Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pope John Paul II and the Orthodox Church

By Thomas FitzGerald

Pope John Paul II affirmed the importance of the ecumenical movement and strengthened the quest for the restoration of full communion with the Orthodox Church. Continuing the tradition established by Paul VI, Pope John Paul II traveled to Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) in 1979 to meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios, senior bishop of the Orthodox Church. This visit expressed the pope’s desire for dialogue between Rome and the Orthodox Church.

At that meeting, the religious leaders established of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. This historic action signaled that both churches saw that the time was right to begin examination of points of agreement and difference. The new commission followed the establishment in 1965 of a similar Bilateral Dialogue in the U.S.

The leaders met again in Rome in 1987, the year the twelve hundredth anniversary of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787). This is the final Ecumenical Council jointly recognized by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and affirmed the value and use of icons especially as an expression of authentic Christology.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was elected to his office in 1991 when the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church was severely strained in many parts of the world. Following political changes in Russia and Eastern Europe, there was a resurgence of the Eastern Catholic Churches, which led to sharp clashes between members of the Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox over property rights. The revival of the Eastern Catholic Churches troubled many Orthodox.

Amidst such tensions, Pope John Paul wrote the encyclical Ut Unum Sint in 1995, which reaffirmed the importance of the quest for unity. The pope also called upon other church leaders and theologians to engage in a “patient and fraternal dialogue” on the role of the Bishop of Rome. The Orthodox welcomed the Pope’s encouragement of this study, since most Orthodox see the present articulation of this primacy as a key impediment to the restoration of full communion.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited Rome later in 1995. Relationships were still troubled, but both the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch reaffirmed the importance of the theological dialogue between their churches.

This meeting set the stage for meetings with other Orthodox leaders. Pope John Paul met with Patriarch Teoctist and the synod of the Church of Romania in 1999 and with Archbishop Christodoulos the primate of the Church of Greece and its synod in 2001. At this meeting, the Pope issued a formal apology for the historic abuses of Catholics against the Orthodox, with a particular reference to the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204. A year later, the Pope met with Patriarch Maxim and the synod of the Church of Bulgaria in 2002.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew found Pope John Paul committed to the process of reconciliation between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. They both supported the restoration of the Theological Consultation that met in Baltimore in 2000 after a period of inactivity. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew also joined with the pope at an historic meeting in Assisi, Italy in 2002, for a “Day of Prayer for Peace in the World.” The two issued an historic joint declaration on the protection of the creation in 2002.

Knowing that the pope’s health was in decline, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew journeyed to Rome and met with him on June 29, 2004. A few months later, they presided at an historic celebration in St. Peter’s in Rome, November 27, 2004. This marked the return to the Orthodox of the relics of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, honored by both Orthodox and Roman Catholics. The return of the relics stood as a vivid reminder of how much the two churches share, including the veneration of the saints, and showed that the relationship between the churches had improved.

When Pope John Paul died in 2005, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew led the Orthodox delegation at the funeral in Rome on April 8, 2005. It was truly a dramatic and unprecedented gesture of respect for the pope who advanced the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.


Father Thomas FitzGerald, Th.D. (Greek Orthodox) is the Professor of Church History and Historical Theology and former Dean at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA. He is the Orthodox Executive Secretary of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Bilateral Consultation.

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