That They May Be One

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople embrace during an ecumenical celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem May 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (May 25, 2014)

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople embrace during an ecumenical celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem May 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (May 25, 2014)

Last weekend, Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  The theme of this apostolic journey was “ut unum sint, ἵνα ὦσιν ἓν” (“that they may be one”) (John 17:11), in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, which began a process of dialogue and reconciliation to heal the wounds to Christian unity that have separated the People of God since the Great Schism.

For the first 1,000 years, the Church throughout the world rejoiced in essential unity.  For various reasons – some theological, some geo-political – in the 11th century, a rupture occurred that brought division between the Catholic Church in the West, with its center in Rome, and the Eastern Churches, called Orthodox, centered in Constantinople, originally known as Byzantium and now called Istanbul in Turkey.  One of the terminal events was the mutual excommunications of Church leaders in 1054, which led to a separation that at times became quite bitter and has not yet been fully repaired.

The blessed encounter between Paul and Athenagoras in 1964 led the Second Vatican Council to express the hope “that the barrier dividing the Eastern Church and Western Church will be removed, and that at last there may be but the one dwelling, firmly established on Christ Jesus, the cornerstone, who will make both one” (Unitatis redintegratio, 18).  Before the Council concluded, one of the walls that separated us came crashing down with a joint Catholic-Orthodox declaration which rescinded the mutual excommunications.

The latest fruit of this dialogue was an ecumenical meeting on Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre between Pope Francis and the current Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, who also met with Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.  Pope Francis and his Orthodox counterpart signed a joint declaration which demonstrates our ongoing hope and desire for continued progress toward reconciliation in the Church of God, ut unum sint, that they may be one, as Jesus had prayed before his Passion (John 17:11).

At the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in 2008, and again at the Synod on the New Evangelization in 2012, I had the privilege of meeting the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who had been invited to participate.  It was with a sense of hope that I listened to him speak at the 2012 Synod, saying, “With Christ as our cornerstone and the tradition we share, we shall be able or, rather, we shall be enabled by the gift and grace of God, to reach a better appreciation and fuller expression of the Body of Christ. With our continued efforts in accordance with the spirit of the tradition of the early Church, and in the light of the Church of the Councils of the first millennium, we will experience the visible unity that lies just beyond us today.”

To be sure, there is much more that unites East and West than divides us.  One of my favorite quotes from the Ecumenical Patriarch years ago was his answer to the question: “What separates the Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church?”  He said, “Nothing more than nine centuries.”  When you get through all the history and politics and get down to what is at the heart of the Christian faith, even considering some doctrinal issues that require further dialogue, there is really very little that separates us.

Pope Paul and Saint John Paul made valiant efforts to build bridges, Pope Benedict was committed to continuing to build and cross those bridges, and now Pope Francis is taking the next steps.  All of this, as Bartholomew prophetically said at the 2008 Synod of Bishops, is “a manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit leading our Churches to a closer and deeper relationship with each other.”  As we walk together with our Christian brothers and sisters in a way that we have not done for a long time, we give thanks to the Lord who creates unity in diversity, and continue to pray that his people be one.