paul in Rome. Paul VI wished for the Church to make “an authentic and sincere profession of the same faith” held by the two great apostles. Moreover, Paul VI felt an urgency to fulfill the mandate entrusted by Christ that “His disciples may be one” and apply the teachings of Vatican II. Paul VI understood that the affirmation in faith could not be achieved without Christian unity, especially with the Orthodox East, which has preserved the Deposit of Faith.

In order to achieve East-West unity, Patriarch Athenogoras I proposed practicing first and foremost the “dialogue of charity,” which will prepare the road and the spirits among the two Churches, East and West, before the beginning of the theological dialogue by professional theologians. Athenagoras enacted the invitation of the deacon in the divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom who introduces the sign of peace and the recitation of the profession of faith with the following exhortation: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess.” The Common Declaration of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI at the Conclusion of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s visit to Rome specified the Churches’ understanding of the dialogue of charity (October 1967):

They recognize that the true dialogue of charity, which should be at the basis of all relations between themselves and between their Churches, must be rooted in total fidelity to the one Lord Jesus Christ and in mutual respect for each one’s traditions. Every element which can strengthen the bonds of charity, of communion, and of common action is a cause for spiritual rejoicing and should be promoted; anything which can harm this charity, communion and common action is to be eliminated with the grace of God and the creative strength of the Holy Spirit.

The exchange of visits in 1967 between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras marked a new epoch in East-West relations. The visits were full of elements which helped communion, mutual rediscovery, personal knowledge, common prayer, and the affirmation of a common faith, and all these elements contributed to trust-building between East and West. Thus, Paul VI’s special Jubilee Year of Faith became the year of change in East-West relations. The Churches moved from isolation to encounter, from estrangement to re-discovery, and recovery of the common roots of the Church in the first millennium. Patriarch Athenagoras considered the dialogue of charity as a reversal of the path which has led to centuries of division and estrangement. As Athenagoras predicted, it took Catholics and Orthodox over a decade of practicing the dialogue of charity before the ground was prepared to start the theological dialogue in 1980. Dialogue of charity was in fact a prerequisite but also a guarantee for the theological dialogue to mature and bear fruits. Thus, Athenagoras’s ecumenism was not a superficial, hasty, and imprudent ecumenism, and this is one of the points of agreement between him and Paul VI.

Sister Churches re-discovered

The first papal document in which the term sisters is applied to the Churches of East and West is the Apostolic Brief Anno ineunte of Paul VI to the Patriarch Athenagoras I in July 1967. After expressing his readiness and desire to do everything possible to “re-establish full communion between the Church of the West and that of the East,” Pope Paul VI specified: “Since this mystery of divine love is at work in every local Church, is not this the reason for the traditional expression ‘sister Churches,’ which the Churches had used in the past?” According to Paul VI for centuries the Churches in the East and West have lived “like sisters, celebrating together the ecumenical councils which defended the deposit of faith against all corruption. Now, after a long period of division and mutual misunderstanding, the Lord, in spite of the obstacles which arose between us in the past, gives us the possibility of rediscovering ourselves as sister Churches.” So, it was Paul VI that brought back the sister Churches and encouraged a sisterly dialogue.

Paul VI and Athenagoras I were in favor of an authentic and gradual ecumenism, an ecumenism that does not become counterproductive. The Athenagorian-Paulinian ecumenism followed the Catholic Principles of Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council, Unitatis Redintegratio (24): “This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal, which can hinder real progress toward unity. Their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed, and at the same time directed toward that fullness to which Our Lord wills His Body to grow in the course of time.”

In sum, the 1967 exchange of meetings between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras gave an unprecedented impetus to the ecumenical movement and the relations between the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches. A sea of opportunities in ecumenical relations, as vast as the Atlantic Ocean which lies in front of Patriarch Athenagoras’s bust in Asbury Park, was presented to the Churches of East and West. The road was trodden and the seeds were sown. Now it is up to us to be custodians and continue in the prophets’ footsteps.

Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras attend a prayer service in Jerusalem in January 1964. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 29 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku ( is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.


  1. Fifty years have passed since 1967 and the practical, concrete results during this long period of time have been so slight and intangible that even the author with all her starry-eyed enthusiasm and flowery rhetoric cannot name one. There is only one Church that Jesus Christ established; namely, the holy, Catholic, Roman, and apostolic Church. This is a divine truth that the Tradition and authentic magisterium of the Catholic Church have established infallibly. The reunion of Eastern Orthodoxy with the true Church will come about not from sentimental and banal embraces and kisses of peace in a “sisterly dialogue” but from the whole-hearted acceptance of this truth with all the hard-edged doctrinal and moral imperatives it contains. At Fatima 100 years ago Our Lady gave the plan of Heaven and Heaven’s God for the conversion of Russia and by implication Eastern Orthodoxy to the true Faith by consecration to her Immaculate Heart. Had this been done 50 years ago, we would have been spared the trackless wandering in the desert to which the self-devised machinations of prelates have condemned us and will condemn us still.

    • Apparently ultramonanists have nothing better to do than to make grand statements in an otherwise empty echo chamber.

      May God provide for an increase in humility and charity and may we receive these gifts so that the blinders of ecclesiastical chauvinism may be taken away.

      • Pius XI, Mortalium Animos (1929):

        10. So, Venerable Brethren, it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it. To the one true Church of Christ, we say, which is visible to all, and which is to remain, according to the will of its Author, exactly the same as He instituted it. During the lapse of centuries, the mystical Spouse of Christ has never been contaminated, nor can she ever in the future be contaminated, as Cyprian bears witness: “The Bride of Christ cannot be made false to her Spouse: she is incorrupt and modest. She knows but one dwelling, she guards the sanctity of the nuptial chamber chastely and modestly.”[20] The same holy Martyr with good reason marveled exceedingly that anyone could believe that “this unity in the Church which arises from a divine foundation, and which is knit together by heavenly sacraments, could be rent and torn asunder by the force of contrary wills.”[21] For since the mystical body of Christ, in the same manner as His physical body, is one,[22] compacted and fitly joined together,[23] it were foolish and out of place to say that the mystical body is made up of members which are disunited and scattered abroad: whosoever therefore is not united with the body is no member of it, neither is he in communion with Christ its head.[24]

        11. Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors. Did not the ancestors of those who are now entangled in the errors of Photius and the reformers, obey the Bishop of Rome, the chief shepherd of souls? Alas their children left the home of their fathers, but it did not fall to the ground and perish for ever, for it was supported by God. Let them therefore return to their common Father, who, forgetting the insults previously heaped on the Apostolic See, will receive them in the most loving fashion. For if, as they continually state, they long to be united with Us and ours, why do they not hasten to enter the Church, “the Mother and mistress of all Christ’s faithful”?[25] Let them hear Lactantius crying out: “The Catholic Church is alone in keeping the true worship. This is the fount of truth, this the house of Faith, this the temple of God: if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. Let none delude himself with obstinate wrangling. For life and salvation are here concerned, which will be lost and entirely destroyed, unless their interests are carefully and assiduously kept in mind.”[26]

  2. I remember how very thrilled I was to read the beautiful greeting of Bl Paul to the Patriarch. I believe it was then that he said, “My name is Peter.” Fulfilling the obviously desired unity of Faith which that implied has been the hope of our traditions ever since, to be accomplished fully in God’s time.

  3. An interesting article. However the issues between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholics pose significant obstacles to unity. For the most part, the Catholic Church looks at Eastern Orthodoxy as a separated Church with a different theological perspective. OTOH, there is a wider range of views about the Catholic Church within Eastern Orthodoxy. From a similar “Separated Church” to a heretical Church to a community without a valid priesthood.

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