Dialogue Betweem Rome and Greek Orthodox

Author: Mons. Eleuterio Fortino


Mons. Eleuterio Fortino
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Overview of Ecumenical Initiatives

In the second half of the 20th century, particularly from the Second Vatican Council on, the relations between the Greek Orthodox Church and Rome have gone through a cautious process of a gradual coming together coloured by a set of internal reservations which has entailed a certain slowness. However, there have been important ecumenical relations of brotherhood and common action in the search for full unity. Two elements can sum up the hesitant process. Differently from the other Orthodox Churches, the Church of Greece, though warmly invited, did not send observers to the Second Vatican Council, while her fraternal delegates did participate in the major ecumenical events of the Jubilee Year 2000 in Rome.

Between Reticence and Enthusiasm

The absence of observers of the Church of Greece at the time of the Council was definitely viewed with sadness by Catholics. The desire to establish new relations with the Orthodox Churches, and more generally with all Christians, was sincere and profound. In such a creative moment as the Council, the Catholic Church took initiatives which had a positive influence even on the relations with the Church of Greece.

Above all, one must recall the restitution of the head of St Andrew to the Orthodox Church of Patras, from where it had been carried into Italy 450 years before; it was returned in the precious reliquary in which it had been enclosed by Thomas Palaeologus. It was returned "in fulfilment of a centuries old promise and as a sign of respectful love for the Greek Orthodox Church" (L'OsservatoreRomano, 24 September 1964). In Rome in St Peter's Basilica, at the time of the Council, there was a solemn celebration and at Patras a joyful and popular reception. On 26 September 1964, at Patras, the procession through the streets of the city led by the Metropolitan and the Bishops and clergy of the Orthodox Church together with the Catholic delegation was a sign of something new. The Catholic delegation was led by Cardinal Augustine Bea, by Bishops Jan Willebrands and Jacques Martin, by Frs Duprey, Giovanelli, Raes, Smith and by professors Giuseppe Schirò and Agostino Pertusi, famous scholars and promoters of friendship between Greece and Italy, and between Catholics and Orthodox. In announcing to the Ecumenical Patriarch the readiness to return the relic, Cardinal Bea, President of the Secretariate for Christian Unity, wrote: "I hope that the gesture with which the Holy Father responds with charity, with complete magnanimity, and in total sincerity to the confidence of the Christians of Patras, will contribute to deepen and expand the positive atmosphere created by the sacred meeting of Jerusalem in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches". In fact, the meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras at Jerusalem (5 January 1964) had an emotional and spiritual influence on the entire Christian world and particularly on the Church of Greece which is in a connatural relation with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and with that of Jerusalem. The return (15 May 1966) of the relics of the Apostle Titus, disciple of St Paul, by the Church of Venice to the Church of Crete, on Greek territory, even if it is an autonomous Church in the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, did renew sentiments of expanded ecclesial brotherhood.

From the Excommunication to Dialogue

A second event which really nudged the sluggish relations between Catholics and Orthodox, even in Greece, was the ecclesial act (7 December 1965) with which the Church of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided to "condemn to oblivion" and to "remove from the heart of the Church" the memory of the mutual excommunications between Patriarch Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida (1054). The event directly concerned Rome and Constantinople, but, in fact, it had a beneficial influence on everyone. It created the impression that one moved from the "excommunication" to "fraternal dialogue". In Greece, with excessive enthusiasm, it was regarded by some as the "end of the schism". Realistically, the theological faculties of Athens and Thessalonica greeted the event with a declaration in which, among other things, they asserted that the event constituted "a great step forward in the dialogue of charity and in the preparation of the future theological dialogue between the Christian Churches" (Akropolis, 12 December 1965). At the same time there were initiatives which tended to move the relations from the world of the extraordinary to the world of daily life. There were relations with the Orthodox Bishops and with cultural institutions. Good relations were fostered by means of the Catholic Committee of Cultural Collaboration which was able to assure a certain number of scholarships for Greek postgraduate students who pursued further studies or research in Catholic institutions in Rome and in other parts of Europe. The Church of Greece began the practice of exchanging Easter letters between the Pope and the Archbishop.

