Pope Francis' pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to be held in May, will center on his encounter with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople, and their discussions on ecumenism.
Announcing the trip Jan. 5, Pope Francis said its “principal goal” is
“to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the
Patriarch Athenagoras I, that occurred … 50 years ago today.”
That encounter was the beginning of ecumenical dialogue between the
Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and led to a joint declaration
issued in 1965 which declared the two leaders' desire “to overcome their
differences in order to be again ‘one’ as the Lord Jesus asked of his
Father for them”, and which lifted the mutual excommunications of their
predecessors issued in 1054, which profoundly contributed to the schism
between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Pope Francis is visiting with Patriarch Bartholomew at the Patriarch's
request, which was made at the Roman Pontiff's inaugural Mass on March
19. That was the first time the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople
had attended such an event since 1054.
Following the Mass, Patriarch Bartholomew suggested that they visit the
Holy Land together, commemorating and hopefully replicating the embrace
between their predecessors; Pope Francis responded by embracing the
Pope Francis' visit will take place May 24-26, where he and the
Patriarch will celebrate an ecumenical meeting at the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre, the site of Christ's burial in Jerusalem, which is shared
among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Catholics.
In addition to visiting Jerusalem, Pope Francis will travel to Bethlehem, in Palestine, and to Amman, in Jordan.
Pope Francis' good relations build with Patriarch Bartholomew build on those of his predecessors since Paul VI.
Benedict XVI visited Istanbul in 2006, praying with Patriarch
Bartholomew, and the patriarch came to the Vatican to meet with Benedict
two years later. He also attend the opening of the Year of Faith with
Benedict in St. Peter's Square in 2012.
In 2006, under Benedict, the papal title “Patriarch of the West” was
abandoned as “obsolete and practically unusable,” with the Pontifical
Council for Promoting Christian Unity saying it “could prove useful to
Pope Francis has shown an ecumenical sensitivity as Roman Pontiff; on
his election March 13, he presented himself as the Bishop of Rome, the
Church “which presides in charity over all the Churches.”
His words reprized a joint document issued by the Catholic-Orthodox
theological commission in 2007, which discussed ecclesiology,
conciliarity, and authority.
“Both sides agree,” according to the document, “that Rome, as the Church
that ‘presides in love,’ according to the phrase of St. Ignatius of
Antioch, occupied the first place in the (Churches’ order) and that the
bishop of Rome was therefore the (first) among the patriarchs.”
The document also noted that the sides “disagree, however, on the
interpretation of the historical evidence … regarding the prerogatives
of the bishop of Rome as (first), a matter that was already understood
in different ways in the first millennium.”
In addition to his preferential option for the use of “Bishop of Rome”
over “Pope”, Francis has also laid emphasis on synodality, a model of
Church governance more characteristic of the Eastern Orthodox.
In an interview with La Civilta Cattolica Sept. 30, he said, “synodality
should be lived at various levels. Maybe it is time to change the
methods of the Synod of Bishops, because it seems to me that the current
method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially
with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn more about the
meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality.”
He also sent greetings to Patriarch Bartholomew on Nov. 30, the feast of
the Patriarch's initial predecessor, St. Andrew, assuring him of “my
intention to pursue fraternal relations between the Church of Rome and
the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”
Among the Eastern Orthodox, Patriarch Bartholomew is strongly committed
to encouraging the Churches to further ecumenical dialogue.
Patriarch Bartholomew has held his position since 1991. The Ecumenical
Patriarch of Constantinople is “first among equals” in the Eastern
Orthodox communion, which has over 300 million followers worldwide.
He has convoked a meeting of Orthodox bishops in Istanbul to be held in
March, the first such since 2008. The meeting will be conceived as an
exchange of views on the guidelines and time frame for the Preparatory
Commission of the Pan-Orthodox Synod, scheduled for 2015.
As Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew can do much to foster dialogue and
can give an impetus for ecumenism to the Orthodox Churches.
While at one time ecumenical dialogue was considered a sort of utopia,
“now we are brothers in faith dialoguing,” Nikos Tzoitis, an official of
the Ecumenical Patriarchate, told CNA Jan. 7.