This essay was published in Greek at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.
Since the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has appeared in front of the crowd gathered physically at the St. Peter’s square and the entire world watching through mass media as “bishop of Rome,” adopting an ecumenically friendly language to describe his ministry, compatible with the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Orthodox Church. What is more, Pope Francis has repeatedly and in various occasions underlined the concept of “synodality” as both a constitutive dimension of the Church and a crucial step on its way toward the third millennium. Needless to say, “synodality” is fundamental to the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, and for good reason it has been recognized as one of the most significant contributions of the Orthodox to ecumenical dialogue. Adopting, therefore, a theological and ecclesiological principle that characterizes the Orthodox Church (despite some weaknesses that should be admitted in practical implementation in inter-Orthodox relations), Pope Francis pointed out the fruitful ways in which ecumenical dialogue and the approach to the confessionally “other” could enrich internal ecclesial procedures, becoming beneficial for each single Christian tradition.
Under this perspective, there was no surprise that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has been mentioned in the papal encyclical “Laudato Si” (2015) as a source of inspiration for Pope Francis’ ecotheological vision. This recognition of the value and the importance of the longstanding commitment to environmental issues shown by Patriarch Bartholomew, who for decades has been preaching that caring for the environment is a religious imperative and whose name has become synonymous with ecological theology, earning the title “Green Patriarch” thanks to his persistent endeavors, highlights, in the best possible way, how the collaboration between church leaders could raise the awareness of competent civil authorities and public opinion on global issues, such as the climate change and the protection of the planet. In few words, the openness of Pope Francis and his constructive and positive approach to sensitive issues concerning the Orthodox tradition are promising signs of the common path of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches toward full communion. An additional element that should be stressed and explains the increasing popularity of Pope Francis among the Orthodox, despite the wounds of the historical past, is his public discourses, statements, gestures, and writings, all representing an open-minded Christianity, a Church of the “humble and poor,” honestly working toward repentance and reconciliation.
I am a Roman Catholic who loves Orthodoxy. In addition to the historical figures of Orthodoxy, more recent Orthodox Christians have had a profound influence on me.
Orthodox clergy including His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Elpidophoros, and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom have fed my spirit. Mother Maria of Paris, Saint Sophrony, and the countless faithful persecuted under Soviet regimes are among the Orthodox saints, mystics, and martyrs who inspire me to live holier and more faithfully to the gospel.
Orthodox scholars such as Kallistos Ware, John McGuckin, John Behr, and John Chryssavgis challenge my intellect. Orthodox media ranging from Ancient Faith Radio to Public Orthodoxy to Byzantium and Friends accompany me, while musicians rooted in Orthodoxy (like Cappella Romana and the Men’s Choir of the Valaam Singing Culture Institute) enrich my inner life.
Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all have an unfortunate habit of thinking that deification is somehow the exclusive provenance of the Orthodox. This claim is unfortunate not only because it has no basis in reality, but because it blinds us to the riches to be discovered in the tradition and because it slows down ecumenical progress.
The Reformed theologian Carl Mosser has done the most interesting work on how we all came to adopt such an odd prejudice (see his essay here). The details are too complicated for a short post, but let me summarize briefly. Many people know that Adolf von Harnack, the great Protestant historian of dogma at the turn of the twentieth century, proposed a theory about the development of Christian doctrine which cast the tradition primarily as one of decline. Starting from the simple moral teachings of Christ, Christian doctrine became corrupted due to the pernicious influence of Greek philosophy. What many people don’t know is that Harnack argued that the main culprit in this decline was the doctrine of deification which early Greek Christians imported from the pagans. While the west was only mildly infected with this doctrine, it became, he claimed, the defining feature of eastern Christianity. Continue reading →
On September 21st, at the end of its plenary session in Chieti, Italy, the “Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church” adopted a joint document titled “Synodality and Primacy During the First Millennium: Towards a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church.“ This might seem to mark progress in the relations between both Churches. However, there are more important issues in the background of these relations which are not addressed at all, or at least neglected. One could argue that the Commission’s work is instead encumbered much more by inner-Orthodox tensions, and by a misperception of the stumbling blocks between both Churches, than by the theological differences themselves. Therefore, since it misses important issues, it cannot easily achieve progress in inter-church relations. Continue Reading…