Thursday, May 16, 2013

Recent Ecumenical Firsts

By Father Ronald Roberson

A couple of interesting ecumenical developments occurred of late regarding relations with the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. First, His Holiness Tawadros II, the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has been on an official visit to Rome (since the third century the Patriarchs of Alexandria have used the title “pope”).  He arrived on May 9 and left May 13. The visit marked the first time that Pope Francis has received the head of another Christian church or ecclesial community since his installation in March, and it is also Pope Tawadros’ first trip outside Egypt since his election last November. 

The heads of the two churches met on May 10.  In his speech, Pope Tawadros recalled that the visit was taking place exactly 40 years after the last visit of a Coptic patriarch to Rome, the one by Pope Shenouda III in 1973. In fact, it was on May 10, 1973, that he and Pope Paul VI signed a Common Declaration that effectively put an end to the Christological dispute that caused the division of the two churches in the 5th century. Since May 10 has gained such symbolic significance, Pope Tawadros proposed that May 10 become an annual celebration of this new fraternal relationship. Pope Tawadros also spoke about ecumenical developments in Egypt, including his personal presence at the installation of a new Coptic Catholic patriarch earlier this year, and the establishment of a new Council of Churches in that country. 

Pope Francis recalled the 40th anniversary of the signing of the 1973 Common Declaration.  He observed that it continues to bear fruit even today, especially in the progress of the international dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Francis thanked Tawadros for the charity he showed to the new Coptic Catholic Patriarch and praised the formation of the Egyptian Council of Churches. He concluded with a reflection on the “ecumenism of suffering,” and how “the sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity.” From shared suffering, Francis remarked, “can blossom forth forgiveness, reconciliation and peace, with God’s help.” The new Pope was clearly referring to the situation in Egypt where Christians of late have often felt imperiled in the midst of an Islamic society.

The second ecumenical moment affected Catholic relations with the Anglican Communion. The most recent meeting of the new phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC-III) took place at a Catholic monastery in Brazil last week. This marked the first time that the dialogue has met in Latin America, or anywhere else in the southern hemisphere. In view of new difficulties focusing on moral teachings, especially in regard to human sexuality, the dialogue is examining the question, “The Church as communion, local and universal, and how in communion the local and universal church come to discern right ethical teaching.”  At this meeting the members considered case studies and looked at why our churches have come to different conclusion on these topics. 

The Episcopal Church in the United States is not able to participate in ARCIC-III because the Archbishop of Canterbury determined that its teaching on some matters was inconsistent with that of the Anglican Communion at large. But our national dialogue with the Episcopal Church, which has been in progress since 1965, continues to meet.  Its current round, which is due to conclude its work within the next year, is studying a strikingly similar topic: common ground and divergences regarding ecclesiology and moral discernment. The members of the national dialogue hope that their agreed statement on this difficult question might be useful not only for the faithful of both churches, but also for the work of the international dialogue. 

Father Ronald Roberson is Associate Director for the USCCB's Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

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