Something quite amazing occurred at the installation of Pope Francis in Rome eight weeks ago. It had to do with one of the guests. His All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, was present. This was the first time in history that an Ecumenical Patriarch was in attendance at a papal inaugural mass. In recognition of the Patriarch’s presence there, the reading of the Gospel at the installation was sung in Greek rather than in Latin. The Ecumenical Patriarch, in turn, gave an address to the new Pope, expressing, for one thing, the hope that the two churches might work collectively on issues of mutual concern, like social justice and poverty. The unprecedented steps taken towards reconciliation by Pope and Patriarch at the inaugural mass made headlines around the world.
The Ecumenical Patriarch’s presence at the Pope’s installation has been taken as a sign of just how strongly committed the two leaders are to repairing the longstanding rupture between the two churches. And history reveals just how longstanding that rupture has been! The drift apart began well before the East-West, or Great Schism, of 1054. One could even say that the breach began to develop as early as AD 285, when the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) partitioned the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves for administrative purposes. That process accelerated when the Emperor Constantine, in 330, moved the main capital city of the Empire from Rome to ancient Byzantium (which he named ‘Constantinople’ after himself, ‘the city of Constantine’). The reign of Theodosius I (r. 379-395) was the last time that a Roman emperor controlled both eastern and western halves of the Empire. After his death, each half had its own emperor. When the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, the Roman Empire continued on in its eastern half. Significantly, citizens in the eastern half continued to refer to their territory as ‘the Roman Empire’.
With the end of political unity in 476 came the end of linguistic and cultural unity as well. Latin became the dominant language of the church in the former Western half of the Empire, and Greek in the East, making communication nigh impossible. The two churches developed different rites and theological understandings as well. As might be expected, disputes arose, slights were taken. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. This was interpreted as a “slap in the face” by the Byzantine Emperor who regarded himself as the rightful Roman Emperor. Many of the disputes concerned papal authority. The Pope claimed he held authority over the four Eastern patriarchs. The Eastern patriarchs, in their turn, averred that the primacy of Rome was honorary and that the Pope had authority over Western Christians only. The Patriarch of Constantinople took on the title ‘ecumenical patriarch’ which Rome interpreted as meaning ‘universal’, and therefore unacceptable. Tensions between the two churches reached the breaking point in 1054, when the Pope inserted the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, seen by the Eastern branch of the church as a violation of the command of the Council of Ephesus. In what came to be known as ‘The Great Schism’, Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Cerularius I excommunicated each other. [In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus held simultaneous ceremonies revoking the excommunication decrees.]
After a millennium of hostility, even longer, it was no small thing for the Ecumenical Patriarch to be present at and participate in the recent papal inaugural mass. The efforts at rapprochement between the two leaders have been welcomed as a positive development by most people. And they are, in many ways. In his address to the Pope at his inauguration, the Ecumenical Patriarch expressed a desire to work with the Pope on world problems like social injustice and poverty. Just think of it: 1.3 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church and 300 million members of the Orthodox Church working together to tackle society’s ills, a truly formidable force for good.
A united front by the Pope and the Patriarch could offer persecuted Christian minorities better protection, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. The Ecumenical Patriarch knows firsthand what it’s like to be part of a religious minority in a predominantly Muslim country. The Turkish government refuses to recognize the Patriarch as the spiritual head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. In the eyes of the government, he is merely the leader of Turkey’s small Greek minority. The Ecumenical patriarchate, established in the 4th century in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and once with holdings as vast as the Vatican, has been reduced in size to a small enclave. Whenever the Patriarch ventures beyond his walls, he finds out time and again how unwelcome his presence is in the country. A plot was uncovered a few days ago, in fact, to assassinate the Ecumenical Patriarch. The would-be assassins planned to kill him on May 29, the 560th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks. This was the second foiled plot to assassinate him. It is significant that Pope Tawadros II, spiritual head of yet another Christian minority, Egypt’s Copts, has recently travelled to Rome to meet with the new Pope.
While the signs of rapprochement are viewed positively by most, I confess that I regard these overtures of reconciliation with some reservation. Reconciliation, after all, usually involves admission of guilt, repentance, concession, change of attitude, etc., and I have seen nothing to indicate that either side has done that. Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church still believes itself to be “the True Church.” And supreme authority still resides with the Pope, “Christ’s vicar on earth and Peter’s successor.” Are we witnessing genuine reconciliation or merely the return of “schismatics” to the fold of the True Church?