“Behold, how good and pleasant it is,” said the psalmist in Psalm 133, “when brothers dwell in unity!” Indeed, it is as if the proverbially-copious dew of Mount Hermon in northern Palestine were to fall as far south as the dry mountains of Zion (verse 3). Such references to Zion and brotherly unity are all the more timely, given that Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are scheduled to meet and pray together in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem late in May. The date was chosen as marking the fiftieth anniversary of the historic meeting of their predecessors, when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I met together in Jerusalem and began to thaw the previously chilly relationship between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, initiating what came to be known as the “dialogue of love”. Prominent and news-worthy in that dialogue was the occasion in 1965 when they together formally “consigned to oblivion” the mutual anathemas pronounced by Roman and Constantinopolitan bishops in 1054.
Such acts have largely symbolic value, since they do not restore inter-communion between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, nor do they resolve any of the many significant outstanding issues separating them. They can have little practical value, since the bishops upon whom anathemas were lifted have now been dead for over a thousand years. But symbolism is important, as Orthodox people should know better than anyone. Indeed, the meeting this May is all about symbolism.
We may take it for granted that the complex nuances of ecclesiology will largely escape the media. They seemingly cannot be persuaded that the Patriarch of Constantinople does not occupy the same place in Orthodoxy as the Pope of Rome does in Roman Catholicism, and they tend to view such meetings as meetings “between the two heads of the churches”, forgetting that the Ecumenical Patriarch is not the Orthodox Pope. Whether or not the bishop in Rome speaks for all Roman Catholics, the bishop in Istanbul does not speak for all Orthodox, as he would be the first one to admit. He speaks for his own ecumenical see. But like all his Orthodox brother bishops, he speaks from within Holy Tradition, so that he is not simply giving his own take on individual issues, but explaining what has always been the tradition of Orthodoxy. Given that any pronouncements and acts will have only symbolic value, what can we hope for from this meeting?
First, let us remind ourselves of what we should not hope for. It is beyond the ability of these two men (or any two men) to resolve the schism between east and west. The reality of that schism manifests itself locally in a thousand ways, some of them deep and substantive. The schism cannot be ended by episcopal fiat, regardless of the importance of the episcopoi. The world should not hold its breath hoping for the reunion of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as a result of this meeting, nor blame the pope and patriarch for not ending the schism by issuing some joint pronouncement. Sadly, the schism will continue after they part ways. They can accomplish much good, but neither can perform this miracle.
What we can hope for is a statement of common commitment to certain priorities, and the statement will have all the more moral weight because it comes from these two men. It is just here that symbolism matters. When they disagree about so much (such as the exercise of papal authority), their common agreements shine all the more brightly. What do I think they should focus upon? I think that pope and patriarch should focus the world’s media attention upon two clear and present dangers. The temptation, given media attention and how the media applauds so heartily whenever the church agrees with the secular world, is to make popular pronouncements throwing the church’s weight behind things no one ever dreamed of denying, and that the secular world already believes. Thus the churches could solemnly announce that air pollution is bad, that feeding the hungry is good, that war is to be avoided, that justice for the oppressed is to be vigorously pursued. That would, I suppose, garner the world’s applause, though I imagine that the applause would be more tepid than thunderous. But more significant and needed would be a warning against things which the world is currently ignoring, or at least not giving sufficient attention. After all, the world will continue to try to feed the hungry and end war (with whatever success) regardless of what the churches say.
The two clear and present dangers I have in mind are the tsunami of moral decadence and filth flooding the secular west, and the actual persecution of Christians world-wide, especially in the east. In the case of the first, the danger is not regarded as a danger at all, but celebrated as progress. In the case of the second, the persecution is under-reported. Sometimes hundreds of school-girls are abducted, and this makes the news. But the daily suffering of Christians in the middle east (such as in Palestine where they will be meeting) or in the Islamic world somehow never ends up on the front pages, and we save our moral indignation for what happens in Crimea. Since pope and patriarch will assuredly end up on the front page, it is all the more important that they use this opportunity to publicize these things. There is untroubled agreement between Rome and Constantinople that the west is sliding into moral chaos and that Christians are being persecuted in ever greater numbers. It is this agreement which should be stressed while the reporters’ cameras are clicking and the world is listening. The world will stop listening soon enough. Now is the time to speak. Their message may be unwelcome in some quarters, but that is just why it is needed. Together they could utter a mighty prophetic word, and people would have to report it. After all, they are the pope and the patriarch.
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