The pope’s visit and what divides Christians East and West

The pope’s visit and what divides Christians East and West

By the time this article is published, Pope Francis will have left Turkey after having spent a busy weekend both as a head of state and as the head of the “Christian Church of the West,” one of two Greek Orthodox bishops, who briefed us on the pope’s visit to Turkey, explained to us.

The briefing organized by the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in one of Istanbul’s central hotels was very interesting as it gave us, members of the media not familiar usually with the intricacies of ecclesiastical matters, a rare insight into the ongoing dialogue which started in the mid-1970s between the two churches, on major issues that have been keeping them apart since the Great Schism of 1054.

We learnt that one of the most important dividing issues between the two churches, the claim by the pope of Rome to have primacy over the four patriarchs of the East – Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – remains unresolved until today. The ancient principles of summoning a special council, a synod, to discuss important matters affecting the church and to elect their patriarchs remain in practice in the East but not in the West, where the pope is the only spiritual leader claiming to represent the throne of Apostle Peter, thus exercising authority to make decisions single-handedly.

This issue is still an important aspect of the East-West ecclesiastical dialogue. 

We were told that the visit of Pope Francis to the Ecumenical Patriarchate was a “historical” event as it confirmed the spirit of “unity” between the two churches although their “reunion” is still far away. Both churches are determined to cooperate in order to face together the terrible problems experienced in our world today, particularly in our area. “Cooperation automatically brings unity and a vision to work for it step by step,” said one of the bishops that gave the briefing to a packed international media audience.

Of course, even if the current pope and Istanbul Patriarch Bartholomew appear to enjoy an excellent chemistry together, ecclesiastical differences are not easy to solve. “We have decided to call this dialogue, a dialogue of love and a dialogue of truth,” said one of the two bishops who underlined that the two sides will continue to talk on the “things that unite them rather than the issues that divide them.”

“The visit of Pope Francis to Patriarch Bartholomew is a visit of a brother to the other brother, in a spirit of love and dialogue and with the ultimate aim of the union of the two churches,” said one of the bishops who interestingly enough agreed that the extreme sensitivity shown by Pope Francis to human issues, to the sufferings of Christians in our region “brings us more together.” “We are living interesting days with the present pope. These adverse circumstances experienced by all Christians today will make the coming together of our two churches easier,” he said.

Inevitably, the two bishops received questions from the audience regarding the functioning of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Turkey. “It is our biggest problem,” one said. “The very presence of Pope Francis in the Patriarchate and the importance he demonstrated to this visit made the fact that the Patriarchate still does not enjoy any legal entity status before Turkish authorities a bizarre situation,” he said.