When Benedict XVI resigned, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople expressed more than surprise. There was clearly dismay that their “excellent cooperation”, which had overseen the re-engagement of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in dialogue in 2007, after an impasse lasting seven years, might not fulfil its promise because of a “brief papacy”. The Roman pontiff is still regarded as the first of the patriarchs by Orthodoxy, even if Pope Benedict dropped his title “Patriarch of the West” in 2006 as defunct, standing in the way of realistic ecumenism. So why should a pope retire when urgent labours are in hand and their fruits within reach? “With his wisdom and experience he could have provided much more to the Church and the world”.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is regarded as primus inter pares by many, but not all, of the world’s Orthodox Churches. He is second only in the Universal Church to the Bishop of Rome, but he is not an opposite number, having no immediate jurisdiction beyond his small community in Turkey and parts of north-east Greece, although his general responsibility for Orthodox in diaspora affords him considerable influence. For wider leadership he relies as much on persuasion, prestige and moral authority as canon law. With painstaking plans for a Pan-Orthodox Council making progress, and an abiding sense of affinity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as both are dispersed alongside each other in every corner of the globe, Bartholomew invested much hope in Benedict’s papacy for mutual support and cooperation in the contemporary setting. Concerned for all Orthodox in diaspora, the continued growth of Christianity in Europe and the very survival of the Churches in their Eastern lands of origin, their joint efforts at solidarity and even communion appeared at risk with the prospect of a new leader.
Thus a statement from the Patriarchate explained Bartholomew’s decision to attend Pope Francis’ inauguration personally: the need for “a profoundly bold step ... that could have lasting significance”. It is the first time the Bishop of Constantinople has attended the inauguration of the Bishop of Rome ever, let alone since the great schism of 1054. Yet the Patriarch has already visited Rome a number of times since Pope Benedict’s visit to Istanbul in 2006. He was the only ecumenical leader invited to make a speech at the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II and there have been annual visits between Rome and Constantinople on the feasts of their apostles for decades. But this latest visit was different: “after such a long division … authentic reunion will require courage, leadership and humility. Given Pope Francis' well-documented work for social justice and his insistence that globalization is detrimental to the poor … the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic traditions have a renewed opportunity to work collectively on issues of mutual concern… But such work requires a first step and it would appear as though Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is willing to take such a step.” In one of those seemingly informal but resonant gestures that we are beginning to expect from Francis, the response was immediate and commensurate. The successor of Peter greeted the successor of the other Galilean fisherman as “my brother Andrew”.
Another dimension was revealed in a press interview within hours of Francis’ election by Patriarch Sviatoslav, Major-Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, by far the largest of the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome, which shares the same origins in Kiev as the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as the same Byzantine Rite and tradition as the Church of Constantinople itself. He revealed that the young Jorge Maria Borgoglio frequently attended the Ukrainian Divine Liturgy served by Fr Stepan Chmil, a great mentor to him: “The Holy Father knows not only of our Church, but also our liturgy, our rites, and our spirituality.” Furthermore, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis was Ordinary for Eastern Catholics. In 2009 Sviatoslav arrived as the auxiliary bishop for the Ukrainian Catholic eparchy in Argentina and tells how his first steps in episcopal ministry were under the Cardinal’s watchful care. They have an even closer bond now, because a year later Sviatoslav was called upon to succeed his revered mentor Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, who retired like Pope Benedict has done. At the age of 41, his election boldly charts a new course for the Ukrainian Catholic Church in service of society and the unity of Churches at home and abroad for decades to come. Pope Francis will be looking East to a dynamic former protégé for inspiration as he charts his own new course.
Whether it concerns a renewed partnership with the historic Eastern Catholic Churches, or forging new bonds hopefully leading to communion with the Orthodox, the model for Pope Francis’s understanding of the Christian East, unlike his predecessors, is not European. They envisaged the re-composition of the old Christendom around the reference points of the Mediterranean. But in world Christianity, Borgoglio has seen that the East is now right across the West, just as the West has suffused the lands of the East and is likewise worldwide. To talk of our respective territories is, as Benedict realised, increasingly beside the point. Anthony O’Mahony, director of the Centre for Eastern Christianity at Heythrop College, estimates that there are now over 4 million Eastern Christians, Catholic and Orthodox across Western Europe. But the weight of the diaspora seems to be shifting from Europe and North America to the emerging powers in the global south, notably Australia and Latin America. Here these old Churches are young and confident, able both to sustain their tradition as they also become indigenous and move beyond being simply ethnic chaplaincies. They can thus play strong roles alongside others in the work of evangelisation, spiritual renewal, ecumenical engagement and wider social development. This is what Pope Francis is used to and how he will approach the inheritors of Byzantium across Europe too, Catholic and Orthodox alike.
So, what of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of all? Moscow regards itself as Third Rome and the decisive player in the future of the Orthodox Church as a whole. It believes an alliance with the Catholic Church in “the struggle for the soul of Europe” is critical, but finds the universal primacy of the Roman see difficult to contemplate. It sent its Head of External Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, who did his doctorate in the West at Oxford and is regarded as a likely successor to Patriarch Kirill. The message from Moscow present and future was clear: Pope Francis was firmly addressed as “primate of the Roman Catholic Church” and as Kirill’s peer. Despite progress in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, which is seeking an agreed view on the Roman primacy in the first millennium as a basis for recovering communion, it feels out of place to the Russian Church, whose consciousness largely relates to the second, during which it has grown considerably, with little awareness of the need for a universal primacy. Its present size, resources and world diaspora mean that it is no longer local but a fact of life to come to terms with, not just for the Catholic Church but other Orthodox jurisdictions too. Importantly, Russia’s activity in the Middle East reanimates an Imperial role as protector of all Orthodox. Given that peace and stability for that region and its Christians will loom as large for Francis as for Benedict, because they directly affect the wellbeing of Europe, the significance of the Moscow patriarchate has to be faced.
Pope Francis’ intention to trust and work with the “local Church” resonates with many Orthodox. They have long been looking for signs that the collegiality set forth at Vatican II will turn into reality. They have noted how he has called himself not supreme pontiff or pope, but Bishop of Rome. They will be looking to see how the primate of the Church “presiding in love” at Rome, will treat the Eastern Catholic Churches: as subsets of the global Roman Catholic organisation, or as honoured Churches, firmly rooted in their local homeland, yet now living side by side with Latin Catholicism’s own diaspora in the emerging societies of the south and throughout the world. It will reveal how the new Pope envisages the restoration of communion between Catholics and Orthodox, since West and East must rely on each other for the future. The Orthodox will be hoping that indeed Pope Francis, Brother Peter to Brother Andrew, “knows our Church”.
Fr Mark Woodruff is a Westminster priest and Vice-Chairman of the Society of St John Chrysostom, which promotes Catholic-Orthodox relations and the unity of the Churches of East and West.