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This week : Background report and highlights post Vatican II
By Eva-Maria Kolmann, ACN International
During the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church defined the Orthodox Churches as “Sister Churches.” There had already been a number of positive steps leading up to this statement: For example, in 1958 Patriarch Athenagoras offered his condolences to the Western Church on the death of Pope Pius XII and congratulated John XXIII on his election. Representatives of the Orthodox Churches attended the Second Vatican Council, including also a delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Since the Council the relations between the Catholic Church and Orthodoxy have developed and deepened at a breathless pace. One of the high-spots was the meeting between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in January 1964 in Jerusalem. An outcome of the meeting between the Pope and the highest-ranking representative of Orthodoxy was the solemn lifting of the mutual anathema between the Eastern and Western Churches. This ban, which had been imposed in 1054, was lifted on the penultimate day of the Council, 7 December 1965, simultaneously in the Vatican and in the Phanar, the official seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and as stated in the declaration it was to be “left to oblivion”. On 25 July 1967 Pope Paul VI visited Patriarch Athenagoras in the Phanar in Istanbul and received the Patriarch ceremoniously in October of the same year in Rome.
Preparing for a theological dialogue
The tenth anniversary of the lifting of the anathema was celebrated in a solemn service simultaneously by Paul VI in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and by Patriarch Dimitrios, the successor to Patriarch Athenagoras who died in 1972, in St. George’s Church in the Phanar. The ceremony in Rome was attended by Metropolitan Meliton representing Constantinople. A symbolic and surprising high-point was the Pope’s spontaneous genuflection before the Metropolitan, whose feet he kissed when the latter announced the setting up of a pan-orthodox commission to prepare the theological dialogue between Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church also announced that it would set up a commission for this dialogue. Pope Paul VI said in his address that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches were “joined by such a deep community that it would not take much to achieve the fullness which will permit a joint celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord.”
Pope John Paul II coined the phrase: “We need two lungs: the western and the eastern to enable Christendom to breathe.” He stressed in particular the “ecumenism of the Martyrs,” which means the common witness of Christ. In his apostolic letter of the jubilee year 2000, which appeared under the title “Tertio millennio adveniente,” Pope John Paul II elaborated on this idea: “Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs. The communio sanctorum speaks louder than the things which divide us.” This theme had already been present in his ecumenical encyclical which appeared in 1995 under the title “Ut unum sint.”
The kiss of peace
On November 30, 1979, the Feast of Andrew the Apostle, Pope John Paul II visited Patriarch Dimitrios, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, in his official seat in Istanbul. On the same day exactly 27 years later Benedict XVI also visited Patriarch Bartholomew while on a three-day journey to Turkey. The Pope was also present at the Divine Liturgy which was celebrated on the occasion of the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle on this day in the Patriarchal Church of St. George in the Phanar. In their joint declaration, the two church leaders thanked God for this “fraternal meeting” and stated: “The Holy Spirit will help us to prepare the great day of the re-establishment of full unity, whenever and however God wills it. Then we shall truly be able to rejoice and be glad.” Photos showing Pope Benedict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch standing on the loggia holding hands went around the world.
Patriarch Bartholomew also attended the enthronement of Pope Francis on March 19, 2013. It was the first time since the 1054 split in the Church that an Orthodox Patriarch had attended the inauguration of a Roman Pope. Numerous other representatives of the different Orthodox Churches were also present. After the Lord’s Prayer, Pope Francis exchanged a kiss of peace with Patriarch Bartholomew and the Armenian Catholicos Karekin II.
The next day the Pope met representatives of other religious communities. On this occasion he was acting as the successor of the Apostle Paul when he consciously addressed the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as “my brother Andrew”. The Patriarch, as “first among equals”, occupies the honorary chairmanship of the heads of the Orthodox Churches. (Peter is the Apostle of the Western Church, while Andrew is the Apostle of the Eastern Churches. For example, icons showing the two brother apostles Peter and Andres embracing are a symbol of the inner bond between eastern and western Christianity.).