The journey was begun by those “great visionaries of unity” Paul VI and Athenagoras back in 1964. Since then “we have learned to forgive one another for the mistakes and mistrust of the past; and we have taken significant steps toward rapprochement and reconciliation”. His Holiness Bartholomew i, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and Pope Francis will continue on this path at their meeting in Jerusalem. In anticipation of the Holy Father’s visit to the Holy Land, the Patriarch spoke about the ecumenical dialogue between East and West.
Fifty years after the historic visit of Paul VI and on the cusp of Pope Francis coming to the Holy Land, what do you see before us on the path to unity?
There is no doubt that the historic meeting of our venerable predecessors, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI (who is soon to be beatified in the Roman Catholic Church), marked a new beginning for relations between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
We must remember that this event followed an entire millennium of mutual mistrust and theological estrangement between our two great traditions. Thus, despite our common history of Scripture and Tradition, both of our Churches ran the risk of damage through isolation and self-sufficiency, having followed separate ways since the eleventh century.
The meeting in Jerusalem on 5 January 1964 was an extraordinary starting-point for a long journey of reconciliation and dialogue, which the succeeding generations were called to continue. Looking back at the last 50 years, we can be grateful to God for what has been achieved both in the “dialogue of love” and in the “dialogue of truth”. The spirit of fraternal love and mutual respect has replaced the old polemic and suspicion.
At the theological level, the Joint International Commission of the Theological Dialogue of the two Churches has produced several important common documents. But we recognize that there is still a great deal to be done both between our two Churches as well as within our own Churches. There is no doubt that the path is long and difficult. But as disciples of our Lord, who prayed to His Father and urged His disciples “that they may be one” (ut unum sint: Jn 17:21), we have no other alternative but to pursue this path of reconciliation and unity. Any other way would be a dishonorable betrayal of the Lord’s will and an unacceptable return to our estranged past.
You recently said that you hope to be able to convoke a Great Council of the Orthodox Church as a sign of unity among Orthodox. Do you see this as an occasion to rediscover a kind of unity among all Christians as well?
At our most recent Assembly (Synaxis) of the Heads of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches throughout the world, which was held at our invitation in Istanbul from 6-9 March 2014, the Primates of the Orthodox Churches deliberated on the matter of the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church and unanimously decided that, upon expediting the process of preparation, this Synod will be convened in Constantinople in 2016. This Synod will, as you observe, be a vital sign of unity among our Orthodox Churches at a time when our world demands a unified response to its critical challenges.
At this assembly, we informed our Brother Primates of our forthcoming meeting with Pope Francis in Jerusalem. In this way, they declared their support of the event and affirmed their commitment to theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. This is important because our meeting in Jerusalem is much more than a strong symbolical confirmation of our willingness to continue the path of love inaugurated fifty years ago by our predecessors in the spirit of faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel. It will also be an important opportunity for the world to see a united approach — beyond confessional identities and differences — to the suffering of Christians in so many places, and especially in the areas where Christianity first appeared and developed. Moreover, it will provide occasion to address the injustices inflicted on the vulnerable members of contemporary societies as well as the alarming consequences of the ecological crisis.
There is a lot of excitement in regard to this meeting with Pope Francis. For many, who know your personalities, your being shepherds according to the style of Christ, are feeding the hope that there will be a decisive step towards overcoming the obstacles that still stand in the way of resolving the scandal of division among Christians. What are your expectations and hopes?
Today, even more than 50 years ago, there is an urgent need for reconciliation, and this makes our forthcoming meeting with Pope Francis in Jerusalem an event of great significance. It is, of course, as we must humbly realize and confess, only a first step of outreach toward the world, as an affirmation of our desire to increase our efforts toward Christian and peaceful reconciliation. Nonetheless, it will demonstrate our common willingness and responsibility to advance along the path paved by our predecessors.
Thus, as two ecclesiastical and spiritual leaders, we shall meet in order to address an appeal and invitation to all people, irrespective of faith and virtue, for a dialogue that ultimately aims at the knowledge of Christ’s truth and the taste of the immense joy, which attends their acquaintance with Christ. However, this can ultimately only be achieved through the restoration of an inward separation from one another and through the unity of all people in Christ, which is truly the fullness of love and joy.
Since 1964, we may not have achieved full communion, which must always be the ultimate goal of Christ’s faithful disciples. Nevertheless, we have learned to forgive one another for the mistakes and mistrust of the past; and we have taken significant steps toward rapprochement and reconciliation. Athenagoras and Paul VI were certainly great visionaries of unity. Nevertheless, another important step toward reconciliation and unity will, with the grace of God, take place on 25 May in our encounter with our brother Pope Francis. May it be in accordance with God’s will.
By: Mario Ponzi-L’Osservatore Romano