Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey had political and spiritual dimensions, both of which are inextricably commingled. A unique and unprecedented relationship has developed between the Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the nominal leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The relationship is a culmination of a gradual thaw in the relations between the two churches that began with Pope Paul VI and then Patriarch Athenagoras.
From an ecumenical point of view, the political and cultural rupture from which emerged the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church was the primordial schism. There were of course earlier divisions, but none that so completely severed the Body of Christ. Because the Great Schism, as it came to be called, was more political and cultural than doctrinal, it differed substantially from the Protestant Reformation five centuries later, that was more doctrinal and less political and cultural.
Subsequent events deepened the wounds of division and yet the two Churches mirrored each other sacramentally and doctrinally — a reality that was recognized by the Second Vatican Council. The Orthodox presence in Turkey, once the heart of Byzantium, the great center of Orthodoxy, is now minuscule and truly a Holy Remnant.
Primarily the visit of the Holy Father to the Ecumenical Patriarch was to move our communities closer to restoring the full unity to which we are called by Jesus (John 17:21). There still remains reluctance and suspicion that must be overcome, but there exists an undeniable Apostolic ecclesial affinity between the Catholics and the Orthodox.
Pope Francis made his hope of reunion crystal clear when following a liturgical celebration at the Orthodox Church of St. George he said the “one thing that the Catholic Church desires and that I seek as Bishop of Rome…is communion with Orthodox Churches,” adding later in his remarks, “…the restoration of full communion…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, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit.”
Vatican Radio reported that the Holy Father and the Ecumenical Patriarch signed a Joint Declaration reaffirming their desire to overcome the obstacles dividing their two Churches. The two leaders also deplored the terrible situation facing Christians and all who are suffering in the Middle East and called for an appropriate response from the international community.
In that regard the Pope urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to use his influence to protect Christian and other minorities who are suffering oppression and even persecution in Middle Eastern countries and to follow through on promised restoration of properties and rights of Orthodox and other non-Muslim minorities in Turkey.
Interestingly President Erdoğan challenged the Holy Father to use his influence to address the increasing Islamaphobia in Europe and elsewhere that tends to label all Muslims as terrorists, a situation that unquestionably exists in some European countries and even in our own country. Papal concern for Muslim refugees has been evident from the beginning of his papacy and Muslims are certainly among the poor and the marginalized for whom the Pope seeks mercy and compassion.
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