Orthodox Christianity’s most significant bishop told Pope Benedict XVI that the Year of Faith should spur greater prayer, hope and effort towards the unity of their two Churches.
“We join in the hope that the barrier dividing the Eastern Church and the 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,” said the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
The patriarch made his remarks in an address at the opening ceremony of the Year of Faith, which was inaugurated with Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 11.
“It is fitting that this occasion also marks for your Church the formal inauguration of the ‘Year of Faith,’ as it is faith that provides a visible sign of the journey we have travelled together along the path of reconciliation and visible unity,” he said.
The 72-year-old Greek cleric ranks as the “primus inter pares” or “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox communion which has over 300 million followers worldwide.
Patriarch Bartholomew recalled how the opening of the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago paved the way for a thawing of relations between Catholicism and Orthodoxy after generations of division dating back to the 11th century.
“Over the last five decades, the achievements of this assembly have been diverse as evidenced through the series of important and influential constitutions, declarations, and decrees,” he told the Pope and over 400 of his fellow Catholic bishops in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica.
A key moment in the thawing of relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches came in the middle of the Second Vatican Council when, in January 1964, Pope Paul VI met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
The historic encounter was the first between a Pope and a Patriarch of Constantinople since the Council of Florence in 1439 when the breach between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity – then 400 years old – was momentarily healed.
Amongst other fruits, said Bartholomew I, the warming relationship between the Churches since the mid-1960s has resulted in “the mutual rescinding of the excommunications of the year 1054, the exchange of greetings, returning of relics, entering into important dialogues, and visiting each other in our respective sees.”
While he admitted that the “journey has not always been easy or without pain and challenge,” Patriarch Bartholomew believes that his presence at the opening of the Year of Faith in Rome “signifies and seals our commitment to witness together to the Gospel message of salvation.”