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Posted December 1, 2006

Great symbols from pope and patriarch,
but no breakthroughs

By John L. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter


In a divine liturgy celebrated today at the Phanar, the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Pope Benedict XVI pledged that “the Catholic Church is ready to do everything possible” to promote unity between the 250 million Orthodox believers in the world and the roughly 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

As he did last night in a vespers service at the Phanar, Benedict referred to Constantinople and Rome as "sister churches."

In a similar spirit, Patriarch Bartholomew I vowed commitment to “the unwavering journey toward the restoration of full communion among our churches,” even referring to Benedict XVI as “our brother, and bishop of the elder Rome.”

In their Common Declaration, Benedict and Bartholomew pledged “to renew our commitment to move towards full communion.”

This is not the first time a pope and a patriarch have issued such paeans to unity. Benedict XVI is actually the third pope to visit the Phanar, following in the footsteps of Paul VI in 1967 and John Paul II in 1979.

In the light of almost 40 years of experience, such events have to be evaluated on two levels: the symbolic and the substantive. Symbolically, they offer powerful testimony to the success of the ecumenical movement in overcoming old prejudices and pointing the way towards new Christianity unity. Substantively, however, they normally leave the underlying disagreements between the various Christian bodies largely unresolved – including, above all, the power of the papacy.

Such appeared to be the case again today.

The pope argued that greater Orthodox/Catholic collaboration is especially importance in the context of a Europe seemingly ever more determined to fuzz its Christian identity.

“The process of secularization has weakened the hold of that tradition,” he said. “Indeed, it is being called into question, and even rejected. In the face of this reality, we are called, together with all Christian communities, to renew Europe’s awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values, giving them new vitality.”

In their Common Declaration, Benedict and Bartholomew picked up that theme.

“In Europe, while remaining open to other religions and to their cultural contributions, we must unite our efforts to preserve Christian roots, traditions and values, to ensure respect for history,” the two leaders said.

Yet Benedict also acknowledged that “differences of opinion” over the power of the pope remain the central obstacle to that unity, and repeated John Paul II’s 1995 offer to imagine a new mode of exercising the papal office that would be acceptable to other Christians.

Benedict noted that the question of papal primacy is currently under study by the joint Catholic/Orthodox theological commission, which recently resumed meetings after a six-year hiatus caused by bitter disagreements over the 21 Eastern Rite churches in union with Rome, which some Orthodox regard as a “Trojan horse” designed to promote Catholic proselytism.

Yet there was little indication at the end of the day of what a revamped papacy would look like. If anything, Orthodox observers at the Phanar – struck by the vast throng of reporters and security personnel who followed Benedict – seemed, if anything, even more alarmed about the prospect of being capsized in the pope’s wake in any newly unified Christian church.

Moreover, in his address at the Phanar, Benedict said that Peter's journey took him from Jerusalem to Antioch, and from Antioch to Rome, so that "he might exercise a universal responsibility" -- a formula to which some Orthodox theologians and prelates might well lodge objections.

Also at the Phanar, Benedict pressed one of the leitmotifs of his pontificate, the appeal for greater religious liberty. It marked the fourth time the pope has raised the issue so far on this trip.

“We ask with urgency that all the leaders of the world respect religious liberty as a fundamental human right,” he said, speaking in the name of both the churches of Rome and Constantinople.

Benedict again issued this appeal without any specific reference to the crisis facing the Patriarch of Constantinople, who presides over a tiny flock of roughly 2,000 people, 60 percent of whom are over 50 years old.

As recently as 1950, there were more than 100,000 Orthodox faithful in Istanbul, but waves of harassment from the Turkish government have driven most away. Some issue dire warnings that the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey may be on the verge of extinction. The Turkish authorities have never recognized any “ecumenical” role for the patriarch, insisting on treating him as no more than a local clergyman, and demanding that the occupant of the office must be a Turkish citizen born in Turkey.

For many Turkish nationalists, the patriarchate is an unwelcome Greek presence on Turkish soil; few have forgotten, for example, that one Patriarch of Constantinople was actually lynched in the gateway of the Phanar in the 1820s, in retaliation for Greek massacres of Turks in the Morea. After a fire in 1941, the patriarch had to wait 46 years for permission to refurbish his premises.

Without engaging these specifics, Benedict confined himself to celebrating the Byzantine tradition of “encounter between primitive Christianity and the Greek culture.”

The Greek fathers, Benedict said, “left a precious treasure from which the church continues to draw riches both old and new.”

There were reminders of the ways in which Catholic/Orthodox gestures and exchanges over the last 40 years have collectively woven a new fabric of good will. Bartholomew, for example, referred to the return of the relics of Sts. Gregory the Theologian and John Chysostom by Pope John Paul II in 2004, suggesting that their “living presence and eternal memory” may encourage the push for unity.

“We must be with one another in spite of our differences and even divisions,” Bartholomew said.

Bartholomew offered Benedict an ornate Book of the Gospels, with the inscription "Be imitators of Christ," which they held aloft together. The pope offered Bartholomew a golden chalice.

At the end of the service, the two men appeared on the balcony of the Phanar and delivered blessings, Benedict in Latin and Bartholomew in Greek. The two men then joined hands and gave a sort of victory salute to the crowd, eliciting cheers.

In one small but telling signal of a brotherly spirit, each time that Bartholomew and Benedict have delivered addresses in one another's presence, Bartholomew has waved to Benedict, indicating that it's okay to sit down while Bartholomew reads his text.

As Benedict XVI and Bartholomew celebrated the divine liturgy, a protest organized by the Gray Wolves, a Turkish nationalist movement, took place in downtown Istanbul.