Home > Archives > 06/07 - 2004 > The unity we hope to see with our own eyes during the days of our earthly life
from issue no. 06/07 - 2004

The unity we hope to see with our own eyes during the days of our earthly life

From his first speech on 29 June the Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople reiterated the elementary terms of the unity for which the Churches must pray, «fixing their gaze on Christ Jesus, author and perfector of the faith, without whom we can do nothing»

by Gianni Valente

Bartholomew I praying before the burial place of the apostle Peter in the Vatican Grottos, on the morning of 29 June 2004

Bartholomew I praying before the burial place of the apostle Peter in the Vatican Grottos, on the morning of 29 June 2004

«With feelings of joy and of sadness we come to you, on this important feastday of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul». The ambivalent opening to the sermon given by Bartholomew I during the evening mass of 29 June, on the parvis of Saint Peter’s crowded with Catholic cardinals and archbishops waiting to receive the pallium from the trembling hands of the Pope, was the keynote of the visit made by the Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople to the Church of Rome and to its Bishop on the feastday of the patron saints of the Eternal City. A sincerity without calculation, having little to do with the pre-packed schemes of pointless “ecumenicist” courtesies. Fair in acknowledging that though «rejoicing with you who rejoice, we are nevertheless sorry because what would have made full the joy of both is lacking, that is the re-establishment of full communion between our Churches».
Bartholomew knows Rome well. He spent some years studying there at the time of the Council. But on this third visit to the City as patriarch there were special expectations in the air. The misunderstandings and resentments following on the letter that Bartholomew had sent to the Pope on 29 November to make plain the opposition of the whole of Orthodoxy to the rumoured recognition of patriarchy for Ukrainian Catholics of Eastern rite had to be dissipated. The reopening of the Roman church of San Teodoro al Palatino in Rome, granted for liturgical use to the Greek-Orthodox of Rome by decision of the Pope was to be celebrated. And then, important anniversaries in the history of relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches fall this year: the schism of the East (1054), the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople (1204), and the embrace in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras (1964) after centuries of hostility between the bishops of the First and Second Rome.
Bartholomew’s actions and words during his days in Rome passed like a gust of wind among ecclesial procedures and formalities. Without getting bogged down in the blind alleys of the thorny querelles about proselytism and Uniatism (just a reference, at the final press conference, limiting the whole question to the «exaggerated, incomprehensible and unacceptable» zeal of «some Polish priests»), from his first speech to the Pope on the morning of 29 June Bartholomew reiterated the elementary terms of the complete unity that the Churches can pray for and await only by «keeping their gaze fixed on Christ Jesus, author and perfector of the faith, without whom we can do nothing». Unity that «with all our heart we hope to see with our own eyes during the days of our earthly life».
The embrace between John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I in Saint Peter’s Square, at the end of the high mass for the feastday of Saints Peter and Paul, on the evening of 29 June

The embrace between John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I in Saint Peter’s Square, at the end of the high mass for the feastday of Saints Peter and Paul, on the evening of 29 June

Unity of the Church and worldly alliances
There is a way of understanding the wished-for unity of the Churches in terms of «worldly» categories and interpretations. Bartholomew, in his speeches in Rome, several times used the adjective to describe the modus operandi that conceives unity as «submission of the Churches and their believers to a single administrative scheme», or «an alliance, ideological or of action, for attaining a common purpose», like «the unions of states, corporations of people and structures whereby a higher organizational unity is created».
Nothing comparable with «the experience coming from the communion of each with Christ, so that unity is made in the experience of Him». A unity in which «the levelling of traditions, of customs and habits of all believers is not sought» but all that is required is to live «communion in the lived experience of the incarnation of the Logos of God, and of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church, as the shared experience of the fact of the Church as Body of Christ». The only dialogue that can interest, «the most important of all», occurs within this horizon.
When this gratuitous insertion into the «lived experience of Christ» is lacking everything can easily become an excuse for disguising one’s pretensions to ecclesiastical power under the name of Christ. «Many times», Bartholomew explained in his homily in Saint Peter’s Square, «over the centuries various believers have asked Christ to approve doings that were not in accord with his mind. Even worse, they have attributed to Christ their own opinions and doctrines, claiming that the one and the other expressed the spirit of Christ. From this have arisen quarrels among believers».

