Report on Catholic-Orthodox Relations

Report on Catholic-Orthodox Relations

Eleuterio F. Fortino

Constantinople and Rome: hopeful signs

In the past year, there have been frequent exchanges in the relations between Rome and Constantinople.

In this same year, His Holiness Bartholomew I visited Rome twice: for the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul (29 June) and to receive from the Holy Father John Paul II the gift of part of the relics of St John Chrysostom and of St Gregory the Theologian [Nazianzus] (27 November), accompanied by the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Catholic Delegation whose visits to the Phanar for the Feast of St Andrew (30 November) have now become a tradition.

Relations have evolved from a situation of tension to a reaffirmation of the common commitment towards full communion and an intensification of fraternal contacts.

Tensions eased

The two visits of Patriarch Bartholomew to Rome and the warm and respectful welcome that the Church of Rome and the Holy Father personally offered to him and his entourage have re-established the atmosphere of brotherhood and trust that at the beginning of the year seemed to have declined.

The request of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine to be recognized as a new Patriarchate gave rise to deep concern in the Patriarchate of Moscow, hence, also in the Ecumenical Patriarchate which had submitted this request to all the Orthodox Churches. Patriarch Bartholomew I had presented the problem in serious terms to the Holy Father in his Letter of 29 November 2003.

In this Letter, he stated among other things that were this request to receive recognition, it might "nullify the effort being made to continue the theological dialogue between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, which, after the failure of the Baltimore meeting, was going through a critical stage", and would strengthen "the diffidence to your Church that has been constantly growing among the Orthodox Churches".
The intensification of relations, both by personal contact and by correspondence, led to a more realistic understanding of the situation.

A truly enlightening element was the short but heartfelt and succinct Address that the Holy Father made to Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, Major Archbishop of Lviv, and the members of the Permanent Synod of the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine on 3 June 2004. The Holy Father said among other things: "I therefore share in your aspiration to obtain a full juridical and ecclesial status that is firmly grounded in the canonical and conciliar discipline. I share in your prayers and in your suffering, awaiting the day established by God on which, as Successor of Peter, I will be able to. approve the mature fruit of your ecclesial development" (L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 16 June 2004, n. 2, p. 11).

The Ecumenical Patriarch's subsequent visit to Rome for the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul (29 June) afforded him the opportunity for another personal meeting with the Holy Father, for conversations with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and for taking part in the celebration for the feast day in St Peter's Basilica.

The Patriarch's participation in the Eucharistic liturgy at which the Pope presided followed the programme of the past visits of Patriarch Dimitrios (1987) and Bartholomew I himself (1995): full participation in the Liturgy of the Word, joint proclamation by the Pope and by the Patriarch of the profession of faith according to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in Greek and as the conclusion, the final Blessing imparted by both the Pope and the Patriarch at the Altar of the Confessio.

This celebration emphasized that prayer is the true heart of all ecumenical research and that in prayer we can find the strength to continue to do God's will in the search for full communion, which will be marked by the full concelebration of the Eucharist.

The Pope also invited Patriarch Bartholomew to Rome to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first meeting of rapprochement of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem (January 1964) after so many centuries. This meeting paved the way to direct relations, giving rise to increasingly fraternal relations between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, a spirit that gradually extended to other Orthodox Churches.

The same spirit also enlivened the meeting between John Paul II and Bartholomew I. In the Common Declaration that concluded the visit, the Pope and the Patriarch said: "Our meeting in Rome today also enables us to face certain problems and misunderstandings that have recently surfaced. The long experience of the 'dialogue of charity' comes to our aid precisely in these circumstances, so that difficulties can be faced serenely without slowing or clouding our progress on the journey we have undertaken towards full communion in Christ" (Common Declaration, 1 July, n. 8; ORE, 7 July 2004, p. 9).

In the Fathers' footsteps

The second important meeting this year focused on the relics and the commemoration of two Holy Fathers, venerated in both East and West: St Gregory the Theologian (330-390) and St John Chrysostom (349-407), both Archbishops of Constantinople. Their relics are kept in St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Some Byzantine nuns transferred the relics of St Gregory Nazianzus the Theologian to Rome in the eighth century in order to save them from destruction during the outbreak of iconoclasm.

