When Pope Francis meets with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in Jerusalem May 25, the meeting will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 meeting in the same place between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.
This meeting offers the opportunity to set the stage for future relations, as the Eastern and Western Churches have not been united since Leo IX occupied the Chair of Peter in 1054.
Although Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have been completely separate for centuries, there has never been a formal break between them. From the fourth to the 11th century, the Eastern and Western Churches drifted farther apart, for a variety of reasons, until in 1054 a papal diplomatic mission to Constantinople clashed bitterly with the patriarch, resulting in mutual excommunications.
From that point, despite occasional efforts at reconciliation, the two were considered totally different — even antagonistic — Churches, a situation called the Great Schism.
From the beginning of Pope St. John XXIII’s pontificate (1958-1963), ecumenism was a major priority. John XXIII earlier had served for years as papal nuncio to heavily Eastern Orthodox Turkey and Bulgaria. Early in 1959, the Holy Father and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I exchanged official delegations, the first such in more than 400 years. The Orthodox were invited to send observers to the Second Vatican Council, which they did.
Athenagoras (1886-1972) was born of Albanian ancestry in a part of Greece that then belonged to the Ottoman Empire (later Turkey). He became a monk, from whose ranks most Orthodox bishops are drawn, was made a bishop on the island of Corfu and in 1930 was appointed Greek Orthodox archbishop of North and South America. He became an U.S. citizen, and his experiences in the United States probably made him open to ecumenical relations by the time he was elected “ecumenical patriarch” (“over the whole world”) in 1948.
The ecumenical patriarchate is based in Istanbul, Turkey, which for centuries prior to the Muslim conquest of 1453 had been called Constantinople and was the “Second Rome” to the Orthodox. Constantinople claims primacy over the various branches of Orthodoxy, but each has its own patriarch, so that Constantinople has enormous prestige but little direct authority, except among the Greeks.
John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, was also ecumenically minded. In 1963, it was announced that he would visit the Holy Land — the first papal journey outside Italy in more than 150 years — and Athenagoras expressed the hope that the two could meet, which they did early in 1964, praying together on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Besides its enormous symbolic importance, the meeting was followed in 1965 by Paul and Athenagoras lifting the mutual excommunications of 1054, which were theoretically still in effect. The Pope and the patriarch regretted those actions as the product of “a very troubled period of history,” and they said they were “never intended to break ecclesiastical communion between the Sees of Rome and Constantinople.”
In 1967, Paul visited Istanbul, and he and Athenagoras issued a joint statement reiterating their commitment to the pursuit of unity.
The leadership on both sides thus dramatically signaled that henceforth relations between the two Churches were to be governed by a spirit of goodwill and mutual respect, looking forward to the restoration of “that full communion of faith, fraternal accord and sacramental life which existed among them for the first thousand years of the life of the Church.” For the first time, there were approved ecumenical prayer services involving Catholics and Orthodox.
Even before Paul VI went to Jerusalem in 1964, the Second Vatican Council had given preliminary approval to its decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio (The Restoration of Unity). The Council declared that God willed the healing of the divisions within Christianity and that Christians were obligated to work for that end.
In effect, the Council understood the numerous religious groups as a series of overlapping circles, with the fullness of truth found only in the Catholic Church, but with other religious bodies sharing elements of the truth.
The “Churches of the East” were singled out, as being able — like the Catholic Church — to trace their ancestries back to the apostles, as having been the ground where crucial early doctrinal questions were settled and as having provided immense spiritual resources for all Christians.
East and West shared fundamental Christology, devotion to Mary and many other things. The Council acknowledged different theological understandings between East and West but hoped those could be overcome in time.
In the meantime, Athenagoras had also committed the Orthodox to the pursuit of unity. Formal theological discussions were established, continuing periodically over many years, which have clarified the basic issues and resolved some of them. Paul VI’s successors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, also made relations with the Orthodox a priority. In 1995, John Paul issued Orientale Lumen (Light From the East), in which he said that the Church had to “breathe with two lungs” — East and West.
To the Orthodox, Roman “errors” include the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the credal affirmation that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son — the filioque. Along with the differing doctrines on the Trinity, the most significant disagreement is over the meaning and exercise of the primacy of the bishop of Rome over the other bishops and their sees.
The two Churches also differ in numerous of their practices. The Orthodox, for example, usually do not celebrate the Eucharist daily and do not encourage Eucharistic adoration. They pray for the dead but do not affirm the existence of purgatory.
What Paul and Athenagoras called “the healing of memories” has also been necessary, because of the often bitter and violent history of Catholic-Orthodox relations. John Paul II formally apologized for the Fourth Crusade of 1204, when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople, deposed the emperor and the patriarch and set up their own men in their places.
On the contemporary scene, there is much tension, especially in Russia, because of the formerly Orthodox Churches that have their own liturgies and their own hierarchies but are in communion with the Holy See.
Dialogue with the Orthodox has, for the most part, not been controversial in Catholic circles, but there is considerable resistance on the Orthodox side. In 1980, for example, the various abbots of monasteries on Mount Athos — an island often considered the spiritual heart of Orthodoxy — solemnly warned against Roman “heresies” and said that dialogue was unacceptable. The Orthodox should not seek to “heal memories,” which were guided by the Holy Spirit in order to keep alive an awareness of the truth.
Above all it is the authority of that Holy See that stands as an obstacle to reunion. Various attempts to understand it in ways satisfactory to both sides have so far not been successful.
And while no one is predicting that this weekend’s Holy Land meeting of the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch will resolve this problematic impasse, it can be hoped that the event will mark a further step forward on the path to an eventual restoration of full unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
James Hitchcock is a Church historian and professor emeritus of history at Saint Louis University.