Pope and Orthodox leader seek to ‘promote unity of all Christians’

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew pray together in Istanbul

Pope Francis  kisses Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I after they signed a joint statement at St George church, the principal Greek Orthodox cathedral, in Istanbul on November 30th, 2014. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/Reuters

Pope Francis kisses Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I after they signed a joint statement at St George church, the principal Greek Orthodox cathedral, in Istanbul on November 30th, 2014. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/Reuters

 

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1 took another step down the long road to Catholic-Orthodox unity when they prayed together in the Greek Orthodox church of St George’s in Istanbul on Sunday morning.

Speaking during the rich pageant of a two-hour service for the Feast of St Andrew, patron saint of the Orthodox Church, both men indicated clearly the drive towards a unity that was lost in the great schism of 1054 is very much alive and well.

Common declaration

In a common declaration, both leaders expressed their “firm resolution...to promote the full unity of all Christians”.

In his address, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, argued for unity given the widespread persecution of Christians of all denominations in the Middle East, saying: “The challenges presented to our churches by today’s historical circumstances oblige us to transcend our introversion in order to meet them with the greatest degree of collaboration.

“We no longer have the luxury of isolated action. The modern persecutors of Christians do not ask which church their victims belong to.

“The unity that concerns us is regrettably already occurring in certain regions of the world through the blood of martyrdom.”

For his part, the pope underlined again that unity does not mean “submission of one to the other, or assimilation”.

Pointing out how the 2nd Vatican Council had acknowledged that the Orthodox Churches “possess true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession”, the pope said it was important to preserve “the rich patrimony of the Eastern Churches”, adding: “Your holiness, we are already on the way towards full communion and already we experience eloquent signs of an authentic, albeit incomplete union.”

Great council

Signficantly, in his address, the ecumenical patriarch expressed the hope that Vatican observers would attend the forthcoming Great Council of the Orthodox Church in 2016.

The last time a similar such council was held was more than 1,700 years ago.

This morning’s service took place in the Patriarchal Church of St George, a symbolic citadel for the worldwide Orthodox community with a local congregation of just 2,000 believers in this 67 million strong, 99 per cent Islamic country.

Not surprisingly, the common declaration called for a “constructive dialogue” with Islam in order to together face the grave threat posed by Middle East violence, saying: “We express our common concern for the current situation in Iraq, Syria and the whole Middle East...

“Muslims and Christians are called to work together for the sake of justice, peace and respect for the dignity and rights of every person, especially in those regions where they once lived for centuries in peaceful coexistence and now tragically suffer together the horrors of war.”

The common declaration also called for peace in Ukraine, “a country of ancient Christian tradition”.

Speaking to the media on Sunday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi expressed the Holy See’s satisfaction with the pope’s three-day Turkish trip which he said had had two obvious points of focus – Christian-Islam dialogue and the Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical dialogue.

Asked by The Irish Times whether the visit represented more than just another stop down the long road to Catholic-Orthodox unity, the Vatican spokesman was cautious, saying: “It is difficult to say if something new, a major step, has been taken, the theologians will have to decide that... However, what we can see is the togetherness of the pope and Bartholomew both pressing with incredible strength for unity...

“This drive for unity obviously goes much better thanks to their strong input... I would point out to you the number of meetings [there have been three] between the two men this year alone...”

In the afternoon, a clearly tired pope still found time to meet about 100 refugee children, many of them 10-year-olds.

Christians and Muslims from Syria, Iraq, various Middle Eastern countries and Africa, they are just some of the 2 million refugees who currently live in Turkey.

On the way back to the airport to return to Rome, he stopped to visit the seriously ill Armenian Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Mesrob.