One the Embrace, Many the Divisions
The encounter between Francis and Bartholomew at the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. But there’s rupture between the Greek Orthodox patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch. And open conflict between Constantinople and Moscow, on the question of primacy. The anti-papal sentiment of Eastern Christians
by Sandro Magister
ROME, May 26, 2014 – The images of Pope Francis in front of the western wall of the temple in Jerusalem, just as, on the previous day, in silence and stillness in front of the dividing wall of Bethlehem have polarized the attention of the media all over the world.
But it is another wall that gave rise to the voyage of pope Jorge Mario Bergogio to the Holy Land.
It is the wall that divides Christians among themselves.
Exactly fifty years ago, on January 5, 1964, the embrace in Jerusalem between Paul VI and patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras marked the beginning of a journey of reconciliation between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Just as back then the proposal was made by Athenagoras to the pope, this time as well it was his successor Bartholomew who proposed to Francis the renewal of that encounter in Jerusalem.
The pope accepted the proposal right away. And for the first time in history a papal voyage was planned by common agreement with the patriarchate of Constantinople, in the part concerning the two Churches.
With two important innovations with respect to the encounter fifty years ago between Paul VI and Athenagoras:
– the participation of representatives of other Christian Churches and denominations at the event, not only Eastern but also belonging to the lineage of the Protestant Reformation,
– and the place of the encounter, the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with the rock of the cross and the stone rolled away at the resurrection, a foundation of the faith of all Christians.
Both of these innovations mark the progress that has been made over half a century in the ecumenical journey between the Christian Churches.
But both also bear witness to how arduous and obstacle-ridden this journey still remains.
The basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is the living symbol of the extent to which the historical divisions between the Churches complicate their coexistence, and at times lead to conflict. On the basis of a “status quo” dating back to 1753 and the Ottoman empire, the ownership of the basilica is assigned to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Apostolic patriarchate. But use of the basilica is also permitted for Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian Christians. For all with a meticulous allotment of times and places, failure to respect which not rarely unleashes conflicts that can even be physical between one side and another, within the sacred space, with the Israeli police rushing in to quell the tumult.
The very fact that the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople have been welcomed peacefully into the basilica and have performed a liturgy there, in an exemption from the rules of the “status quo,” is certainly an important sign.
At the same time, however, the very person who on the evening of Sunday, May 25 welcomed into the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre the two illustrious guests from Rome and Constantinople, Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, is a living witness of the divisions that separate not only the Latin Church from Orthodoxy, but also the Eastern Churches among themselves.
The Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem, of the Byzantine rite, the origins of which go back to apostolic times, is the Christian community most present in the Holy Land.
But last April 29 the patriarch of this church, Theophilos III, was liturgically outlawed by another historic patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, that of Antioch and all the East, John X.
Since then, in celebrating the divine liturgy John no longer includes the name of Theophilos among those of the Orthodox Churches in communion with each other.
The reason for this rupture, declared unilaterally by the synod of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, was the creation of a new diocese in Qatar by Theophilos one year ago, in a territory that the patriarchate of Antioch considers its own.
But the consequences immediately went beyond this clash between the two patriarchates. And have overrun the entire field of orthodoxy.
On March 9 the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, called the heads of all the Orthodox Churches to Istanbul, to announce in agreement with all of them the convocation in 2016 of the pan-Orthodox council that had been awaited for decades but never agreed upon.
In the Byzantine liturgical calendar, March 9 was also the Sunday “of Orthodoxy.” Both John X and Theophilos III were present in Istanbul. But the former did not sign the declaration setting 2016 for the convocation of the pan-Orthodox council. Nor did he participate in the divine liturgy.
Another sign of division was that the encounter in Jerusalem between Francis and Bartholomew was not attended by any leading representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, by far the largest in the field of Orthodoxy.
In his discourse at the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, pope Bergoglio renewed “the hope for a continued dialogue with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all.”
A new meeting has already been scheduled for next September in Novi Sad, Serbia, for the joint team of bishops and theologians called the “joint international commission for theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church,” which is supposed to continue the study of the question of papal primacy in the footsteps of the document approved in Ravenna in 2007 by all the members of the commission.
But the Russian Church was absent from Ravenna, and over the subsequent years has always stressed its disagreement with that document.
Not only that. In a document approved by its synod last winter the patriarchate of Moscow flatly ruled out any type of “primacy” – whether of the head of the Church of Rome, or of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople among the Orthodox Churches – that is not purely honorific and among equals.
The patriarchate of Constantinople replied to this document in a no less decisive fashion.
But there’s more. There is the fear that the progress made so far in ecumenical dialogue between Rome and the Eastern Churches belongs to a narrow and enlightened elite and is far from being accepted by the bulk of the Orthodox hierarchy and faithful.
One indication of this is a long-winded open letter, in Italian and English, sent last April 10 to the pope – or more exactly “to the most illustrious Francis, head of Vatican State” – by two metropolitan bishops of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Seraphim of Piraeus and Andrew of Konitsa.
The letter is an interminable and unabashed assembly of accusations, culminating in those of heresy and idolatry, in support of the idea that “There can exist no form of compromise between Orthodoxy and Papism.”
The two authors are the most prominent representatives of the traditionalist wing of the Greek Orthodox Church. But according to Professor Enrico Morini, “they reflect the positions of a large part of the Orthodox hierarchy in Greece but also in Russia and Romania, and to an even greater extent of the most conscientious and fervent Orthodox faithful.”
Morini is a professor of the history and institutions of the Orthodox Church at the state university of Bologna and the theological faculty of Emilia Romagna, and president of the commission for ecumenism of the archdiocese of Bologna.
The program of the voyage of Pope Francis to Amman, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, with the discourses that will be presented:
For more details on the background:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.