- Media coverage of the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land tended to play up the political aspects of the Papal Pilgrimage over the religious significance. The visit was made not for political purposes, but at the invitation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians. Patriarch Bartholomew attended the installation of Pope Francis last year, becoming the first Ecumenical Patriarch to attend a Papal Inaugural Mass since the Great Schism in 1054.
On that occasion, the patriarch invited the pope to meet with him in Jerusalem in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first steps toward reconciliation between the two churches. The initial step occurred when Pope Paul VI met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. During the recent Holy Land visit, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew met four times. This was the fourth official meeting of popes and patriarchs¬ – the first being the 1964 meeting by Pope Paul VI, the second was by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and the third was Pope Benedict’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew during his trip to Turkey in 2006. What made the event significant was that it was the result of the Patriarch’s initiative.
Patriarch Bartholomew is no stranger to the Catholic Church or to the United States. The patriarch did postgraduate studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and later became a lecturer at the Pontifical Gregorian University. From 1973 until 1990 he served as Orthodox Metropolitan of Philadelphia.
When Pope Francis invited the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to meet with him in Rome to pray for peace, he also invited Patriarch Bartholomew. The patriarch has proposed an ecumenical synod in 2025 to mark the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed. Such a synod is not, in the words of a Vatican spokesman, a “fait accompli.” Nevertheless, it is a further sign that there exists not only a mutual respect, but also a growing friendship between the pope and the patriarch.
Does this mean that reunification of the Catholic and Orthodox churches is close? Not likely. There are many wounds that need healing. There are theological, structural and historical issues that need to be addressed and resolved before that occurs. It does mean, however, that important new steps toward an ultimate reunion have been taken.
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