“Behold, how good and pleasant it is,” said the psalmist in Psalm 133, “when brothers dwell in unity!” Indeed, it is as if the proverbially-copious dew of Mount Hermon in northern Palestine were to fall as far south as the dry mountains of Zion (verse 3). Such references to Zion and brotherly unity are all the more timely, given that Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are scheduled to meet and pray together in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem late in May. The date was chosen as marking the fiftieth anniversary of the historic meeting of their predecessors, when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I met together in Jerusalem and began to thaw the previously chilly relationship between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, initiating what came to be known as the “dialogue of love”. Prominent and news-worthy in that dialogue was the occasion in 1965 when they together formally “consigned to oblivion” the mutual anathemas pronounced by Roman and Constantinopolitan bishops in 1054.
Such acts have largely symbolic value, since they do not restore inter-communion between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, nor do they resolve any of the many significant outstanding issues separating them. They can have little practical value, since the bishops upon whom anathemas were lifted have now been dead for over a thousand years. But symbolism is important, as Orthodox people should know better than anyone. Indeed, the meeting this May is all about symbolism.We may take it for granted that the complex nuances of ecclesiology will largely escape the media. They seemingly cannot be persuaded that the Patriarch of Constantinople does not occupy the same place in Orthodoxy as the Pope of Rome does in Roman Catholicism, and they tend to view such meetings as meetings “between the two heads of the churches”, forgetting that the Ecumenical Patriarch is not the Orthodox Pope. Whether or not the bishop in Rome speaks for all Roman Catholics, the bishop in Istanbul does not speak for all Orthodox, as he would be the first one to admit. He speaks for his own ecumenical see. But like all his Orthodox brother bishops, he speaks from within Holy Tradition, so that he is not simply giving his own take on individual issues, but explaining what has always been the tradition of Orthodoxy. Given that any pronouncements and acts will have only symbolic value, what can we hope for from this meeting?
First, let us remind ourselves of what we should not hope for.
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