Pope Francis’s visit to the Middle East has been hugely significant, for both religious and political reasons. Francis hopes to encourage ongoing peaceful dialogue and co-operation between both Israelis and Palestinians over the future of the Holy Land, and in particular over Jerusalem, the focus of so much tension throughout history.
The most obvious practical effect is that Pope Francis has called on the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, to visit the Vatican to pray for peace and to continue the peace process.
Another longer-term effect will be to boost the morale of Arab Christians, who feel increasingly caught between calls for a Palestinian State (which, although Arab, would be overwhelmingly Muslim) on the one hand and the state of Israel on the other. The symbolism of Francis’s trip is therefore immensely important for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, and should not be underestimated.
But for the Catholic Church itself, the most striking and historically meaningful events of the Middle East visit – apart from talking to the region’s major political and religious brokers – were Francis’s meetings with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the symbolic leader of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew. But why?
The significance is historical. “Patriarch” is originally a Biblical term used to describe a father or elder of the Church, while the title “Ecumenical” goes back as far as the sixth century. We find its usage in the Law Code of the Emperor Justinian, who worked to re-unite the Eastern and Western Empires.
In later centuries, “ecumenical” was used to refer to the seat of imperial power, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), which was referred to as the “ecumenical didaskalos” (literally teacher), in effect the “ecumenical chair”.
Cracks in the relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity started to widen more than 1000 years ago. In the 11th century, during the pontificate of Leo IX (1049-1054), a great schism arose between the western Catholic Church and the eastern Orthodox Church. Leo and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Kerullarios, fought over the influence of their respective Latin and Orthodox rites in southern Italy, which had once belonged to the Byzantine Empire.
In an act of defiance, Leo’s representative Humbert of Moyenmoutier, bishop of Silva Candida and an ardent reformer, laid down a bull of excommunication against Kerullarios on the high altar of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
Although Leo IX was already dead before Humbert’s reaction, the rift opened deep wounds which are still not completely healed today.
The invitation to visit the Holy Land was extended by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew (from the Phanar, Istanbul) right at the start of Francis’s pontificate. The visit was timed to commemorate the meeting of one of the Pope’s predecessors, Paul VI (1963-1978) and then Ecumenical Patriarch, Athenagoras – the first international visit made by a modern pope, and directly inspired by Vatican II (1962-1965). It was a breakthrough in Catholic-Orthodox relations.
But although that meeting saw both men pray together, they did not do so in public. On his visit, Francis sought to strengthen relations still further. He visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional place associated with Jesus' burial and Resurrection, where he was welcomed by the superiors of no fewer than three Christian communities: the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church and the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.
And in a groundbreaking gesture, both Francis and Bartholomew presided over and offered joint prayers at a special ecumenical service, intended to embrace the different Christian groups, and broadcast live by the world’s media.
Since the three communities usually venerate at the Holy Sepulchre at different times, this was an ecumenical milestone. The spot has seen disputes, even brawls, between different Christian churches over the celebration of major feasts such as Easter. Yet during the course of this trip, Francis and Bartholomew also signed a joint statement on Catholic-Orthodox relations.
During the high and late Middle Ages, the Ecumenical Patriarch wielded considerable political influence by virtue of his close affiliation with the Byzantine emperors. That influence waned only in the 15th century, when the Greek world was overrun by the Ottomans. Today, the various Orthodox churches are theoretically autonomous and equal. The head of the Greek Orthodox Church is the archbishop of Athens; however, the Ecumenical Patriarch has traditionally been Greek Orthodox, and the Greek Orthodox Church supports him.
There is also the Russian Orthodox Church, which wields real political as well as religious power within Orthodoxy not only because the archbishop of Russia is a patriarch, but also because the Russian Orthodox Church has the largest number of Orthodox bishops.
While the Ecumenical Patriarch has no overriding authority today, he is nevertheless symbolic of the leadership of the Orthodox Church. And in 2016, Bartholomew will preside over a pan-Orthodox council, which many both inside and outside the Orthodox Church hope will be the Orthodox equivalent of Vatican II.
Pope Francis is keen to improve communication between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and Bartholemew has expressed similar sentiments. Their meeting should be viewed as a seminal moment in the long and complex history of Catholic-Orthodox relations.