VATICAN CITY — Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, arrived in Rome this afternoon to attend Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass tomorrow. It will be the first time the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church has attended such an event since the Great Schism of 1054.

Patriarch Bartholomew, 73, spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox faithful worldwide, has said he is attending the Mass to underscore the importance he attaches to “friendly ties” between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He also said his participation reflects his expectations that Pope Francis will advance rapprochement efforts that began decades ago.        

“It is a gesture to underline relations which have been developing over the recent years and to express my wish that our friendly ties flourish even more during this new era,” Bartholomew told private NTV television in an interview shortly before leaving Istanbul. “I am very hopeful in this matter.”

Speaking to the Register March 18, Jesuit Father James McCann, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, said, “It’s a wonderful, concrete sign of what we can develop in building Christian unity.”

The Greek Orthodox patriarch will be accompanied by Ioannis Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon and co-president of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Also part of the delegation will be Tarassios, Orthodox Metropolitan of Argentina, and Gennadios, Orthodox Metropolitan of Italy.

Patriarch Bartholomew has visited the Pope annually (or sent a delegation) on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), and a Vatican delegation visits him every year in Istanbul on the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30). The patriarch also attended Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005.

But this is an unprecedented event in modern times, and Bartholomew noted that, even before the schism, a patriarch from Istanbul did not usually attend a papal inauguration.

“This relationship has been building over the years, and, certainly, Benedict XVI’s pontificate was key,” said Father McCann, who recalled the Patriarch’s visit to the Pontifical Oriental Institute — where he received a doctorate — in 2008.

Orthodox Church leaders had great respect for Benedict XVI and particularly valued his approach to the liturgy. Patriarch Bartholomew also admired the previous Pope’s concern for the environment.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch was in Rome last October to participate in the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, the beginning of the Year of Faith and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

“With our continued efforts, in accordance with the spirit of the Tradition of the early Church, and in the light of the Church of the Councils of the first millennium, we will experience the visible unity that lies just beyond us today,” Patriarch Bartholomew said.

He also called for a common “commitment to witness” to the Gospel message of salvation and healing for the least of our brethren, noting in particular “our Christian brothers and sisters living in the Middle East” and those facing “violence, separation and brokenness.”

But the Patriarch’s attendance at tomorrow’s inaugural Mass isn’t only an historic manifestation of unity, but also helpful to the Orthodox Church in Istanbul.

“It’s important for him to be visible as well,” said a Vatican official on condition of anonymity, “because Christians in Istanbul are very few — maybe 10,000 — and they are being pressured to leave Istanbul.” Attacks on Christians have risen recently, as Turkey gradually moves away from a secular state and towards a more hard-line Islamic one.

Benedict XVI made a successful visit to Bartholomew in 2006 — only the third visit to the patriarchate by a pope (Paul VI visited in 1967, John Paul II in 1979). Asked why it has taken so long for an ecumenical Patriarch to attend an inaugural Mass, Father McCann said it was because the relationship had “matured” and suggested that “external politics, among other reasons,” prevented him from coming before.


Russian Orthodox Resistance

Greater resistance to closer relations comes from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchate whose head, Patriarch Kirill, will not be attending the Mass. Instead, he’s sending the Church’s head of external relations, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk.

However, the Russian Orthodox welcomed Pope Francis’ election, saying, “He is known for his conservative views, and his papacy will evidently be marked by the strengthening of faith. The fact that he has taken the name of Francis — reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi — confirms his understanding of evangelization primarily as assistance for the poor and the deprived, as protection of their dignity.”

Father McCann pointed out that Pope Francis was responsible for relations with Oriental Churches in Argentina and so is “very familiar” with Eastern traditions in the Church and “very sensitive to the Orthodox.”

Metropolitan Hilarion said last week that a long-hoped-for meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow was “possible,” but would depend on how quickly disputes, such as those over the Ukrainian Catholic Church, can be resolved. (The Catholic churches were seized by the communists and later transferred to the Orthodox Church.)

In another ecumenical gesture, the Vatican said the Gospel during the installation Mass would be chanted in Greek instead of Latin, the language that will be used for many of the other elements of the ceremony.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.