The road to unity passes through the Middle East

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Talks to remove the theological obstacles that are prevent the Catholic and Orthodox Churches from entering into full communion are proceeding slowly but steadily. This is the first sign that emerges from Amman, where the thirteenth plenary session of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church is currently taking place.

The meeting runs from today to Tuesday 23 September. Delegates are staying at the Landmark Hotel in the Jordanian capital as guests of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. After the long gap since the last session held in Vienna in 2010, the joint commission is attempting to resume the very delicate discussions its members – two representatives for each of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches, plus an equal number of Catholic representatives - have been engaged in for the past eight years. During this time, they have met periodically to discuss the core issue of relations between authority and collegiality in the Church. The aim is to see if the two Churches can agree on a definition and a way for the Bishop of Rome to exercise his primacy that would be acceptable to the Orthodox Church.

It seems that this goal is still far from being reached. However, some important changes have occurred in the past four years: Rome has a new Pope; the Orthodox Church has convoked a Great and Holy Council – in hibernation for decades - for 2016; in some Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan’s neighbouring nations, Catholic and Orthodox faithful have again shared what Pope Francis has called “ecumenism of the blood”. This kind of ecumenism is witnessed where there is persecution: “Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptised in.”

The work of the commission in Amman will be presided over by Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and by the Metropolitan of Pergamon, Ioannis Zizioulas of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Of the commission’s cardinal members, the only one who will be attending the session is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Leonardo Sandri.

During the discussions held in recent years on the thorny and enduring question of the primacy, the only text that received the Commission’s approval – despite the Russian Patriarchates strong dissociation from it – was the one prepared at the meeting in Ravenna in 2007. The document outlined the relationship between primacy and conciliarity as “mutually interdependent”. A draft version of the new document titled “Synodality and Primacy” will be examined at the meeting in Amman. According to the document’s authors, the document is intended as “a reference framework within which to address the crucial question of the role of the Bishop of Rome in the universal Church.” The text is just a few pages long and reintroduces and develops some key points already outlined in the Ravenna Document.

In the new document, the relationship between primacy and synodality in Church life – on a local, regional and universal level – is presented merely from a theological point of view, leaving aside historical and patristic arguments that had been the sticking point – with objections raised mainly by the Orthodox Church – in the working text presented in previous plenary sessions held in Cyprus (2009) and Vienna (2010). This focused on the role of the Bishop of Rome in Church communion in the First Millennium. In the new text, the relationship between primacy and synodality, between the Primus and the Church’s synodal council of bishops, is reconsidered in reference to its theological basis, that is, in the light of the Trinity itself, where divine nature is common to three Persons. Quoting St. Basil, the Ravenna Document recalled the fact that in the Church, “conciliarity reflects the Trinitarian mystery and finds therein its ultimate foundation.”

The review session in Amman is aimed at seeing whether there is a basic consensus at least on the theological terms used in the Ravenna Document to describe conciliarity and primacy or whether slower preparatory work is needed, waiting for the right time to find compatibility between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches regarding the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. In the joint declaration signed in Jerusalem last 25 May, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew reaffirmed their full support for the mixed theological Commission as a tool. They said that “substantial” progress had been made in the efforts to achieve unity. This is thanks to a dialogue “does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church.”

In the meantime, no one denies that the Commission has faced resistance and obstacles, mainly from the Orthodox side. A perfect example of this is the document approved by the Russian Orthodox Church at the end of 2013, stressing its opposition to the Ravenna Document and to any attempt to recognize the Bishop of Rome as a Primate, unless this is limited to primacy of honour.

The Orthodox will discuss the possibility of finding common ground on an ecumenical level as well at the Great and Holy Council, which Bartholomew has convened for 2016. This ecclesial meeting will show whether the identitarian and nationalistic closed-mindedness – that seems to be dominant in many Eastern European Churches – will prevail, or whether the Orthodox Church will take advantage of the unique ecumenical and pastoral approach of Francis’ pontificate. “The Orthodox,” Patriarch Bartholomew said in an interview published in Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire, “do not perceive any arrogance in the current papal institution; this had previously posed an obstacle to Catholic-Orthodox relations. With his example, Pope Francis is laying down new foundations for the entire path of ecumenical dialogue.”

We will probably have to wait until the Council meets in 2016 to see whether this perception is spreading and whether it will have a direct effect on theological dialogue regarding the issue of primacy amongst other things. Meanwhile, the fact that the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is hosting the mixed commission’s new session, is seen as a positive sign in the Vatican. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem was once among those who were particularly tough on the Catholic Church. The theological commission is meeting in the Jordanian capital, not far from the situations of suffering and persecution faced by so many Christian communities in the Middle East. The discussion schedule includes a meeting with refugees who have fled Syria. The close proximity to the realities faced by the Christians of the Middle East could inspire the work of the commission, making the suffering of God’s People seem all the more real.

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By Gianni Valente