Istanbul — Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leaders of the millennium-long separated Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, have issued resounding and historic calls for the reunification of their global communities.
Speaking to one another after a solemn Orthodox divine liturgy at the Church of St. George Sunday, both leaders pledged to intensify efforts for full unity of their churches, saying such unity already exists among Christians dying in conflicts in the Middle East.
For his part, Francis made what appears to be the strongest and most encompassing call yet from a Catholic pontiff for unity. Seeking to assure Orthodox leaders that restoration of full communion between the churches would respect Eastern traditions, he said reunion would "not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation."
"I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith," said the pope.
Continuing, Francis said: "The one thing that the Catholic church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome, 'the church which presides in charity,' is communion with the Orthodox churches."
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Bartholomew called the process for reunification of the two churches -- started by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras with a meeting in Jerusalem 50 years ago -- "irreversible" and said the two communities have no option but to join together.
"We no longer have the luxury of isolated action," said Bartholomew. "The modern persecutors of Christians do not ask which church their victims belong to. The unity that concerns us is regrettably already occurring in certain regions of the world through the blood of martyrdom."
The addresses by Bartholomew and Francis came on the last day of the pope's stay in Turkey, which the pontiff has been visiting since Friday. They spoke to one another at the patriarchal church of St. George, where Bartholomew and the ecumenical patriarchate are centered.
The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which together are estimated to have some 2 billion adherents, have been separated since the year 1054. Serious efforts for reconciliation between the traditions did not start until the 1964 meeting of Paul and Athenagoras, which eventually led to the opening of joint theological dialogues on reunification in 1980.
Francis and Bartholomew also issued a joint declaration following the liturgy Sunday, pledging "to intensify our efforts to promote the full unity of all Christians, and above all Catholics and Orthodox."
But the strongest words of the day came in the leaders' earlier speeches to one another, in which they both stressed the similarities between their persons and the focus of their communities and made poetic and serious commitments to seeking unity.
Saying that as a result of the Paul and Athenagoras meeting "the flow of history has literally changed direction," Bartholomew said until then "cold love" between the churches had been rekindled and their desire to reunify "galvanized."
"Thenceforth, the road to Emmaus has opened up before us – a road that, while perhaps lengthy and sometimes even rugged, is nonetheless irreversible," said the patriarch.
Asking a series of rhetorical questions, Bartholomew then seemed to pick up on a key phrase of Francis' papacy so far, that the church "cannot be self-centered, revolving around itself."
"What is the benefit of boasting for what we have received unless these translate into life for humanity and our world both today and tomorrow?" asked Bartholomew. The church, he said, "is called to keep its sight fixed not so much on yesterday as on today and tomorrow.
"The church exists not for itself, but for the world and for humanity," he continued.
"Even as we are preoccupied with our own contentions, the world experiences the fear of survival, the concern for tomorrow," said the patriarch. "How can humanity survive tomorrow when it is severed today by diverse divisions, conflicts and animosities, frequently even in the name of God?"
"Nowadays many people place their hope on science; others on politics; still others in technology," he continued. "Yet none of these can guarantee the future, unless humanity espouses the message of reconciliation, love and justice; the mission of embracing the other, the stranger, and even the enemy."
"This is precisely why the path toward unity is more urgent than ever for those who invoke the name of the great Peacemaker," said Bartholomew. "This is precisely why our responsibility as Christians is so great before God, humankind and history."
Francis took a similar theme, saying that in today's world "voices are being raised which we cannot ignore and which implore our churches to live deeply our identity as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ."
The pontiff mentioned particularly the voices of:
- The poor, "who suffer from severe malnutrition, growing unemployment, the rising numbers of unemployed youth, and from increasing social exclusion."
"As Christians we are called together to eliminate that globalization of indifference which today seems to reign supreme, while building a new civilization of love and solidarity," he said.
- Victims of conflicts, saying: "We hear this resoundingly here, because some neighboring countries are scarred by an inhumane and brutal war."
"The cry of the victims of conflict urges us to move with haste along the path of reconciliation and communion between Catholics and Orthodox," said the pope. Citing Paul VI's encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, he asked: "Indeed, how can we credibly proclaim the message of peace which comes from Christ, if there continues to be rivalry and disagreement between us?"
- Young people, many of whom "seek happiness solely in possessing material things and in satisfying their fleeting emotions."
"New generations will never be able to acquire true wisdom and keep hope alive unless we are able to esteem and transmit the true humanism which comes from the Gospel and from the church’s age-old experience," said Francis. "It is precisely the young who today implore us to make progress towards full communion."
Bartholomew also took a personal tone with Francis, saying his brief papacy had "already manifested you in peoples' conscience today as a herald of love, peace and reconciliation."
"You preach with words, but above and beyond all with the simplicity, humility and love toward everyone that you exercise your high ministry," Bartholomew told Francis. "You inspire trust in those who doubt, hope in those who despair, anticipation in those who expect a church that nurtures all people."
Mentioning that the Orthodox are preparing for a Great Council of their bishops in 2016, Bartholomew also expressed hope that once the Orthodox and Catholics reunified they could host a Great Ecumenical Council together.
"Let us pray that, once full communion is restored, this significant and special day will also not be prolonged," he said.
In their joint declaration together, the patriarch and pope also expressed "common concern" for "Iraq, Syria, and the whole Middle East." While not mentioning specifically any particular group such as the Islamic State, the two lamented the estimated hundreds of thousands who have been forced to flee violence in the region.
"Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced violently from their homes," said the two leaders.
"It even seems that the value of human life has been lost, that the human person no longer matters and may be sacrificed to other interests," they continued. "And, tragically, all this is met by the indifference of many."
Because of the violence against Christians, they said, "there is also an ecumenism of suffering."
"Just as the blood of the martyrs was a seed of strength and fertility for the church, so too the sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity," they continued.
Bartholomew and Francis also called for renewed efforts at Christian-Muslim dialogue, saying "we also recognize the importance of promoting a constructive dialogue with Islam based on mutual respect and friendship."
"Muslims and Christians are called to work together for the sake of justice, peace and respect for the dignity and rights of every person, especially in those regions where they once lived for centuries in peaceful coexistence and now tragically suffer together the horrors of war," they said.
The two leaders also mentioned continued turmoil in Ukraine, where some 30 percent of the population is estimated to be Orthodox, calling on "all parties involved to pursue the path of dialogue and of respect for international law."
Francis was to depart Istanbul for the Vatican Sunday afternoon, after meeting with a group of Syrian refugees living in Turkey after fleeing violence in their home country.
During his three-day trip to Turkey, in which Francis visited the capital of Ankara on Friday before heading to Istanbul Saturday, the pontiff also met with Turkish leaders, toured a mosque and the historic Hagia Sophia, and said Mass for Istanbul's small Catholic community.
The pontiff's visit to the continent-straddling nation was keenly watched both for its significance to ecumenical relations and to western outreach to the Middle East, where many have been the victim of violence from the Islamic State group.
Speaking to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Friday, Francis said military solutions cannot stop violence in the Middle East and instead called for a "solidarity of all believers" to counter religious fundamentalism.
To Istanbul's small Catholic community Saturday, the pontiff called on the church to leave its "comfort zone" and to "throw off defensiveness" to overcome misunderstanding and division.