ISTANBUL, Turkey — Two Orthodox leaders in America say the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in Turkey this weekend will have important repercussions in the United States.
The get-together with Bartholomew, the “first among equals” of Orthodox leaders, was the official motive for the pontiff’s Nov. 28-20 trip to Turkey.
The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, theological advisor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said the meeting has already had one concrete American result: It’s prompted American bishops from both churches to revive their own annual meetings.
There’s precedent for a meeting between a pope and a patriarch changing things on the ground in the United States: After a 1964 encounter, both churches in America began recognizing one another’s marriages, he said.
“This meant that our faithful were reassured that marrying outside their respective churches did not also imply losing their Catholic or Orthodox identity,” he said.
Chryssavgis, who’s serving as a press aide during the papal visit, argues that Americans, perhaps more than anyone else, should care about the dialogue.
“We have a tendency to feel complacent in a world that is otherwise suffering and in turmoil,” he said. “We easily forget how much of our planet — even before our very eyes, in cities throughout America — lives in poverty and hunger, [and] we are not always ready to be held accountable for our attitudes and actions.”
Chryssavgis says the push for Catholic/Orthodoxy unity isn’t just internal Church housekeeping, but is essential to building a better world.
“We have to recognize that we cannot survive without one another,” he said. “We cannot find peace unless we make peace. We certainly cannot protect our environment from global warming if we do not work with one another.”
“In our globalized world, dialogue is not a luxury,” he said. “It is vital and essential.”
Pope Francis spent the last three days of November in Turkey visiting his “older brother,” Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. On Sunday, the two signed a common declaration in which they express the resolution to “intensify our efforts to promote the full unity of all Christians, and above all between Catholics and Orthodox.”
In the United States, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation is the oldest uninterrupted conversation between the two churches in the world, starting only a year after a historic encounter between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in 1964.
The Rev. Emmanuel Lemelson, an American priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate who was in Turkey as an official guest at the meetings, says friendship is the key to progress.
“It’s from these small friendships that something truly historical can be forged,” he said. “It’s not from bureaucracy or declarations, it’s the simple relationship between two human beings. I think the power of that is unlimited.”
Lemelson says there are no dogmatic or schismatic reasons for the separation.
“There’s no heresy between the two churches,” he said. “There’s no fundamental flaw in their theologies, the person of Christ or the Trinity.”
“To the outside world, it must be a scandal that they are separated,” Lemelson said.
Chryssavgis said the dialogue today is focusing on the thorny subject of power in the Church, especially the balance between papal leadership and the role of the bishops.
“Although there is far more that unites us than what divides us, this subject is at the very core of differences between our two churches,” he said.
Lemelson said that that the friendship forged between Francis and Bartholomew I makes this “an unprecedented moment” for ecumenism.
Although he’s supporter of visionary leaders marking the paths through grand gestures, Chryssavgis agrees that the personal friendship between Francis and Bartholomew “rises above mere symbolism to authentic reality and fidelity to the prayer of Christ ‘that his disciples may be one’.”