Pope Francis calls for unity with Orthodox Churches

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I in Greece April 16 2016 Credit LOsservatore Romano CNA Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I in Greece, April 16, 2016. | L'Osservatore Romano.

On the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, Pope Francis told the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople that while the Holy Spirit has in recent years prompted a "fraternal dialogue" between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, both Churches should work to achieve full communion with one another.

"While centuries of mutual misunderstanding, differences and silence may seem to have compromised [the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Church], the Holy Spirit, Spirit of unity, has enabled us to recommence a fraternal dialogue," the pope wrote.

"This was definitively resumed by our venerable predecessors, Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Saint Paul VI, and has enabled us to rediscover those bonds of communion that have always existed between us."

"The search for the re-establishment of full communion is above all a response to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, who on the eve of his Passion prayed that his disciples 'may all be one,'" the pope added.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the de facto leader of Orthodox Christianity, is believed to be the successor of St. Andrew. While the various Orthodox Churches around the world are not subject to his administrative authority, he is generally regarded as primus inter pares, or "first among equals" in relationship to the patriarchs of other Orthodox Churches.

The current patriarch is Bartholomew I, who has held the position since 1991, and is widely seen to have fostered collaborative dialogue with Pope Francis and his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope St. John Paul II.

The pope's greetings come amid a difficult year for Orthodoxy. In October, the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox Churches, broke communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, after a disagreement about the state of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. While the Patriarch of Constantinople made moves to recognize the autonomy of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the Patriarchate of Moscow insisted that Orthodox Ukrainians remain subject to its jurisdiction.

Russian Orthodox Christians are, by some estimates, more than half of the total number of Orthodox Christians around the world.

While Pope Francis did not specifically address the Orthodox rift, he did write that "in a world wounded by conflict, the unity of Christians is a sign of hope that must radiate ever more visibly."

Pope Francis also wrote that, despite theological differences, "both Churches, with a sense of responsibility towards the world, have sensed that urgent call, which involves each of us who have been baptized, to proclaim the Gospel to all men and women. For this reason, we can work together today in the search for peace among peoples, for the abolition of all forms of slavery, for the respect and dignity of every human being and for the care of creation."

"With God's help, through encounter and dialogue on our journey together over the last fifty years, we already experience being in communion, even though it is not yet full and complete."

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