Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Unity Without Conditions: Why Francis' Trip to Turkey Matters

(CNS photo/CNS photo/Grzegorz Galazka, pool)
By Father Ronald Roberson, CSP

November 30 is the feast of Andrew the Apostle, the patron saint of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the highest ranking patriarchate of the Orthodox Church. There is now a longstanding tradition that the Vatican sends a delegation to participate in this celebration each year in Istanbul (the modern Turkish name for ancient Constantinople), just as the Ecumenical Patriarchate sends a delegation to Rome each year for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29.  This reciprocal participation in each other’s celebrations has become a reliable sign of the growing friendship and communion between Rome and Constantinople.

This year Pope Francis himself headed the Vatican delegation.  In itself this was not unusual; Popes have headed the delegation a number of times in the past, including the one in 1979 when Saint John Paul II and Patriarch Dimitrios announced together the establishment of an official international dialogue between the two churches. This year the presence of Pope Francis cemented his clear desire and that of Patriarch Bartholomew to continue down the path of reconciliation, bolstered by their personal friendship that became so apparent when they met in the Holy Land last May.

Pope Francis was present at the Eucharist celebrated by Patriarch Bartholomew on November 30. At the end of the service, Pope Francis spoke movingly about the need for full unity between Catholics and Orthodox. He reaffirmed Vatican II’s statement that Orthodox sacraments are valid, and said that the full communion we seek “does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation.  Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each.” He went on to say that the Catholic Church “does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith” for the restoration of full communion. 

For his part, Patriarch Bartholomew expressed the hope that “during your tenure the rapprochement of our two great ancient Churches will continue to be established on the solid foundation of our common tradition, which always preserved and acknowledged in the constitution of the Church a primacy of love, honor and service within the framework of collegiality.” Then, in a dramatic gesture, Pope Francis bowed his head before Patriarch Bartholomew and asked for his blessing on himself and the Church of Rome.

CNS photo/Paul Haring
The encounter culminated in the signing of a Common Declaration by the Pope and Patriarch. In it they stress three basic points:  
  1. Their “firm resolution” to promote Christian unity, especially between Catholics and Orthodox, and their request that the faithful join them in praying for this goal.  
  2. Their concern for the situation in the Middle East and especially the suffering minorities including Christians.  
  3. The importance of dialogue with Islam based on mutual respect and friendship in an effort “to build a culture of peace and solidarity” among all peoples, and the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine. 

This latest encounter between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has lent strong support for the continuation of the theological dialogue and for greater common witness by Catholics and Orthodox on the pressing issues that humanity faces today.

Father Ronald Roberson, CSP is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is also a consultor to the Vatican's Congregation for the Oriental Churches. 

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