In a meeting with Orthodox bishops in Cyprus on Friday, Pope Francis expressed the desire that the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church will continue to journey toward full unity.
The live-streamed meeting with members of the Holy Synod took place on the second day of Francis’ Dec. 2-6 trip to the Mediterranean island countries of Cyprus and Greece.
The Holy Synod is the highest authority of the Church of Cyprus, an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church.
“The grace of being here reminds me that we have a common apostolic origin: Paul traversed Cyprus and went on to Rome,” Pope Francis said Dec. 3. “We are thus heirs of the same apostolic zeal, and a single path joins us, that of the Gospel. I like to see us advancing on that same path, seeking ever greater fraternity and full unity.”
The meeting with Orthodox bishops followed a private meeting between Francis and Chrysostomos II, the Orthodox archbishop of Cyprus, at his residence early Friday morning.
Pope Francis said in his speech that he had been touched by the way that Chrysostomos II had spoken about the Church as a mother.
Chrysostomos II represented the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus at the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the opening Mass of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. Benedict XVI and Chrysostomos II met another two times at the Vatican and during Benedict’s own trip to Cyprus in 2010 — the first papal visit to the island.
Pope Francis thanked the bishops for their active participation in the International Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
He reflected on the example of St. Barnabas, an apostle who came from Cyprus and helped St. Paul to spread the Gospel among pagans.
“Barnabas, son of consolation, exhorts us, his brethren, to undertake the same mission of bringing the Gospel to humanity; he asks us to realize that the message cannot be based only on generic exhortations, the inculcation of precepts and rules to be followed, as often has been the case,” the pope said.
“Rather, it must follow the path of personal encounter, be attentive to people’s questions, to their existential needs.”
“Because the Gospel is not handed on by communication, but by communion,” Francis emphasized. “It is this that we Catholics want to experience in the next few years, as we rediscover the synodal dimension, which is essential to being Church.”
“In this, we feel the need to walk more closely alongside you, dear brethren, who, through your experience of synodality, can truly help us,” he said.
Pope Francis met the Holy Synod in the Cathedral of St. John the Theologian, the Orthodox cathedral of the Church of Cyprus in Nicosia, the country’s divided capital city. The cathedral was built in the 14th century and the interior features frescoes depicting scenes from Scripture.
“It is my heartfelt hope that there will be increased opportunities for encounter, for coming to know one another better, for eliminating preconceptions and for listening with docility to our respective experiences of faith,” the pope said in his speech.
He also spoke about the importance of keeping what is sacred, but not “absolutizing” certain customs and habits “that do not require uniformity and assent on the part of all.”
“Let us not become paralyzed by fear of openness or bold gestures, or give in to talk of ‘irreconcilable differences’ that in fact have nothing to do with the Gospel. Let us not permit the ‘traditions,’ in the plural and with a small ‘t,’ to prevail over ‘Tradition’ in the singular and with a capital ‘T,’” he said.
“That Tradition bids us imitate Barnabas and leave behind everything, however good, that could compromise the fullness of communion, the primacy of charity, and the need for unity.”
Pope Francis said that St. Barnabas laid all he had at the feet of the Apostles, and “we too are asked by the Lord to realize that we are members of the same body and to bow down, even to the feet of our brethren.”
He noted the deep divide that exists between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, but said that “the Holy Spirit desires that with humility and respect we once more draw close to one another.”
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“[The Holy Spirit] invites us not to grow resigned to our past divisions and to cultivate together the field of the kingdom with patience, perseverance, and concrete gestures,” he said. “For if we set aside abstract concepts and cooperate, for example in works of charity, education and the promotion of human dignity, we will rediscover our fraternity, and communion will mature by itself, to the praise of God.”
Francis said that Cyprus’ Church of Panagia Chrysopolitissa, “Our Lady of the Golden City,” is a concrete example of fraternity, since it serves as a place of worship for all of the Christian confessions in the country.
“It is thus a sign of communion in faith and life under the gaze of the Mother of God who gathers her children together,” he said.
“Each will maintain his own customs and identity, but in time, our joint efforts will increase concord and bear fruit,” the pope continued. “Just as these beautiful Mediterranean lands are embellished by respectful and patient human labor, so too, with God’s help and humble perseverance, may we cultivate our apostolic communion.”
Pope Francis landed on Dec. 2 in Cyprus at the start of a five-day trip that will also take him to Athens, Greece, and the island of Lesbos. The visit is expected to highlight the plight of migrants, since both countries have been major stopping points for people seeking to enter Europe, mainly from the Middle East and Africa.
The predominantly Orthodox Christian Republic of Cyprus has a population of 1.2 million people, just 10,000 of whom are Catholic.
The island is split by a U.N. buffer zone, with the de facto state of Northern Cyprus located on the northeastern portion of the island. The predominantly Sunni Muslim territory is recognized only by neighboring Turkey, which invaded Cyprus in 1974, and is regarded by all other states as part of the Republic of Cyprus.
Cyprus and Greece are significant in early Christian history, because the Apostles St. Paul and St. Barnabas traveled to the Mediterranean countries to bring the Gospel. The Acts of the Apostles records that St. Paul stopped in Cyprus and converted the Roman Proconsul Sergius Paulus to Christianity. The Apostle also famously preached on the streets of Athens.
“Dear brethren, I wish to assure you of my own prayer and closeness, and that of the Catholic Church, in the most troubling problems that beset you and in the best and boldest hopes that spur you on,” Pope Francis told the Orthodox bishops. “Your sorrows and your joys are also ours; we sense them as our own. At the same time, we feel great need of your prayers.”