Challenges and concrete gestures
John Paul II also located the meeting with Bartholomew on the long historical arc that has led from the ruptures of 1054 and 1204 to the “shift” of the embrace between Athenagoras and Paul VI and the resumption of theological dialogue between the Church of the East and of the West. On the morning of 29 June, in his speech to the delegation from Phanar, he dwelt in particular on the events of the Fourth Crusade, when «an army that set out to recover the Holy Land for Christianity turned toward Constantinople to take it and ransack it, spilling the blood of brothers in the faith». In his sermon during the evening mass, he recalled the encounter between Paul VI and Athenagoras as «a challenge for us», insisting that the commitment to the path to unity «taken by the Catholic Church with Vatican Council II is irreversible». But more than the speeches and the sermons, it was the concrete gestures that gave the measure of how narrow the gap is that prevents the Catholic and Orthodox Churches from manifesting and living out in all its consequences the full communion observable. Gestures such as the Creed, that Pope and Patriarch recited together in Greek in the original Niceno-Constantinopolitan version during the mass of 29 June. Or like the hymn to the apostle Peter intoned by Bartholomew in front of the burial place of the apostle Peter on the morning of 29 June, when the Patriarch descended into the Vatican Grottos to recite a prayer and place a bunch of flowers on the tomb of Pope Montini.
Patriarch Bartholomew I placing a bunch of flowers on the tomb of Paul VI in the Vatican Grottos, on the morning of 29 June

Patriarch Bartholomew I placing a bunch of flowers on the tomb of Paul VI in the Vatican Grottos, on the morning of 29 June

Orthodoxy in the heart of Rome
The building on the Golden Horn where Bartholomew lives in Istanbul is known to the Turks as Rum Patrikhanesi, the “Roman” patriarchy. In the local slang the Patriarch and his staff are still the Rum, the “Romans”. Descendants of that Byzantine tradition that considered itself the sole heir to the imperial Roman achievement. The excursions Bartholomew made outside the Vatican during his days in Rome were bound by the triangle Capitoline, Palatine and the Tiber Island, in the heart of the City. To reinforce the tie that binds the Ecumenic Patriarchy to the ecclesial and civic reality of the Eternal City.
On the afternoon of 30 June the Patriarch and the whole delegation (which included Metropolitan Chrysostom of Ephesus, John of Pergamum and Gennadios of the archdiocese of Italy) were received by Mayor Walter Veltroni in the Sala delle Bandiere on the Capitoline. Accepting the honor of the She-Wolf of Rome, Bartholomew pointed out that «the idea of rapprochement and collaboration among European peoples gave birth precisely in Rome to the European Union», paying homage to the Eternal City as concrete point of fusion of the three elements constitutive of European civilization: «Democracy, philosophy, art, derive from the ancient Greek spirit. The supremacy of law, state organization, peace as the product of world dominion express the realism of the Roman spirit. Respect for the weak, for women, for children, the spread of charity, the mitigating of cruelty and social clemency express the Christian spirit.... We hope the Christian spirit makes fragrant the life of all the inhabitants of Europe, starting from Rome, the city that has cultivated and blended the principles of these three civilization for centuries».
The meeting of the patriarchal delegation with the Sant’Egidio Community, in the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola, also confirmed the bonds of friendship that have linked the Patriarch to the Rome ecclesial group for some time now. Bartholomew praised the Community for continuing «the inter-religious dialogue in peaceful spirit», while «mutual clashes in the name of religion have spread among men the mistaken idea that God likes hatred and religious extremism». Thus attributing to God himself a perverse denial «of His wisdom and love, that is of Himself».
The meeting with Mayor Walter Veltroni 
on the Capitoline, on the afternoon of 30 June

