Table Time: Pope and Orthodox Discuss, Pray, Dine

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pastors and theologians involved in ecumenical dialogue emphasize the importance of “table time” — sharing meals — along with serious theological discussions, shared prayer and joint action.

Pope Francis spoke about his ecumenical vision on 20 March and prayed with delegates from Orthodox and other Christian communities at his inaugural Mass on 19 March.

Since 17 March, he’s also had breakfast, lunch and dinner with the Orthodox representatives who came to Rome for his inauguration. Pope Francis is still living at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guesthouse where the Orthodox delegates also were staying.

They all eat together and greet each other in the common dining room.

Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Tarasios of Buenos Aires and South America was one of the delegates who shared meals and prayers with the new pope. In fact, he’s been doing that since then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio attended his enthronement in Buenos Aires in 2001.

When they first saw each other on 17 March, they embraced.

“I said to him, ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘Not I. They did it to me,’ pointing to the cardinals,” said the Orthodox leader, who was born in the United States.

During the more formal audience Pope Francis had with the ecumenical delegates, Metropolitan Tarasios presented the pope with two elegant, but very personalized gifts: an urn filled with soil from Argentina, “so he wouldn’t feel far away, he’d always feel close to us,” and a small chalice with the biblical inscription in Spanish, “That all would be one.”

In Pope Francis’ remarks to the ecumenical delegates, he focused on the common task of preaching the Gospel, defending human dignity and defending creation. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, in his remarks to the gathering, focused on the importance of continuing the formal theological dialogue so that “our Christian witness would be credible in the eyes of those near and far.”

Metropolitan Tarasios, who was part of the ecumenical patriarchate’s delegation to Pope Francis’ inauguration, said it is not a matter of either theological dialogue or practical cooperation: Christian unity requires both.

“The theological dialogue by itself cannot bring about Christian unity,” he said. It brings the churches closer, helps them understand each other more profoundly, and provides a serious tool for understanding where the churches agree and where they differ.

But efforts also are required to bring Christians together in common prayer and joint action.

“If, in the end, the people don’t accept the theological dialogue or what comes out of the theological dialogue, there won’t be any Christian unity,” he said.

For the past five years, the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has been focusing on one of thorniest topics dividing the two communities: the primacy of the pope and the way his ministry has been exercised since the Great Schism of 1054.

Theologians are looking first at the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium, hoping it will lay the foundation for a joint statement on the place and role of the pope in a reunited Christianity.

In the first week after his election, Pope Francis emphasized his position as “bishop of Rome,” his calling to preside in charity and his insistence that the power of the papacy is the “power of service” seen in Jesus’ charge to St. Peter: “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.”

For the Orthodox, “that’s how we see him — as the bishop of Rome,” Metropolitan Tarasios said. That the pope repeatedly referred to himself that way “is music to our ears.”

The early years of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue focused on baptism, the Eucharist and other issues the two churches basically already agreed on. The tough topic of the primacy of the pope was saved until a time when church leaders felt the relationship was strong enough to tackle it head on.

Metropolitan Tarasios said Patriarch Bartholomew’s presence at the pope’s inauguration wasn’t just the first time a patriarch of Constantinople came for the event since 1054, it was the first time ever. Even when the churches were united, a pope or patriarch sent his newly elected brother a letter delivered, perhaps, by a special emissary.

Patriarch Bartholomew, he said, thought: “If we want to help Christian unity, then we have to make our presence felt, not just known.”

The patriarch knew the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, but he did not think about coming to Rome at the time.

“It’s a question of timing, of when the moment is right,” the metropolitan said.

“It’s time for the Christian churches to put aside some of the historical impediments to unity,” he said.

Catholics and Orthodox cannot ignore or deny the things in their history that have hurt each other, Metropolitan Tarasios said, but much of those hurts are “excess baggage” that prevent the churches from credibly proclaiming Christ today.

For the Orthodox, one of the issues still causing tension or pain is the existence and growth of the Byzantine-rite Eastern Catholic churches that entered into full communion with Rome more than 400 years ago. The largest of the churches, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, was outlawed for almost 50 years by the Soviet Union, and its emergence from an underground existence has created serious problems in relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Metropolitan Tarasios said the people whose families have been Eastern Catholics for generations are one thing, but he denounced what he said were attempts to use the Byzantine Catholic churches to convince Orthodox Christians to become Catholic while keeping their Byzantine liturgies and spiritualities.

“That’s an issue we can’t ignore,” he said. “Quite frankly, we resent it.”

On the positive side, Orthodox and Catholics are working more closely on environmental issues. Patriarch Bartholomew has been called “the green patriarch” and is one of the leading Christian proponents of a theological reflection on the moral obligation to safeguard creation.

The new pope’s choice of St. Francis of Assisi for his name and his repeated calls for respect for creation in his first week of ministry are important for the Orthodox because the patriarch and pope “can double their forces and their strength if they do it together,” Metropolitan Tarasios said.

The metropolitan said he, too, had read reports that Patriarch Bartholomew invited Pope Francis to go with him to Jerusalem in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic first step in Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement: the 1964 meeting there between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras.

“I think it would be a great occasion,” he said.

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