Home > Archives > 02 - 2004 > The Bishop of Rome and the unity of Christians
from issue no. 02 - 2004

The Bishop of Rome and the unity of Christians

The theologian Bruno Forte discusses the issues brought up by Patriarch Bartholomew I in the last edition of 30Days: «On the path towards unity, the role of Peter and of his successors was and is of decisive importance for the Church».

by Gianni Valente

Bruno Forte

Bruno Forte

The year 2004 is revealing itself to be a year of significant approaches in relations between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Churches. After the meeting in Moscow between Patriarch Alexis II and Cardinal Walter Kasper, which occurred on 22 February, the Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I may come to Rome on 29 June next, on the occasion of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul patron saints of Rome, taking up the invitation expressly directed to him for that date by John Paul II himself in a letter which was dated 16 January last (see box).
The meetings which have already taken place and those on the agenda overlap with the numerous historical anniversaries scattered throughout the current year. In the middle of next July the 950th anniversary of the mutual excommunication between the papal legate Umberto di Silvacandida and the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerulario occurs, the episode in 1054 which popular historiography reports as the date of the schism between the Eastern Churches and the Church of Rome. While the 800th anniversary of that crusade of 1204 which saw the Christian militia of the West sack schismatic Byzantium is about to occur. But other anniversaries of a completely different kind, which recall important moments of expectation at the beginning of ecumenical dialogue also fall this year. In his first Angelus of this year John Paul II recalled the embrace between his predecessor Paul VI and Ecumenic Patriarch Athenagoras, in in Jerusalem on 5 January 1964. And next November fortieth anniversary of the promulgation of Unitatis redintegratio, the decree on ecumenism issued by the last Ecumenical Council, will be celebrated by a big conference organized in Frascati by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.
In a context full of such suggestive reference, the long interview with Ecumenic Patriarch Bartholomew I published in the last edition of 30Days is only the first of a series of speeches and articles which this magazine intends to dedicate throughout the course of the year to the theological and historical reasons and to the present misunderstandings which still keep open the gap separating the greater part of the Eastern Churches and the Church of Rome. Many of these have to do with the function of the Bishop of Rome as the successor of the apostle Peter. An issue on which John Paul II himself, in the encyclical Ut unum sint of 1995, favored an ecclesial discussion, tranquil but free, describing it as «significant and encouraging that the question of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome has currently become an object of study» (no. 89), and showing that he was taking seriously «the question put to me to find a form of exercise of the primacy which, though not renouncing in any way the essentials of its mission, is open to a new situation» (no. 95).
<I>The vocation of Peter and Andrew</I> (1601), oil on canvas, Royal Gallery Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London.  The photo is published in the book by Maurizio Marini, Caravaggio, Rome, 2001. The famous art historian Sir Denis Mahon, following  a recent work of cleaning, attributed this canvas to Caravaggio.

The vocation of Peter and Andrew (1601), oil on canvas, Royal Gallery Collection, Hampton Court Palace, London. The photo is published in the book by Maurizio Marini, Caravaggio, Rome, 2001. The famous art historian Sir Denis Mahon, following a recent work of cleaning, attributed this canvas to Caravaggio.

In this light, the most provocative passages of the above mentioned interview may also open positive perspectives. As, for example, whether it is possible and providential to distinguish the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, such as it was defined by the Church, from projects of spiritual, cultural and political hegemony.
On some of the judgments expressed in the interview by the Patriarch Bartholomew, 30Days sought the opinion of one of the best known and universally respected Catholic theologians, called this year to preach the spiritual exercises of the beginning of Lent to the Pope and the Roman Curia. Bruno Forte was born in 1949 in Naples. Ordained priest in 1973, he is professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy. He spent long periods of research in Tubingen and Paris. He is known and admired all over the world for the lectures and papers given in many European and American Universities and for his refresher courses and spiritual exercises on the various continents. He is a member of the International Theological Commission, and in it presided over the work group which drew up the document Memory and reconciliation: the Church and the faults of the past (February 2000). His main works (many of which are translated into the influential European languages and many others) are Simbolica ecclesiale (San Paolo Editions, Milan), in eight volumes, and Dialogica (Morcelliana, Brescia), in four volumes.

