ROME, January 25, 2010 – This evening, with vespers in the basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, Benedict XVI is closing the week of prayer for Christian unity.
There are some who say that ecumenism has entered a phase of retreat and chill. But as soon as one that looks to the East, the facts say the opposite. Relations with the Orthodox Churches have never been so promising as they have since Joseph Ratzinger has been pope.
The dates speak for themselves. A period of chill in the theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition began in 1990, when the two sides clashed over so-called “uniatism,” meaning the ways in which Catholic communities of the Eastern rites duplicate in everything the parallel Orthodox communities, differing only by their obedience to the Church of Rome.
In Balamond, in Lebanon, the dialogue came to a halt. It hit an even bigger obstacle on the Russian side, where the patriarchate of Moscow could not tolerate seeing itself “invaded” by Catholic missionaries sent there by Pope John Paul II, who were all the more suspect because they were of Polish nationality, historically a rival.
The dialogue remained frozen until, in 2005, the German Joseph Ratzinger ascended to the throne of Peter, a pope highly appreciated in the East for the same reason he prompts criticisms in the West: for his attachment to the great Tradition.
First in Belgrade in 2006, and then in Ravenna in 2007, the international mixed commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches started meeting again.
And what rose to the top of the discussion was precisely the question that most divides East and West: the primacy of the successor of Peter in the universal Church.
From the session in Ravenna emerged the document that marked the shift, dedicated to “conciliarity and authority” in the ecclesial communion.
The document of Ravenna, approved unanimously by both sides, affirms that “primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent.” And in paragraph 41, it highlights the points of agreement and disagreement:
“Both sides agree that . . . that Rome, as the Church that ‘presides in love’ according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs. They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as protos, a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium.”
“Protos” is the Greek word that means “first.” And “taxis” is the structure of the universal Church.
Since then, the discussion on controversial points has advanced at an accelerated pace. And it has started to examine, above all, how the Churches of East and West interpreted the role of the bishop of Rome during the first millennium, when they were still united.
The basis of the discussion is a text that was drafted on the island of Crete at the beginning of autumn in 2008.
The text has never been made public before now. It is in English, and can be read in its entirety on this page of www.chiesa:
The international mixed commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches started discussing this text in Paphos, on the island of Cyprus, from October 16-23, 2009.
It has started to examine the preaching of Peter and Paul in Rome, their martyrdom and the presence of their tombs in Rome, which for Irenaeus of Lyons confers preeminent authority on the apostolic Roman see.
From there, the discussion continued by examining the letter of Pope Clement to the Christians of Corinth, the testimony of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who identifies the Church of Rome as the one that “presides in charity,” the role of popes Anicetus and Victor in the controversy surrounding the date of Easter, the positions of St. Cyprian of Carthage in the controversy over whether or not to rebaptize the “lapsi,” meaning the Christians who had sacrificed to idols in order to save their lives.
The intention is to understand to what extent the form that the primacy of the bishop of Rome had in the first millennium can act as a model for a rediscovered unity between East and West in the third millennium of the Christian era.
In the middle, however, there has been a second millennium in which the primacy of the pope was interpreted and lived, in the West, in increasingly accentuated forms, far from the ones that the Churches of the East are willing to accept today.
And this will be the critical point of the discussion. But the delegations from the two sides are not afraid to face it. Benedict XVI himself said this last January 20, explaining in the general audience to the faithful the meaning of the week of prayer for Christian unity:
“With the Orthodox Churches, the international mixed commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches has begun to study a crucial theme in the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox: the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium, meaning the time in which the Christians of the East and West lived in full communion. This study will be extended afterward to the second millennium.”
The next session already has a preset place, Vienna, and a date, from September 20-27, 2010.
For all these years, the head of the Catholic delegation has been Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the pontifical council for the promotion of Christian unity.
As head of the Orthodox delegation for years has been metropolitan of Pergamon Joannis Zizioulas, a theologian of recognized value and of great authority, the “mind” of ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, and highly respected by pope Ratzinger, with whom he has a relationship of deep friendship.
Relations have also improved with the patriarch of Moscow. In Ravenna, the Russian delegates had abandoned the work because of a disagreement with the patriarch of Constantinople on whether or not to admit Orthodox representatives from the Church of Estonia, which is not recognized by Moscow.
But in Paphos, last October, the tear has been patched up. And now the patriarchate of Moscow has friendly relations with Rome as well. Proof of this came a few months ago, the publication by the patriarchate of a book with writings by Benedict XVI, an initiative without precedent in history.
The initiative will soon be reciprocated by Rome, with writings by patriarch Kirill collected in a volume published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
A meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow is now also in the realm of possibility. Maybe sooner than one might think.
The complete text of the document of Ravenna from 2007:
The message sent on November 25, 2009, by Benedict XVI to the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, on the occasion of the feast of Saint Andrew:
The important interview given by metropolitan of Pergamon Joannis Zizioulas, head of the Orthodox delegation in October of 2009, during the session in Paphos on the island of Cyprus: