May 06, 2019

Pope Francis’ ecumenical “equivicinity”

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis meets with Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church Neofit in Sofia, Bulgaria, May 5th, 2019 / credit: Vatican Media / ACI Group
Pope Francis meets with Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church Neofit in Sofia, Bulgaria, May 5th, 2019 / credit: Vatican Media / ACI Group

On May 4th, on the eve of Pope Francis’ trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia, the Holy See Press Office communicated that Pope Francis summoned the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) and its metropolitan bishops to the Vatican, for a meeting set up on July 6-7. 

It will be an interdicasterial meeting, which means that it will also involve some heads of Vatican dicasteries. Likely, the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Eastern Churches will take part in the meeting. There could also be a representative of the Dicastery for the Service to Integral Human Development, which coordinated the collection and the delivery of aids of the project “Pope For Ukraine.” 

Right after the announcement, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, noted that Pope Francis wants to involve the UGCC in a sort of road map for the country. Ukraine has been enduring for six years now a “forgotten conflict,” as Pope Francis himself labeled it. 

The meeting is still not what the UGCC would wish. In the end, the UGCC would be fully satisfied if at least one of these events would happen: a Pope Francis’ visit to Ukraine; the recognition of UGCC as Patriarchate; the beatification of major archbishop Andrey Sheptysky, considered a real symbol of the Church and the nation. 

Pope Francis made an intermediate step instead.

Pope Francis confirmed his strategy toward the Eastern Churches, and in particular toward those churches who experience some tensions with the Orthodox world in general and with Moscow Patriarchate in particular.

This strategy, a sort of “ecumenical Ostpolitik,” can be described as a strategy of "equivicinity", with a joke that works very well in Italian.

What does it mean? 

Equidistant means equally distant. The term can be also applied to people who maintain the same distance from all the parties. 

Pope Francis ecumenical approach is instead that of an “equivicinity.” That is, to be equally close to everyone. 

Pope Francis’ trip to Bulgaria and North Macedonia is part of the picture.

In Bulgaria, Pope Francis confronted with one of the more resistant Orthodox Churches. Before Pope Francis’ visit, the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church clarified it was impossible for Orthodox to participate to Pope Francis’ celebrations.

In fact, beyond the meeting at the Synod, there was not any public celebration. In Romania, Pope Francis will pray the “Our Father” together with Patriarch Daniel. In Bulgaria, there was just a Pope Francis’ silent prayer in front of the throne of St. Cyrill and Methodius in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 

Despite these difficulties, Pope Francis preferred highlighting what unites. 

Pope Francis pivoted his speech at the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church on the ecumenism of blood, that is the persecution that both Catholic and Orthodox endured in Bulgaria during the Communist regime. 

Then, Pope Francis focused on the traditional visit of the Bulgarian delegation to the Vatican on the occasion of the feast of St. Cyrill and Methodius, that is celebrated on May 24 according to the Gregorian calendar. 

The visit has been taking part for 50 years now. For 33 years now, the Bulgarian delegation is joined by the North Macedonian delegation. The event unites the two countries Pope Francis is visiting. 

Pope Francis used the meeting to explain the possibilities of an encounter even when dialogue might be difficult. It is difficult between Catholic and Orthodox, but it is complicated also within the Orthodoxy. 

Tracing back all the issues of the fragmented Orthodox world is complicated. 

In North Macedonia, there is an autocephalous Church, the Macedonian Orthodox Church. The Macedonian Orthodox Church was established in 1967 but it is not recognized by Orthodox communion, and it is considered schismatic. The Patriarchate of Serbia claims the Macedonian territory as its canonical territory. 

Recently, the Macedonian Orthodox Church became a path to recognize the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as its mother Church, to be finally acknowledged in the Orthodox world. 

The Holy See never said a word on the issues of the autocephaly, which an internal Orthodox point. At the same time, the Holy See always kept relations with the Macedonian Orthodox Church. 

Archbishop Stefan, head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, noted with CNA that “the Vatican always showed great sympathy toward the Macedonian Orthodox Church, and many professors in the educational institutions of our Church were formed in the Holy See institutions in Rome.” 

The Macedonian Orthodox Church self-proclaimed its autonomy at the end of a compound path. The Archbishopry of Ochrid was established n 971. In 1767, the Ottoman Empire abolished the Archbishopry and put it under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. 

After that, Macedonian referred for a while to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and then in 1920, the territory passed under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church following the establishment of the Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian kingdom.

Despite the friendship ties, the Holy See has always been prudent about the issues of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. She did not get into the autocephaly issue but kept connections saving some necessary formality.

Pope Francis and Archbishop Stefan do not entertain the usual meetings between two religious heads, but they have meetings. For example, Archbishop Stefan is always part of the national delegation that visits the Vatican for the St. Cyrill and Methodius feast. 

This is the general framework that led the Macedonian Orthodox Church to appeal to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. This framework is also on the background of this Papal trip. Everything, in the end, is connected, as every national Orthodox Church presents some autonomy claims. 

Pope Francis faces these issues with an ecumenism based on common challenges. Pope Francis’ has a pragmatic approach to ecumenism, which already proved to work in some circumstances. 

Bishop Hristo Proykov, apostolic exarch of Sofia and president of the Bulgarian Bishops Conference, recounted that orthodox and Catholics worked well together in Bulgaria when they lobbied to stop a pro-abortion law in the Parliament. 

Emmanuil Patashev, general secretary of Caritas Bulgaria, underscored that the work done by Caritas is very much appreciated by orthodox, as they do not have similar structures. 

However, this approach is not easily applied when the dialogue comes to be among the top religious ranks.

Allegation of heresies, theological debates, and a closed mind are, in the end, expressions of Churches that are very much linked to national reality and are in some case even nationalist. 

In this case, Pope Francis decided to concede something and listen. 

He did in a few cases. For example: when the Serbian Orthodox Church protested for the possible canonization of Blessed Aloizije Stepinac, Pope Francis established a Catholic-Orthodox joint commission. 

Pope Francis also sought a new approach. 

He described the joint declaration he signed along the Moscow Patriarch Kirill in 2015 as “a pastoral document,” and at the same time, he did not miss to show closeness to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic world. 

In the end, Pope Francis does not take stances. He mostly tries to keep close to all the parties, assuming the good reasons of everyone.

For this reason, his ecumenical approach can be described as an approach of "equivicinity."

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.