Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew embrace in Istanbul Nov. 30.


Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew embrace in Istanbul Nov. 30.

December 15, 2014

In reaching full unity with Orthodox Christians, "the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith," Pope Francis said Nov. 30.

In a liturgy in Istanbul, Turkey, attended by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the pope assured Orthodox Christians they would not lose their distinctive forms of worship, spirituality and governance in a reunion with Rome.

Full communion between the churches "means neither submission of one to the other nor absorption, but rather welcoming of all the gifts that God has given to each to show the whole world the great mystery of salvation realized by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit," the pope said.

Earlier in the day, the pope joined Patriarch Bartholomew, considered first among equals by Orthodox bishops, to sign a joint declaration that highlighted violence against Christians in the region.

"We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians," the leaders wrote, specifically noting the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

"Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced violently from their homes," the declaration said. "Tragically, all this is met by the indifference of many."

The statement described an "ecumenism of suffering," according to which the "sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity."

"We no longer have the luxury of isolated action," the patriarch said during a liturgy celebrating the feast of St. Andrew, patron saint of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.


"The modern persecutors of Christians do not ask which Church their victims belong to. The unity that concerns us is regrettably already occurring in certain regions of the world through the blood of martyrdom."

Pope Francis, also speaking during the liturgy, said that the "cry of the victims of conflict urges us to move with haste along the path of reconciliation and communion between Catholics and Orthodox."

Before leaving Turkey, Pope Francis said he is ready to go anywhere, anytime to meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, even while acknowledging that Catholic and Orthodox theologians might be slow to agree to end the 1,000-year schism.

Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the energetic nature of the papal encounter in Turkey gives the world reason to believe there is renewed energy in ecumenical dialogue at the highest levels.

"In terms of the images there, a lot was done that showed a unity of purpose, conversation about the need to work together on the issue of Christian persecution, and the way the two embraced and looked at ease with each other recommits both churches to the dialogue and overcoming our difference," Roberson told CNS.


The international dialogue has gotten bogged down on the contentious issue of Church primacy, Roberson noted.

But the signing of a joint declaration in Turkey "gave a general push for Catholics and Orthodox to do more things together and make a common witness not only in the Middle East but in other parts of the world," he added.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054 over differences on several matters, including the primacy of the papacy.

The two churches have grown closer in recent decades, but there are long-running tensions in Russia and Ukraine, especially between Orthodox faithful and Eastern Catholics, along with some internal resistance to ecumenical dialogue, especially among the Orthodox.


Roberson said there are items from the encounter in Turkey that need to be parsed through.

That includes the full implications of Pope Francis' comment that the Catholic Church does not intend to impose conditions on unity other than a profession of faith, he said.

"I am not quite sure what that means, and it is a little bit vague and will need to be made more concrete. What he means by unity of the faith goes to the heart of the question," the priest said.