The last day of November holds a special significance for many Christians — and serves to remind us of the much-desired unity for which CNEWA and so much of the Christian world ardently pray.
In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) of 25 May 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote of the necessity of the church living and breathing with its “two lungs.” By that he was referring to the Catholic Church including Catholics not only of the Latin Rite but also the many different Orthodox Churches who were not in communion with Rome.
Historically it seemed that once Christians stopped being persecuted, they started arguing with each other. Churches broke relations (communion) with each other starting in the 4th century and continued to do so throughout the centuries. Some of the breaks were not that noticeable; others such as the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation which started in 1517 were nothing short of tectonic and impacted major parts of the Christian world.
At the opening of the 20th century, Christianity found itself seriously divided and it seemed that those divisions were incurable. However, there were stirrings of the Spirit among some broad minded Christians, leading them to believe not only that divisions among Christians were wrong but also that they could be healed. The Ecumenical Movement was born.
With Vatican II (1962-65) the Catholic Church formally committed itself to this movement and to work for Christian unity by engaging in dialogue with other Christians. One of the most dramatic ecumenical events to occur took place during the council. Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land—the first pope to do it since St. Peter. While there, he met with Athenagoras, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople in January of 1964. Although the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople among the Orthodox Churches is quite different than that of the pope in the Catholic Church, he is, nevertheless, the “first among equals” and the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The historic meeting ultimately resulted in the lifting of the mutual excommunications which had been promulgated by the two churches in 1054; it also brought about the commitment to engage in dialogue and the pledge of regular visits between the Phanar (the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople) and the Holy See. It was decided that the patriarch would visit or send a delegation to the Holy See every year on 29 June, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome. The Holy See would return the visit every year on 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, patron saint of Byzantium.
The initial meetings were cordial, ceremonial and, of course, very important. Sometimes the patriarch himself came to Rome and the pope went to the Phanar in Istanbul. More often, high level delegation exchanged visits to celebrate the feast of the other church.
Over the decades what had begun as a cordial and ceremonial—though important—event has evolved into the meeting of friends and brothers. The small steps of rapprochement made by Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras in the Holy Land, have evolved into a deep friendship and cooperation between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
When the representatives of Pope Francis celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew tomorrow in Istanbul, they are representing two friends—Francis and Bartholomew—who have not only met several times but have worked together in issues such as the environment, world peace and the plight of refugees.
CNEWA’s world is deeply rooted in places where Orthodox Christians are in the majority. The yearly meetings between the pope and patriarch are signs to us that in a world of nationalism, xenophobia—if not downright hatred of “the Other”—and division, the “two lungs of the church” are working together to breathe new life in the two major Christian traditions of the world.