ROME, January 25, 2010
– This evening, with vespers in the basilica of Saint Paul's Outside
the Walls, Benedict XVI is closing the week of prayer for Christian
There are some who say that ecumenism has entered a phase of retreat
and chill. But as soon as one that looks to the East, the facts say
the opposite. Relations with the Orthodox Churches have never been
so promising as they have since Joseph Ratzinger has been pope.
The dates speak for themselves. A period of chill in the theological
dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches of
Byzantine tradition began in 1990, when the two sides clashed over
so-called "uniatism," meaning the ways in which Catholic communities
of the Eastern rites duplicate in everything the parallel Orthodox
communities, differing only by their obedience to the Church of
In Balamond, in Lebanon, the dialogue came to a halt. It hit an even
bigger obstacle on the Russian side, where the patriarchate of
Moscow could not tolerate seeing itself "invaded" by Catholic
missionaries sent there by Pope John Paul II, who were all the more
suspect because they were of Polish nationality, historically a
The dialogue remained frozen until, in 2005, the German Joseph
Ratzinger ascended to the throne of Peter, a pope highly appreciated
in the East for the same reason he prompts criticisms in the West:
for his attachment to the great Tradition.
First in Belgrade in 2006, and then in Ravenna in 2007, the
international mixed commission for theological dialogue between the
Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches started meeting again.
And what rose to the top of the discussion was precisely the
question that most divides East and West: the primacy of the
successor of Peter in the universal Church.
From the session in Ravenna emerged the document that marked the
shift, dedicated to "conciliarity and authority" in the ecclesial
The document of Ravenna, approved unanimously by both sides, affirms
that "primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent." And in
paragraph 41, it highlights the points of agreement and
"Both sides agree that . . . that Rome, as the Church that 'presides
in love' according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch, occupied
the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was
therefore the protos among the patriarchs. They disagree, however,
on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era
regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as protos, a matter
that was already understood in different ways in the first
"Protos" is the Greek word that means "first." And "taxis" is the
structure of the universal Church.
Since then, the discussion on controversial points has advanced at
an accelerated pace. And it has started to examine, above all, how
the Churches of East and West interpreted the role of the bishop of
Rome during the first millennium, when they were still united.
The basis of the discussion is a text that was drafted on the island
of Crete at the beginning of autumn in 2008.
The text has never been made public before now. It is in English,
and can be read in its entirety on this page of www.chiesa:
The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the
Church in the First Millennium
The international mixed commission for theological dialogue between
the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches started discussing
this text in Paphos, on the island of Cyprus, from October 16-23,
It has started to examine the preaching of Peter and Paul in Rome,
their martyrdom and the presence of their tombs in Rome, which for
Irenaeus of Lyons confers preeminent authority on the apostolic
From there, the discussion continued by examining the letter of Pope
Clement to the Christians of Corinth, the testimony of St. Ignatius
of Antioch, who identifies the Church of Rome as the one that
"presides in charity," the role of popes Anicetus and Victor in the
controversy surrounding the date of Easter, the positions of St.
Cyprian of Carthage in the controversy over whether or not to
rebaptize the "lapsi," meaning the Christians who had sacrificed to
idols in order to save their lives.
The intention is to understand to what extent the form that the
primacy of the bishop of Rome had in the first millennium can act as
a model for a rediscovered unity between East and West in the third
millennium of the Christian era.
In the middle, however, there has been a second millennium in which
the primacy of the pope was interpreted and lived, in the West, in
increasingly accentuated forms, far from the ones that the Churches
of the East are willing to accept today.
And this will be the critical point of the discussion. But the
delegations from the two sides are not afraid to face it. Benedict
XVI himself said this last January 20, explaining in the general
audience to the faithful the meaning of the week of prayer for
"With the Orthodox Churches, the international mixed commission for
theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox
Churches has begun to study a crucial theme in the dialogue between
Catholics and Orthodox: the role of the bishop of Rome in the
communion of the Church in the first millennium, meaning the time in
which the Christians of the East and West lived in full communion.
This study will be extended afterward to the second millennium."
The next session already has a preset place, Vienna, and a date,
from September 20-27, 2010.
For all these years, the head of the Catholic delegation has been
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the pontifical council for the
promotion of Christian unity.
As head of the Orthodox delegation for years has been metropolitan
of Pergamon Joannis Zizioulas, a theologian of recognized value and
of great authority, the "mind" of ecumenical patriarch of
Constantinople Bartholomew I, and highly respected by pope Ratzinger,
with whom he has a relationship of deep friendship.
Relations have also improved with the patriarch of Moscow. In
Ravenna, the Russian delegates had abandoned the work because of a
disagreement with the patriarch of Constantinople on whether or not
to admit Orthodox representatives from the Church of Estonia, which
is not recognized by Moscow.
But in Paphos, last October, the tear has been patched up. And now
the patriarchate of Moscow has friendly relations with Rome as well.
Proof of this came a few months ago, the publication by the
patriarchate of a book with writings by Benedict XVI, an initiative
without precedent in history.
The initiative will soon be reciprocated by Rome, with writings by
patriarch Kirill collected in a volume published by Libreria
A meeting between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow is now also
in the realm of possibility. Maybe sooner than one might think.