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.
The papal trip to Cyprus and Greece (December 2-6, 2021) showed Francis’ attention to the Mediterranean, which was also the focus of his first trip (Lampedusa in July 2013), but also his attention to Eastern Orthodoxy as a traveling companion to a Catholic Church increasingly subject to identitarian and nationalist tensions in Europe and worldwide.
There were different and interrelated dimensions to this trip. There was the ecumenical dimension, with the privileged attention to the Eastern Orthodox churches in continuity with the key partnership (since 2013) between Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew. There was the humanitarian dimension, with the Holy See devoting much energy to raising attention on multiple crises on multiple fronts in the area, adding to the long-standing migration from Africa to Europe. In the last decade, the degradation of the security, social-economic, and environmental situation in many countries facing the western, central, and eastern Mediterranean has made the mare nostrum the bottleneck in the flow of human beings fleeing from wars and failed or semi-failed states in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. There was the political dimension, with Francis as the outspoken opponent of nationalisms and populism now coming to Greece, the birthplace of democracy (albeit not liberal and constitutional democracy), calling Europe and the international community to their moral responsibilities. Far in the background, there was finally the ecclesial, intra-Catholic dimension, which for Francis must refer always to what Catholics do ad extra.
In June of 594, Pope Gregory the Great received a letter from Constantina, the empress, asking him to send the head of St. Paul to Constantinople so that she and others might benefit from venerating the bodily remains of such a great saint. St. Gregory denied the request, noting that it was not the custom of the Roman Church to dismember the bones of the saints.
A great deal has happened between Rome and Constantinople since the sixth century, but Pope Francis’s decision last week to send the Ecumenical Patriarch an actual portion of the body of St. Peter should be understood as nothing short of remarkable. More than anything else, it is a clear indication of the pontiff’s desire to advance the cause of Christian unity.
A point of clarification might help to demonstrate why Francis’s gift is both so unprecedented and significant. Continue reading →
It never ceases to amaze me that many of those who describe themselves as “pro-life” are, when it comes to capital punishment, passionate supporters of death as a method of improving the world. Most notably in America, not a few of those who wear a symbol of an earlier method of execution, the cross, would be more than willing to volunteer their services to end the lives of people now on Death Row whether by injection or hanging or the electric chair or firing squad — or, why not, crucifixion?
Many Catholics and other Christians were outraged when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had authorized a modification of the Catholic Catechism. That basic text will now include the declaration that the death penalty is an attack “on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and can no longer be regarded as an appropriate means “of safeguarding the common good.” (Full text of the changes)
Christians of the Church’s first few centuries would be astonished at the number of pro-execution Christians they would find in a twenty-first century country crowded with churches. In the early Church even soldiers and judges entering the catechumenate couldn’t be baptized until they vowed not to take the lives of fellow human beings.
Take for example this third-century canonical text attributed to an earlier Bishop of Rome, St. Hippolytus (170–235 AD), who stressed that the renunciation of killing men, women and children was a precondition of baptism: Continue Reading…