Phanar: The turning point for ecumenism

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The Catholic Church “does not intend to make any demands” to restore full communion with Orthodox Christians. Pope Francis. Prospects for the new millennium. The “Ratzinger Proposal” is still echoed today.

In the efforts to achieve full unity with Orthodox Christians, the Catholic Church “does not intend to make any demands, other than the profession of a common faith”. The Bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, said this in the speech he pronounced before Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar today. He did so in evocative setting of the Divine Liturgy celebrated for the Feast of St. Andrew’s. His words were few but to the point and suggested an unprecedented step laden with consequences for future relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches.

Pope Francis’ words suggest that the current Successor of Peter believes communion between Catholic and Orthodox Christians is possible right now, without the need to impose any theological or legal pre-conditions on his Orthodox brothers. The main reason for this is that the Orthodox Churches “have real sacraments and above all, they have the priesthood and the Eucharist by virtue of the apostolic succession,” the Pope said quoting the Second Vatican Council. In Francis’ opinion, all that is needed to restore full communion between the Churches is to recognise that they share and profess the same faith, the faith of the Apostles.

With the words pronounced at the Phanar after decades of noble intentions and principles declarations, Francis gave Orthodox Churches the perfect chance to come out of the cocoon-like and sometimes gelatinous environment of ecumenical good manners and take the first concrete steps to overcome the most serious effects of the split that came about in the second millennium.

Francis points toward the common path to be taken by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, giving pointers as to how to resolve the historical and doctrinal problems that have accumulated over centuries of division. “Bearing in mind what the Scriptures teach us and the experiences of the first millennium, we are ready to search together for ways in which we can guarantee the unity of the Church which is so necessary given the current circumstances.”

The reference to the first millennium – which Patriarch Bartholomew also made in his recent interview with Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire – is not intended as an expression of a nostalgic wish to turn back time and eliminate the second Christian millennium. Instead, it evokes the image of a Church that did not see itself as a self-founding historical subject but aimed to establish its own relevance in history. A Church that recognised it was growing and flourishing as a reflection of Christ’s presence and grace. Not as a result of the supremacy of heads of Churches which is based on the order of precedence established by the transmission belt of ecclesiastical power. This is why the Church Fathers did not feel the need to elaborate a systematic ecclesiology. They did not have the problem of focusing on the Church, it was not the ecclesiastical institution they were primarily interested in or focused on.

The bold evangelical message contained in Francis’ words comes through in the comparison and continuity with other proposals and words employed by the Catholic Church to express its desire for unity with its Orthodox brothers. In the Ut unum sint encyclical, John Paul II recognised that he had a responsibility to to “find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

In the same passage, the Polish Pope also recalled that “for a whole millennium Christians were united in "a brotherly fraternal communion of faith and sacramental life ... If disagreements in belief and discipline arose among them, the Roman See acted by common consent as moderator.” Wojtyla’s statements were based on a way of exercising the papal primacy which in the second millennium took on forms that were not acceptable to the Orthodox Churches. Furthermore, the Pope gave no concrete signs of putting into practice what was said in the encyclical.

Now, Pope Francis’ words seem to echo the so-called “Ratzinger Proposal”, the proposal penned in 1987 by the cardinal theologian who then rose to the Throne of Peter. In this proposal he wrote: “Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium.”

It is above all the realistic way in which Pope Francis views the condition of the faith and the mission of the Church in the world today that shows how the evangelical and essential perspective adopted in the early centuries of Christianity is relevant and efficient for ecumenism today. “In today’s world, voices are being raised which we can it ignore. They are asking for our Churches to experience the full meaning of being disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Supreme Pontiff referred especially to the poor, to victims of conflicts and to young people, many of whom have sadly “lost hope” and are at the mercy of today’s “dominant culture”.

Unity among Christians is not some trivial obsession among clerical circles to boost their image so that they can justify their existence. It is not an attempt to “close ranks” for ideological reasons or reasons linked to worldly dominance. Christian unity is necessary in order for the Church to fulfil its mission for the benefit of all men and women in the world. Pope Francis’ passion for Christian unity stems from the concern he feels as a shepherd. This is why his moves are characterised by long-sightedness and resoluteness. If the salvation of souls is at stake, it is pointless and harmful to lose time fighting over who has the right to supreme leadership.

So, while reminding everyone of the vital importance of the Church’s Apostolic mission at present, Pope Francis is also efficiently fulfilling the role which Christ gave to Peter and his Successors, as repeated throughout the entire Tradition of the Church: he is guiding his brothers and sisters in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, according to the circumstances of his time. The Pope – as Joseph Ratzinger said on many occasions – is not a spiritual “emperor”. His “power” cannot be likened to the worldly power of monarchies and global superpowers.

For now, Pope Francis’ calls for Christian unity seems light years away from the subtle political and psychological expressions of disapproval from some clerical circles that continue to sabotage the process of leading to full unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Even the latest session of theological dialogue on the primacy issue, held in Amman last September, ground to a halt, mostly because of the mistrust and resentment felt among the representatives of the various Orthodox Churches. Other opportunities to take real and decisive steps toward unity between Catholics and Orthodox also went down the drain. Now, however, Francis is opening new doors. He has never hidden the fact that this is going to require patience, a virtue the Pope has often talked about in his morning homilies in St. Martha’s House. The same very patience which the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras had called for. “Unity,” Bartholomew’s predecessor come “will come. It will be a historical miracle. When? This we cannot know. But we must prepare for this. Because a miracle is like God: it is always imminent.”

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By Gianni Valente