At first they were kept in a church in Campo Marzio where they remained until 1580, when Pope Gregory XIII, paying them special honour, had them moved to St Peter's.

The relics of St John Chrysostom, who died in exile, were taken to Constantinople at the orders of Emperor Theodosius. There they remained until the time of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1258), when they were moved to Rome and St Peter's. In 1990, they were placed in the Chapel of the Choir of the Canons.

At the end of his visit to Rome in June 2004, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I asked the Holy Father for the relics of these two great Saints, his predecessors on the Throne of Constantinople. The Pope agreed to give part of them to him. In August the relics were officially recognized and their whole history pieced together.

The ceremony for their veneration and their presentation to Patriarch Bartholomew I by the Holy Father was held in St Peter's Basilica on 27 November 2004. Passages from the writings of these two Holy Fathers were read at the Liturgy of the Word to mark the occasion.

That same day, accompanied by the Catholic Delegation led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was about to leave for the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the Feast of St Andrew, the relics were transferred to the Phanar and placed in the left aisle of the Patriarchal Church of St George.

Before returning to Istanbul, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I commented to Vatican Radio very positively on the event.

"I am deeply moved", he said, "and very happy. Not only I, personally, but
also the whole of the Church of Constantinople, and, I can say without reserve, the whole of Orthodoxy, the whole of the Christian East. This is truly a historic event that is due to the good will of His Holiness the Pope".

And he added a personal assessment: "I consider this event as the most important one in my patriarchal service in the past 13 years. We are grateful to His Holiness".

The relics of the two Doctors of the Church, until now kept in Rome and in fact thereby saved from dispersion, now rest in part in the Church of which they were Pastors and in part in Rome. The two saints will be God's intercessors for the restoration of full unity.

Reactivating theological dialogue

"Suspicion and misrepresentation between Orthodox and Catholic Christians should therefore be overcome; everywhere Orthodox and Catholics should recognize each other as Christians who, through the one Baptism, are part of the one Body of Christ.... Finally, we should resume — without delay — the international theological dialogue, which Your Holiness has sustained from the very beginning" (ORE, 8 December 2004, p. 6).

This was the opinion of Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which he expressed in his address to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in the Cathedral of St George at the Phanar (30 November 2004), on the occasion of the Feast of St Andrew.

The matter of the theological dialogue was present in all the most important contacts this year. Since the last Plenary Assembly held in Baltimore (2000), it has not yet been possible to organize a meeting of the Joint Commission because of difficulties that arose on the topic under discussion (the theological and canonical implications of Uniatism). They were caused partly by internal reasons within the Commission and in part by reasons concerning various Orthodox Churches.

Nevertheless, the declared intention of all the Orthodox Churches remains: to seek the most harmonious ways to revive the dialogue. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which for Pan-Orthodox matters is entitled to take and coordinate initiatives, is involved in this prospect.

A reflection of it can be found in the above-mentioned Common Declaration of Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew. They declare that the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue "is still a suitable instrument for studying the ecclesiological and historical problems that are at the root of our difficulties, and for identifying hypothetical solutions to them. It is our duty to persevere in the important commitment to reopen the work as soon as possible. In examining the reciprocal initiatives of the offices of Rome and of Constantinople with this in view, we ask the Lord to sustain our determination, and to convince everyone of how essential it is to pursue the 'dialogue of truth'" (Common Declaration, n. 7; ORE, 7 July 2004, p. 9).

Patriarch Bartholomew I, as Cardinal Kasper recalled in Istanbul, has always favoured the dialogue and the continuation of its work by the Joint Commission. The Patriarch also confirmed this demanding approach in the tribute he addressed to the Pope on 29 June 2004. He said:

"It is impossible that the Word of the Lord fall into the void, be unrealizable or leave us indifferent in our reaction to it. Therefore, with sincerity and sparing no effort, we are seeking ways to continue the dialogue, as the unique route, for the time being, to communion between our Churches, given that fundamental divergences do not yet permit communion in the Body, Blood and Spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (Opening Address, 29 June 2004; ORE, 7 July 2004, p. 5).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 February 2005, page 11

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