Will Francis Unite East & West? (Part 1)

James Likoudis is president emeritus of Catholics United from the Faith. He is also the author of many books, including Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism.

One of the most intriguing events during the installation of Pope Francis as Bishop of Rome and 266th successor of the Apostle Peter was the unprecedented appearance of the well-known Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. As one Greek Orthodox commentator noted, echoing much of the world media’s coverage:

“For the first time in history, a Bishop of Constantinople attended the installation of a Bishop of Rome. And this is a profoundly bold step in ecumenical relations between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, one that could have lasting significance. . . . It is an extraordinary event in the history of Christianity. And it is significant for reasons far beyond its novelty.

“First and foremost it is a powerful symbolic gesture for the cause of Christian Unity. . . . The Christian world has been divided for so long that the establishment of an authentic reunion will require courage, leadership, and humility. It will require a common faith and concerns. Given Pope Francis’ well-documented work for social justice and his insistence that globalization is detrimental to the poor, 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.” (George E.Demacopoulos, Ph.D., of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University)

The Patriarch had long expressed his hopes for the reconciliation of the Catholic and 15 or so Orthodox Churches. It is to be noted that for post-graduate studies he himself had studied in Rome at the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

He had developed friendly contacts with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and on one important occasion exchanged the kiss of peace with Benedict on the latter’s concluding the liturgy in a Catholic church in Istanbul. Upon Benedict XVI’s resignation, the Patriarch praised him as an eminent theologian and promotion of Christian values throughout the world and intrepid worker for Christian Unity. “We Orthodox will always honor him as a friend to our Church and a faithful servant to the sacred cause of everyone’s unity.”

Both Bartholomew and Benedict had signed an important joint statement in 2006 encouraging an International Theological Commission made up of leading Catholic and Orthodox theologians to step up the efforts for greater doctrinal dialogue and understanding.

The Patriarch’s warm sentiments towards the new Pope were personally conveyed in greetings the day after Francis’ installation. In the Clementine Hall of the Vatican Apostolic Palace Pope Francis responded to the Patriarch’s message, calling Bartholomew “my brother Andrew” (a reference to the great honor paid by the church of Constantinople to their patron saint, the Apostle Andrew, Peter’s brother). While at the Vatican, Patriarch Bartholomew invited Pope Francis to join him in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to mark the 50th year of the historic meeting there between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras. Upon returning to Turkey, he told reporters that he saw the possibility for reunion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches even if it “will probably not happen during my life.”

What response have other Orthodox clergy had to the installation of Pope Francis? What are the practical limitations of ecumenical dialogue at this juncture? Read Likoudis’ conclusions next week in the second installment of this article.

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