The interview with the Ecumenic Patriarch Bartholomew published in the last edition of 30Days caused some debate. Did you get a chance to read it?
BRUNO FORTE: Yes, it was pointed out to me and I read it with interest. I have profound esteem for His Holiness Bartholomew I, an esteem born many years ago when as a young priest, a delegate for ecumenism for the Church of Naples, I had the opportunity to invite him to hold a conference on the dialogue between East and West, long before he was elected successor to Patriarch Dimitrios. From that moment I was struck by his deep faith, his passion for unity and his great knowledge of the Catholic world, joined to a singular mastery of languages (among the others he speaks Italian very well). Then I had the opportunity to pay him a visit in Constantinople, at Fanar, when I was leading a group of pilgrims in the footsteps of the apostle Paul: all of us were won over by his welcome and by the desire for unity which his words reawoke in us. I believe that his recent declarations should be read in the light of an old and constant commitment to ecumenical dialogue: to isolate one or two statements from that background would do no justice to the theological and spiritual stature of the current Patriarch of Constantinople.
What struck you, in particular, in the overview in which Bartholomew spoke of the reasons which fomented the division all through the second Christian millennium?
FORTE: The point with which I agree in the statements contained in the interview is that the deep cause of the division and of the scandal which accompanied it was the spirit of worldliness which insinuated itself in various forms and at different times into the consciousness of the disciples of Christ. When the calculation of the power of this world takes over from the sole claim to glory for believers, which is the following of Jesus crucified for the salvation of the world, any distortion becomes possible. The great weapon of the Adversary to distance men from the Gospel of Christ is that of dividing Christians: if the Lord himself said that “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35), it’s obvious that the lack of reciprocal love, division, will conceal from the world the Countenance of the Redeemer. And nothing favors division so much as a logic of power and of success in this world, taking over from the charity lived in the giving of oneself to the end. In this, His Holiness Bartholomew states a great truth.
The embrace between Bartholomew I and John Paul II on 29 June in the Basilica of Saint Peter’s

The embrace between Bartholomew I and John Paul II on 29 June in the Basilica of Saint Peter’s

Are there passages in the interview which appeared less convincing to you?
FORTE: The point about which I would allow myself to advance a reservation is the emphasis which the Patriarch places on the exclusive responsibility of the Western Church for this sin of worldliness: it is alleged to have “founded its hope on its worldly power”, as distinct from Orthodox man, who “places his hope principally in God”. Also admitting the faults committed by the sons of the Catholic Church – and John Paul II did so decidedly during the Jubilee of 2000, giving an extraordinary example of hope in the power of the Truth which liberates and saves – it seems to me impossible to believe that Satan finds easy prey only in the Christians of the West. In reality the temptation to power and worldliness was present in the centuries of united Christianity, in the West as well as in the East. If I were to give historical examples, I believe that it wouldn’t be difficult to find them among Orthodox Christians as it was not difficult to point them out in Catholic Christians. The fact is that the Evil One lies in ambush everywhere and unfortunately no one can invoke the innocence of Eden or the perfect following of the Cross for a section of the Church, seeing on the other side all the faults and yieldings to the logic of worldliness. On that point – which seems evident to me – the interview of His Holiness Bartholomew appears at least incomplete, unless there was an involuntary misunderstanding in the reporting of his words. Above all I would like to say very clearly that the hope of the Catholic Church, as well as that of the Orthodox, is not to be found in this world, but in Christ, dead and risen for us. If it were not like that, not only would the extraordinary flowering of Saints in the West, as in the East, be inexplicable, but the singular survival of the Church through the centuries would itself be incomprehensible, quite apart from the parabolas of the greatness and decline of the powers of this world that have occurred during the two thousand years of Christianity.
In the interview Bartholomew diminishes the episode which according to popular tradition occasioned the schism. However in the course of the second millennium the division has many times degenerated into conflicts which have the raw irreversibility of historical facts.
FORTE: His Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople is right when he sees the fact of division that occurred in 1054 as the tip of the iceberg of a much vaster process and one rooted in people’s consciousness: I would also like to specify that this seems to me to be exactly the position of Cardinal Walter Kasper, who I also have had the privilege of knowing for years both through his important theological texts and personally. But he reduced the schism to a simple clash of personality between two leading figures, the Papal Legate Umberto di Silvacandida and the Patriarch Michael Cerulario, even if it is evident that the weight of the personalities involved must have had something to do with the precipitation of events. The progress of the division was then helped on by human errors, of which we must all be aware and for which the Church asks pardon, rightly making its own the voice of the victims, in obedience to the truth: I am thinking of the victims of the ruthlessness of the sack of Constantinople in 1204, to which Patriarch Bartholomew refers, but I am also thinking of the many victims of Stalin’s barbarities, who simply wished to wipe out the Greek Catholic Church throughout the Soviet empire, uniting it by force to Moscow. In the one case and in the other it is well to ask forgiveness for possible connivances in what happened on the part of the clergy in charge who didn’t do all that they could or should have done to stop the barbarities and defend the oppressed, as much among Catholics as among the Orthodox.
The historical embrace between Athenagoras and Paul VI in Jerusalem on 5 January 1964

