Announcing the trip Jan. 5, Pope Francis said its “principal goal” is “to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras I, that occurred … 50 years ago today.”
That encounter was the beginning of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and led to a joint declaration issued in 1965 which declared the two leaders' desire “to overcome their differences in order to be again ‘one’ as the Lord Jesus asked of his Father for them”, and which lifted the mutual excommunications of their predecessors issued in 1054, which profoundly contributed to the schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Pope Francis is visiting with Patriarch Bartholomew at the Patriarch's request, which was made at the Roman Pontiff's inaugural Mass on March 19. That was the first time the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople had attended such an event since 1054.
Following the Mass, Patriarch Bartholomew suggested that they visit the Holy Land together, commemorating and hopefully replicating the embrace between their predecessors; Pope Francis responded by embracing the Patriarch.
Pope Francis' visit will take place May 24-26, where he and the Patriarch will celebrate an ecumenical meeting at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ's burial in Jerusalem, which is shared among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Catholics.
In addition to visiting Jerusalem, Pope Francis will travel to Bethlehem, in Palestine, and to Amman, in Jordan.
Pope Francis' good relations build with Patriarch Bartholomew build on those of his predecessors since Paul VI.
Benedict XVI visited Istanbul in 2006, praying with Patriarch Bartholomew, and the patriarch came to the Vatican to meet with Benedict two years later. He also attend the opening of the Year of Faith with Benedict in St. Peter's Square in 2012.
In 2006, under Benedict, the papal title “Patriarch of the West” was abandoned as “obsolete and practically unusable,” with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity saying it “could prove useful to ecumenical dialogue.”
Pope Francis has shown an ecumenical sensitivity as Roman Pontiff; on his election March 13, he presented himself as the Bishop of Rome, the Church “which presides in charity over all the Churches.”
His words reprized a joint document issued by the Catholic-Orthodox theological commission in 2007, which discussed ecclesiology, conciliarity, and authority.
“Both sides agree,” according to the document, “that Rome, as the Church that ‘presides in love,’ according to the phrase of St. Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the (Churches’ order) and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the (first) among the patriarchs.”
The document also noted that the sides “disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence … regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as (first), a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium.”
In addition to his preferential option for the use of “Bishop of Rome” over “Pope”, Francis has also laid emphasis on synodality, a model of Church governance more characteristic of the Eastern Orthodox.
In an interview with La Civilta Cattolica Sept. 30, he said, “synodality should be lived at various levels. Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops, because it seems to me that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality.”
He also sent greetings to Patriarch Bartholomew on Nov. 30, the feast of the Patriarch's initial predecessor, St. Andrew, assuring him of “my intention to pursue fraternal relations between the Church of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”
Among the Eastern Orthodox, Patriarch Bartholomew is strongly committed to encouraging the Churches to further ecumenical dialogue.
Patriarch Bartholomew has held his position since 1991. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox communion, which has over 300 million followers worldwide.
He has convoked a meeting of Orthodox bishops in Istanbul to be held in March, the first such since 2008. The meeting will be conceived as an exchange of views on the guidelines and time frame for the Preparatory Commission of the Pan-Orthodox Synod, scheduled for 2015.
As Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew can do much to foster dialogue and can give an impetus for ecumenism to the Orthodox Churches.
While at one time ecumenical dialogue was considered a sort of utopia, “now we are brothers in faith dialoguing,” Nikos Tzoitis, an official of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, told CNA Jan. 7.
Pope Francis' pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to be held in May, will center on his encounter with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Eastern Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople, and their discussions on ecumenism.
Palestine, Patriarch Bartholomew I, Eastern Orthodoxy