The meeting with Mayor Walter Veltroni on the Capitoline, on the afternoon of 30 June

On the morning of 1 July the re-established tie between the Churches of the First and Second Rome on their way to full communion was shown in stable and concrete form in the handing-over of the church on the Palatine dedicated to the martyr Teodoro Tirone. It was entrusted by the diocese of Rome on the wish of its Bishop to the Orthodox archdiocese of Italy and is destined to become the Rome parish of Greek-Orthodox believers. A church with a circular ground plan, a place of worship since the 6th century, completely restored over the last two years to suit the needs of the Byzantine liturgy with funds provided by Mrs. Fotini Livanos, of the rich family of Greek shipbuilders. And where for more than two hours Bartholomew presided over the thyranixion, the solemn celebration of inauguration of liturgical use by the Greek-Orthodox community, in the presence of many Catholic churchmen, including the Cardinal Vicar Camillo Ruini, Cardinal Walter Kasper and the substitute to the Secretariat of State Leonardo Sandri. In the small church, new Orthodox outpost in the heart of ancient Rome, Bartholomew expressed his thanks to the Pope and his collaborators, speaking of the concession for use of the «ancient temple» also in the prospect of the «agreement on important points pleasing to God, agreement that will bring about the desired sacramental union».

Appointment in Istanbul (via Ankara)?
Bartholomew kept his surprise to himself till his last hours in Rome. After being received by the Pope for the farewell lunch, and signing with him the ritual Joint Declaration, on the evening of Thursday 1 July he confided to a group of journalists that he had taken advantage of the occasion to invite the Pope to Istanbul for the feastday of Saint Andrew next 30 November. «And since», he added, «the Pope is a head of State, he will first go to Ankara, the capital, and then will come to us». Bartholomew also mentioned the possibility that on the still hypothetical trip to Phanar, the Pope may bring back to the Golden Horn the precious relics of the patriarchs Saints John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen which disappeared from Constantinople in the sack of 1204. «According to our research», Bartholomew made known, «they should be preserved in Saint Peter’s. They told us in the Vatican that they will look for them. When they have found them, I shall send a letter asking for them to be restored to us».
Bartholomew’s politico-ecclesial activism (a few hours before seeing the Pope, he had met US President George W. Bush in Istanbul) often prompts reservations in ecclesial circles. The doctrinally emphatic tone of his declarations (and those in Rome are an example) are said by some to hardly mirror the institutional weakness of the ecumenic patriarchy with its direct jurisdiction over barely a few million faithful, of whom only some thousands live in Turkey. Professor Andrea Riccardo, founder of Sant’Egidio, spoke of the ecumenic patriarchy as a «weak force, in the sense meant by the apostle Paul who says: when I am weak, it is then I am strong». For this reason the role played by Bartholomew in the jockeying for Turkey’s entrance into the European Union is all the more interesting.
In his press conference the Patriarch spoke highly of the steps taken by Erdogan’s government to conform with European legislative standards («Some Kurdish members of parliament have been released, they have begun television broadcasts in Kurdish: the death penalty has been abolished, whereas it is still in force in some States of the US»). He confided that, with Turkey in mind, he had insisted there be reference to the need for dialogue between Europe and Islam in the joint declaration signed with the Pope. He also announced the permission given by the moderate Islamic Turkish government to the reopening of the patriarchal Theological School of Halki, the Orthodox academy closed in the ’seventies by the rigid secularism of Kemal-like legislation («We expect to get going with the next academic year»).
A meeting between the Pope and Erdogan, directed by Bartholomew, only a month before the meeting of the Council of Europe that in December is to debate the thorny question, and despite the many, even ecclesial, objections to Turkey’s entry into the EU (advanced, no doubt, by appeal to the Christian roots of Europe), would be a neat stroke if nothing else.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português