Pope Francis visited Turkey this past weekend, where he met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Archbishop of Constantinople, who is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity. The AP reports on the joint declaration released by the Patriarch and the Pope condemning ISIS and advocating for constructive dialogue between Muslims and Christians. But wider context of the visit includes the ongoing attempt of the Catholic Church to reach some kind of institutional unity with Orthodox churches:
Francis kicked off his final day in Turkey with a lengthy, two-hour liturgy alongside Barthlomew in the Orthodox Church of St. George, where incense mingled with hypnotic chants and prayers on an important feast day for the Orthodox Church. […]In his remarks Sunday, Francis assured the Orthodox faithful gathered in St. George’s that unity wouldn’t mean sacrificing their rich liturgical or cultural patrimony or “signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation.”“I want to assure each one of you gathered 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,” he said.
The optics of the Pope’s meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch are good, but the reversal of the 1,000-year-old schism is likely to remain elusive. The heart of Orthodox resistance to the call of Rome isn’t with Bartholomew, who heads a tiny diocese under constant threat from unpredictable Turkish authorities. Historically, it’s been the monks on holy sites like Mount Athos, considered by many to be the spiritual heart of Orthodoxy, who have resisted the ecumenical leanings of more worldly prelates. These days, that opposition is likely reinforced by the power of a Russian Orthodox Church basking in the favor of President Putin.The doctrinal differences between the two largest Christian churches are significant, but relatively narrow. The cultural and historical gaps between them are deeper, and on the Orthodox side there is a lot of bitterness. Bridging this divide has been one of the central themes in all the papacies from John XXIII through Francis; relations are better, but the schism remains. In the meantime, in both Europe and Turkey, Pope Francis has shown himself to be in essential continuity with his predecessors in calling Europe back to its Christian roots and working towards unity with the East. But judging by the media accounts, you’d never know it.