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Catholic and Orthodox Church: A look at why the Pope's visit with Bartholomew was key

2014-12-06

It was a moment that lasted only a few seconds, but it was charged with symbolism. 

"As a favor, I will ask you to bless me and the Church of Rome.”  

When the leader of more than 225 million Orthodox Christians, blessed Pope Francis, it meant more than just a moving gesture. 

FR. JOHN CHRYSSAVGIS
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
"I think it's not just a symbolic gesture. It's a profound gesture of humility, of recognition that matters, like authority and power are not seen as in the secular world. It was a profound statement of equality between the Pope and the Patriarch. And the Patriarch's reciprocation in Jerusalem was an embrace. Here maybe he was expecting the Pope to do something again spontaneous and he needed to respond in a way that showed that he was not one person over another.” 

In the year 1054 the cultural differences between the East and West led to the division between Orthodox Christians and Catholics.

The relationship between the two Churches was basically non existent for 900 years, but one visit changed everything. In 1964, Pope Paul VI met with Patriarch Athenagoras in the Holy Land, opening a new chapter between Catholics and Orthodox. 

Other visits followed. 

John Paul II took it a step further in his encyclical titled  'Ut Unum Sint.' In it, he proposes a form of papal primacy that the Orthodox Church could accept. 

Benedict XVI also supported this proposal and held meetings with his counterpart. During his papacy, the relationship was stable. So much so that the Patriarch attended Pope Francis' initiation Mass. 

This time around it was Pope Francis who visited the Patriarch's home again.

POPE FRANCIS
"I want to assure each and every one of you, that to achieve the complete unity we yearn for, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any requirement.” 

More than anything, the visit was marked by the Pope's words and intentions. 

FR. JOHN CHRYSSAVGIS
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
"In some ways we could say not much happened here in Istanbul. And in another way we could say it was an earth shattering change. That's why this visit of the Pope is important, because although it's just a visit to a Church, and an embrace to another Bishop, it's a reminder and a commitment to stay together, to stay in dialogue, to stay in communication until we can be one.”

It's not just doctrine that divides Orthodox and Catholics. Prejudices and misunderstandings are also part of the equation. 

Now only time will tell, if full unity will be reached. If so, this visit will surely be marked as an important moment in the process. 


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