‘So much harm could be avoided’

According to Vartholomaios, the visit by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has both historical and symbolic significance. «Historically, it comprises yet another milestone on the slow and painful path toward reconciliation. For centuries our churches were not in any contact and shared very little communication, especially after the great schism of the 11th century,» he said. «The brief occasions of encounter and dialogue during the 13th and 15th centuries left more feelings of bitterness than of hopefulness for the Orthodox Christians of the East. «The separation was particularly marked after the tragic events of the Crusades. Yet, in the middle of the 20th century, the great visionary and leader Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras undertook the daring initiative of approaching the Roman Catholic Church, convinced of the fullness of truth and ecumenical dimensions of the Orthodox Church, which obliged him – as indeed it does all Christians – to labor toward obeying the command of our Lord, that His disciples ‘may be one,’» Vartholomaios said. Return of relics «The ‘dialogue of love’ between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI (and before him, with Pope John XXIII) established the basis for gradually and honestly breaking down barriers of centuries,» the patriarch said. «This was followed by the official theological ‘dialogue of truth’ during the tenure of our predecessor of blessed memory, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, and Pope John Paul II, which began the process for examining jointly and openly the doctrinal differences between our churches.» «Immediately prior to his death, Pope John Paul II extended a gracious gesture toward the Orthodox Church by returning to the Ecumenical Patriarchate (where they previously belonged) the relics of two renowned Orthodox saints and archbishops of Constantinople, namely St Gregory the Theologian (4th century) and St John Chrysostom (5th century). Not only was this a brotherly gift in response to a request from a fellow bishop and ecumenical patriarch, but it was also a humble recognition of problems, even beyond doctrinal ones, that have separated our peoples in the past, such as the Crusades,» Vartholomaios said. «The visit of Pope Benedict in a few days, on the occasion of the Thronal Feast of St Andrew, serves to underline and further pledge the commitment of the Roman Catholic Church to this journey of hope and reconciliation.» The patriarch also emphasized the symbolic aspect of the pope’s visit. «It is unacceptable and unjustifiable for Christians in the 21st century, namely for those who today profess to believe in and follow the commandments of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior, to be separated and divided. It is simply unethical for the adherents of the only religion that claims to be based on incarnate love to be unable to work together in order to address issues of common concern, irrespective of their theological differences,» he said. «As Orthodox Christians, we could never of course undermine the importance of theological doctrine in our relations with other Christians. Yet, there is no doubt that so much ugliness and harm in our world could actually be avoided or even properly addressed if only we acted together as Christian churches. The role of religions, and especially the united role of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches is crucial in a world marred by war and scarred by poverty, in a world where women and children are abused and exploited, in a world where the environment is polluted and destroyed. «So, the visit of the pope to the Ecumenical Patriarchate may not seem too great in the eyes and minds of many onlookers but it is a critical step toward re-establishing normal and fraternal relations. It would have been unthinkable only 50 years ago,» he added. In December 1979, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church was established. The accord had been marked by a meeting a few days previously at the Phanar between Patriarch Demetrios and Pope John Paul II. A new period of dialogue had begun for the two churches, although broken off in 2000 due to the problem over the Uniats. Eventually, when Vartholomaios met with Benedict’s predecessor in June 2004, a decision was made to resume the dialogue. The commission met again in Belgrade last September, reconfirming the will of both churches to continue the process. «It is true that the theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church looks toward and prays for union, just as we say at each Divine Liturgy, ‘For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord,’» said Vartholomaios. «However, we also recognize that this process is slow and painstaking. It must take into consideration centuries of established doctrinal divisions and cultural developments.» ‘Sister churches’ «There is so much that we share in common – such as our fundamental faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father; our belief in the communion of saints; and our respect for the liturgy and tradition of the fathers,» he said. «This is why the phrase ‘sister churches’ has been re-adopted in recent centuries,» Vartholomaios said. «This phrase is not a new one. It goes back to the early apostolic fathers, who regarded the various local churches as related to the principle of identity. The phrase was revived in the 13th century by Ecumenical Patriarch John in response to Pope Innocent. In the last century it was adopted by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI. The churches described as ‘sister churches’ in apostolic times were of course in full communion. The same, however, cannot be said of the relationship between the Orthodox and Roman churches of the 13th or 20th centuries. Still, the phrase is used as a powerful expression of good will in recognition of a common past and legacy of an entire millennium prior to the Schism. Neither the Roman Catholic nor the Orthodox Church would ever use that phrase to describe their relations with any of the Protestant churches.» Uniatism «Yet, at the same time we confess that there is also much that divides us from the Roman Catholic Church – especially in regard to the doctrine of authority and papal primacy, which is perhaps the most important issue that defines and determines all other differences and disagreements. For us, as Orthodox Christians, authority can only be defined as communion, and never as worldly power,» he said. «The problem of Uniatism and the consequent aspects of proselytism are a good example of unfortunate and unnecessary historical developments which have not only hindered the dialogue between our two churches but also deeply wounded our faithful and their memory. It was this problem that led to the suspension of the Official Theological Dialogue in the late 1990s. «Fortunately we have secured a process whereby we are able to pursue those matters while at the same time persisting in our commitment to dialogue,» he said. «Thus, with the grace of God, the Theological Dialogue resumed its proceedings in September of this year, and it is our hope that doctrinal differences and historical disagreements will be openly and honestly discussed… If union between our two churches is not immediately realistic (although it remains our fervent prayer), then at least tragic errors and misunderstandings of the past might be avoided in the future. This is the least that we owe to ourselves as Christians, to each other as fellow Christians, and to God as our Creator and Savior.»

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