The historical embrace between Athenagoras and Paul VI in Jerusalem on 5 January 1964

Again in the interview with Bartholomew, consensus about the role of the Bishop of Rome emerges as decisive for full communion. The Ecumenic Patriarch says among other things that «the superiority of Peter with regard to the other apostles is stressed in order to justify a primacy of power». What, in your view, is the advantage of dialogue on this point?
FORTE: I would like to underline the reasons for hope which His Holiness Bartholomew refers to many times, when he affirms for example that he considers «dialogue always useful and to expect fruits from it, even if slowly», or when he invites us to count «on the illumination of the Holy Spirit, on divine grace, which always heals from sickness and makes up for missing things». On this path toward unity, the role of Peter and of his successors was and is of decisive importance for the Church, as much in the East as in the West: it is enough to read the New Testament to understand this. Peter is – after Jesus – the figure best known and most quoted in it: he is mentioned 154 times by the nickname Pétros, “stone”, “rock” associated in 27 cases with the Hebrew name Simeon, in the Greek form Simon, while the Aramaic term Kefas, which also means “rock”, recurs 9 times and is preferred by Paul. This simple quantitative fact could not be explained without a specific relevance for the role of Peter’s ministry for the whole Church, according to the wish of Jesus, expressed in such decisive affirmations as, for example, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt 16:18), or the mandate to “confirm” the brethren (cf Luke 22:32). Certainly the exercise of the Petrine ministry has been carried out in a variety ways through history, and John Paul II himself – in the encyclical letter Ut unum sint (no.88 and following) – declared himself ready to listen to the question directed to him by many Christians not in full communion with Rome “«to find a form of the exercise of the primacy which, though not renouncing in any way the essential of its mission, is open to a new situation» (no. 95). In a world which is increasingly becoming a “global village”, the universal ministry of the successor of Peter appears more than ever necessary to the entire Christian ecumene, as was shown for example by the prophetic role which the voice of the Pope had in relation to the recent episode of the war in Iraq. Here it is to be wished that the Eastern Churches will not fail to make their precious contribution to the development of an exercise of this ministry which will serve the unity of all the disciples of Jesus in their testimony to the world and which can be received by all, in obedience to the divine plan for the unity of the Church. It is a help I consider the Bishop of Rome can expect from Churches, so bound on the basis of the doctrine of the faith and of the sacraments to the Catholic Church, and in particular from the Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople who, by the example of his predecessors, beginning with Athenagoras, has done so much and can do so much for the development of the dialogue between East and West and for the growth in unity willed by the Lord, until the Christian ecumene truly breathes fully with both its lungs and the disciples of Christ are also visibly one, “as” Jesus and the Father are one (cf John 17:21).
The meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow Alexis II and Cardinal Walter Kasper on 22 February 2004

The meeting between the Patriarch of Moscow Alexis II and Cardinal Walter Kasper on 22 February 2004

In the interview Bartholomew alluded to a notion that is also accepted by a great part of Catholic historiography, according to which the Gregorian reform gave rise to a form of ecclesiastical structure in the West which contributed to making the estrangement from the East more profound. Do you agree with that historiographical judgment?
FORTE: The life and message of Gregory VII are summed up in the words written on his tomb: “Dilexi iustitiam, odivi iniquitatem, propterea morior in exilio” – “I loved justice, I hated iniquity, so I die in exile”. They express the genuine sense of the reform promised by him, which aimed precisely at ridding the Church of that spirit of worldliness which His Holiness Bartholomew justly sees as the cause of all the evils of the Christian existence. To vindicate the libertas Ecclesiae against an invasive and greedy political power meant resisting simony and immorality among the disciples of Christ, favored instead by the lay investiture of consecrated ministers. This battle anticipated the modern distinction between Church and State, which is often lacking in the historical experience of the Eastern churches: and this lack often revealed itself to be the cause of sufferings and evils for them and also for many non-Orthodox Christian believers. It is strange therefore that the Ecumenic Patriarch judges so negatively a reform inspired by the same anti-worldly spirit which he retains to be so necessary for the good of the Church and the cause of unity. But perhaps the journalistic rendering made more caustic historical judgments that merited much attention, and which – well founded and fairly laid out – lead towards to interesting results for ecumenism itself, as demonstrated for example by the fundamental contributions to the history of ecclesiology made by Father Yves Congar.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português