by V. Rev. Dr. Archimandrite Nathanael Symeonides
In just a few hours, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew—the religious leaders of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches—will once again have the opportunity to embrace each other as brothers in Christ. Since the Great Schism of 1054, which marked the division between the Church of the West and the Church of the East, the spiritual leaders of the Churches of Rome and Constantinople have met on twenty-two times. This doesn’t come as a surprise until one considers that prior to the schism between East and West, the two Primates only met on three occasions!
The road to reconciliation between the two Churches was largely paved by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, who, in 1964 invited Pope Paul VI to meet in Jerusalem after centuries typically marked by isolation and mistrust between the two Churches. The meeting in Jerusalem sparked a new era of dialogue, cooperation, and love between the two Churches. Evidence that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches were committed to overcoming the differences that kept them from the “common cup” came a year later, when both the Churches of Constantinople and Rome lifted from the memory of the Church the common anathemas declared in 1054. Much more work was still needed for the two bodies to be joined once again.
Since his election in 1991 as the 270th Archbishop of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has worked tirelessly to build bridges between East and West. During his tenure as Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew has met with the Pope of Rome on sixteen separate occasions; he has met with Popes John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis. What is important to note about these meetings is that they represent far more than formal occasions to exchange gifts and good tidings, and they are certainly diachronic, transcending beyond the daily news cycle.
Since 2013, marking the election of Pope Francis as the chief-shepherd of the Church of Rome, both Francis and Bartholomew have become even more committed to the dialogue between their two Churches. Indeed, their actions lead one to believe that they have made a conscious decision to pivot and shift the dialogue from one primarily focused on the theology of words to a dialogue concentrating on the theology of deeds.
This is perhaps first seen in 2014, when Francis and Bartholomew met with Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas in Rome and encouraged them to find ways to bring about peace in the Middle East. The new dialogue of praxis is also recognized in the Ecumenical Patriarch’s and the Pope’s concern about the environment; for the first time in history, a Pope directly cites an Ecumenical Patriarch in a Papal Encyclical—Laudato Si’.
When the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch meet on the Greek island of Lesbos to express their prayerful solidarity and concern for the migrants and refugees that have fled their homelands in the Middle East, they will once again convey a message to the world. This time, however, the message will not only come via a common declaration, but will more importantly be expressed through their common initiative. Like Christ, the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch will approach and embrace those who are on the margins; they will give hope to the hopeless; they will praise the peacemakers; and they will commend the humanitarians.
Their work together on the island of Lesbos will not come to a close upon their departure. Both men understand the need for a common Christian response to ongoing humanitarian crises around the world—Lesbos represents just one example, albeit an acute one. The two Churches have much work to do in order to provide an appropriate response to such pressing conditions.
In June, on yet another Greek Island (Crete), Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will convene the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. The Holy Council represents a singular opportunity for the Church to reaffirm that the Christian faith is one that invites individuals and communities to care for the world, especially for the downtrodden, marginalized, and afflicted. The Council’s agenda will include such topics as “The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today,” “Relations of the Orthodox Church and the Rest of the Christian World,” and “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World.”
Many are hopeful that the Holy and Great Council will provide the faithful the guidance and clarity needed to navigate today’s turbulent waters. In this respect, the Council’s Decisions will play a pivotal role in the internal life and governance of the Church for years to come. At the same time, however, the Council will be convened to help us look beyond ourselves, to refine our focus on the condition of the world around us, and to respond to sighs of those in need.
Recognizing the importance and need for the Orthodox Church to meet in Council, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has remained committed to the conciliar process. After centuries, the Orthodox Church will experience once again a more profound degree of conciliar life, and in so doing, it will have the opportunity to form unified and universal vision concerning the nature of the Church, namely, that while the Church may indeed not be of the world, it never ceases to function in the world, and certainly always exists for the salvation of the world.