The Official Visit of Cardinal Willebrands

Now we come to the official visit that the President of the Secretariate for Christian Unity, Cardinal Jan Willebrands, made to the Church of Greece, 17 to 20 May 1971. The welcome was correct, cordial and offered at the highest level. One could perceive, however, latent pockets of resistance in various sectors of the Church. In his discourse of welcome, Archbishop Hieronimos declared, "On this happy day the presence of Your Eminence among us is an event for which we are deeply grateful and for which we want to give thanks to God, the giver of every good gift. For the first time after many centuries, in which we were estranged from each other with a certain melancholy, your hands are reached out to us with no other motive than to greet us and heal with fraternal affection". The Archbishop noted that the Greek faithful found it difficult to believe that the new relations between Catholics and Orthodox were free of the tendencies of the past, hence a certain reticence. Explicitly, the Archbishop affirmed that it would take time "so that,starting with these events, the faithful can come to believe that the hands extended today are really and truly fraternal". The Archbishop raised an important issue: the need for a purification of memory which would result from the new "facts" and from. an ecumenical formation pursued in depth. His perception is still valid. At the end of the visit a brief joint communiqué was issued which summed up the main events. "During the official visit to Athens, His Eminence, Cardinal Willebrands had the possibility of meeting, in a cordial and fraternal atmosphere, His Beatitude Archbishop Hieronimos with the Synodal Commission for relations with other churches, with the members of the Holy Synod, with the professors of the Faculty of Theology of the University, and with other theologians as well as with representatives of the ecclesiastical organizations. Each side was able to assess the possibility of developing the relations between the two Churches and of pursuing better communication. During his stay in Athens, Cardinal Willebrands, together with Frs Pierre Duprey and Eleuterio Fortino, who accompanied him, were guests of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece". As one can see, the whole idea was to situate the visit in a positive context with an openness to the future. A noticeable weakness was the absence of any common prayer from the programme.

Participation in Theological Dialogue

Greece took steps to prepare for the theological dialogue. In 1975, on the 10th anniversary of the abrogation of the excommunication, the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced to Rome that, after an inter-Orthodox Consultation, one could think of preparing the theological dialogue in a practical way. In 1979 the Church of Greece subscribed to the constitution of the International Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches as a group. It was an exceptional event, a first since the Council of Florence in 1439. The Church of Greece took part by raising a thorny question. From the very first session of Patmos-Rhodes in 1980 it insisted on the issue of what is called "uniatism", which has become a major point of discussion from 1990 till now. The Church of Greece did not send representatives to the plenary session at Balam in 1993 when the issue was discussed because it wanted to dissent from the orientation of the other Orthodox Churches. In fact, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece rejected the Balamand document. In the latest session of the Mixed Commission which met in Baltimore in July 2000, the Greek representatives insisted on their position which is opposed to the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Extended Contacts

During the entire period there have been ongoing relations between Catholic dioceses and Greek jurisdictions, exchanges of visits and ecclesial congresses and study sessions in which Orthodox specialists took part. One is the colloquy organized by the Catholic University of Milan in 1998 on "The Ministry of the Pope in an Ecumenical Context" and the Roman session organized in 1997 by the Centre ProUnione on the theme "The Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church—Towards a Patient and Fraternal Dialogue". Both meetings were held as a follow up to the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint. Greek theologians participated in both meetings. One should also mention the Congress on the relics of St Luke at Padua in 2000 as well as the translation of a relic of the author of the third Gospel from Padua to the Metropolitan of Thebes in Greece. During the 1970s a positive relationship was established between the Catholic Church in Sicily and the Church of Greece. The Bishops of the Church in Sicily led by Cardinal Carpino, Archbishop of Palermo, visited the Church of Greece in 1970. The Holy Synod of Greece returned the visit 11 to 14 October 1973. The high level delegation was received enthusiastically everywhere. It celebrated the liturgy in various places and in the Cathedral of the Eparchy of Plana degli Albanesi.

In 1978, Rome lived in a very brief period, four events of mourning and rejoicing: the death of Pope Paul VI, the election of John Paul I, his sudden death and the election of John Paul II. The Church of Greece sent representatives to Rome for all these events.

Here is the place to call attention to a special initiative in the field of common study. For about 12 years there has been an important cultural contact between the Department of Theology of the University of Aristotle of Thessalonica and the Institute of Spirituality of the Pontifical Athenaeum of the Friars Minor (The Antonianum) of Rome. Each department has held an annual convention on alternate years, either in Rome or in Greece, on themes of common ecclesial concern. In 1995, for example, the meeting was held at Alexandroupolis in Greece on the theme, "The Spiritual Alignments of Europe—The Contribution of Eastern and Western Christianity". Another was held in Assisi in 1997 on the theme "Holiness and the Life of the Spirit in the Eastern and Western Tradition". In the symposia, over and above a theological discussion, there is a place for an indispensable cultural and human friendship which promotes mutual understanding and dialogue. At the 1999 meeting which was held in Veria in Northern Greece, the then-President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Cardinal Cassidy, took part. On that occasion the Cardinal had a long and fraternal meeting with His Beatitude Archbishop Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and of all Greece.

In recent times the Church of Greece has sent many representatives to the Roman events to which she was invited. Her delegates were present at the special session of the Synod of Bishops for Europe, at the Interreligious Assembly organized in October 1999 by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, for the Ecumenical Celebration for the Opening of the Holy Door in St Paul's Basilica on 18 January 2000, for the Ecumenical Commemoration of the Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th century on 7 May 2000, for the ecumenical celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the beginning of the third millennium on 25 January 2001.

Pilgrimage Towards Full Unity

The pilgrimage of the Holy Father in the footsteps of St Paul, over and above the personal spiritual motives, is certainly a sign of the high consideration in which the Catholic Church holds the Orthodox Church of Greece and the spirit of brotherhood which is in the process of continuous growth. It is also a pilgrimage during which brothers on the way to full communion can meet in order that both together may do the will of God.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 May 2001, page 9

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