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Pope Francis' ecumenical commitment

Pope Francis opts for a culture of encounter based on gestures of closeness and personal friendship with the leaders of different Christian confessions. His travels and audiences confirm this.

Andrea Gagliarducci-January 18, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes
ecumenism pope

Photo: Pope Francis greets Lutheran Bishop Jukka Keskitalo of Oulu during an audience with an ecumenical delegation from Finland on January 17, 2022. ©CNS photo/Vatican Media

In the Angelus of December 18Pope Francis appealed for a solution to the situation in the Lachin corridor, the only point of contact between Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh, according to its ancient Armenian name) and Armenia.

The blockade of the corridor by some activists threatens to provoke a humanitarian tragedy, while maneuvers in that corridor, and in Nagorno Karabakh in general, have long raised questions about the future of the region's Christian heritage.

However, that call also had another meaning. It was a call that came to the rescue of a "sister" church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and Patriarch Karekin II, who met several times with Pope Francis and welcomed him to Armenia in 2016.

– Supernatural last meeting between the two was in October 2021, when Karekin II was accompanied by the head of human rights to denounce the crimes taking place in the region. Contacts, however, are frequent, and the appeal made five days ago to the leaders of all the sister Churches certainly did not go unnoticed by Pope Francis.

The episode is noteworthy because it relates the way Pope Francis carries out ecumenism. Several times he smilingly recalled an old joke that if all theologians were put on an island, ecumenism would immediately follow. But the Pope then went on to say that theology is indeed useful for ecumenical dialogue. He, however, prefers to focus on something else: on gestures of closeness and personal friendship.

Ecumenical gifts

What is certain is that the entire pontificate of Pope Francis is studded with "ecumenical gifts". Last week, three pieces of the Parthenon kept in the Vatican Museums were returned to Greece, directly to the Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos, with whom the Pope had met a year ago during his trip to the country.

Earlier, on June 29, 2019, Pope Francis suddenly decided to donate a relic of St. Peter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew.

And then there is the ecumenism of relics. The ultimate example is that of the relic of St. Nicholas taken from the body of the Saint in Bari and brought to the veneration of the faithful in Russia in 2017. Also in 2017, it was the relics of St. Philip that were sent to Smyrna, to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. 

The bloody tunic of Thomas Beckett, the English bishop murdered by the sword in Canterbury Cathedral, was loaned to the Anglican Church and from St. Mary Major returned to Canterbury in 2020, on the occasion of the celebrations of the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of the martyr of Albion. Also in 2020, Pope Francis donated the relics of St. Clement and St. Potitus to Patriarch Neofit of Bulgaria. 

These are all gestures intended to foster gestures of détente with sister Churches. Pope Francis, in fact, leaves the task of defining the theological issues to the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity. In general, it relies on encounters, on personal relationships, to bring about a practical ecumenism that shows sister Churches working together.

Pope Francis' ecumenical trips

Part of this strategy is the long-planned "ecumenical journey" to South Sudanwhere he will be with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Anglican Primate, and Moderator of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields. Pope Francis will be in South Sudan on February 4-5, 2023, at the end of a trip that will take him to the Democratic Republic of Congo from January 31 to February 3.

The trip had been planned for some time, and relations with Anglican Primate Welby had grown closer on the eve of this trip. On April 11, 2019, Archbishop Welby was also at the prayer meeting for the civil and political authorities of South Sudan that Pope Francis had wanted at the Vatican.

It was the time before the pandemic, and Pope Francis had planned no less than two ecumenical trips in 2020. In addition to the one to South Sudan, a longer trip to Greece was also planned, following in the footsteps of St. Paul, with the Patriarch Bartholomewwho has always shown his closeness to Pope Francis, at his side.

Due to the pandemic, the trip to Greece could not take place as planned in 2020. When it took place in December 2021, conditions were different, and it was decided to make a trip with a stop in Athens and a quick detour to Lesbos, where the Pope had already been.

However, the fact that it was to be done says a lot about the direction Pope Francis wants to give to ecumenical dialogue. Suffice it to say that most of the nations Pope Francis has visited in Europe are Orthodox-majority: in 2019 it was Bulgaria, Northern Macedonia and Romania. In 2021, Cyprus and Greece.

Now a visit to Serbia is planned, which has also been offered for a meeting between Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill. Difficult terrain because of the opposition of the local Orthodox Patriarchate to the canonization of Cardinal Aloizije Stepniac, Archbishop of Zagreb during the years of World War II, considered by the Orthodox a Nazi collaborator - for this, the Pope has also created an Orthodox Catholic commission that has not led to any definitive conclusion -.

In addition, trips have been made to countries with a Protestant majority. In Sweden in 2016, Pope Francis went to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, launching a joint statement between Caritas Internationalis and Lutheran World Service.

And not to be forgotten is Pope Francis' visit to Switzerland, first to the headquarters of the World Council of Churches and then to Bossey in 2018, again underlining the desire to be present.

Relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate

It is not surprising, then, that the Pope seeks personal encounters rather than big speeches. He held talks with his "dear brother" Bartholomew both on his last trip to Bahrain in November 2022 and on his trip to Kazakhstan in September 2022. And it is not surprising that the countries that are making the greatest effort to show their commitment to dialogue and shake off a difficult image (Kazakhstan and Bahrain, but also the United Arab Emirates and Iraq) have always invited the Pope to interreligious meetings where he can also hold "ecumenical bilaterals".

Since its trip to Kazakhstan In September 2022, Pope Francis also met with Metropolitan Antonij, who heads the Patriarchate's Department for External Relations. Patriarch Kirill, who had confirmed his participation and then cancelled it at the last moment, was scheduled to be there. With Antonij there was talk of a possible second meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope, scheduled for June in the Holy Land, which was then cancelled and made difficult also by some statements of Pope Francis, who - speaking about the videoconference he held with Kirill in March this year - had hinted that he had ordered the Patriarch: "We are not clerics of the State".

And so the possibility of a meeting fizzled out, against the backdrop of a war in Ukraine that has seen the Patriarch take very clear pro-war positions, while Cardinal Koch, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, has not hesitated to define some of these positions as "heretical".

For the Pope, however, the meeting must be held, along the lines of the February 2016 meeting in Havana. The background of the war in Ukraine makes everything more difficult, including calibrating the eventual final declaration. The thermometer of the relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church will be able to gauge the situation in February: will the usual annual commemorative meeting be held in Havana? And in what form? That remains to be seen.

Ecumenical reconciliation in Ukraine

Meanwhile, another possibility could also exist on the Ukrainian front, where for the past 25 years there has been a All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations representing the 95% of the religious mosaic of Ukraine.

This council, which is also very active in supporting the local population, has written a letter to the Pope, requesting the possibility of a meeting, and it is expected that his visit to Rome will take place in January, during the Week for Promoting Christian Unity.

It would be an important visit, a way of seeking peace also through ecumenical dialogue. But it would also be a visit that would have to be calibrated well, in meetings, ways and terms, bearing in mind that Ukraine is also an ecumenical battleground. There, in fact, the declaration of autocephaly (autonomy) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2019 had triggered the so-called "Orthodox schism".

The autocephaly had been granted by Bartholomew, the first of the Synaxis of Orthodox Churches, but had provoked the firm protest of the Patriarchate of Moscow, which had also withdrawn from all the bodies co-chaired by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, including the Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission.

Moscow considered Ukraine its canonical territory and, among other things, autocephaly had been perceived precisely as a further distancing of Ukraine from Russia, which also influenced the Russian narrative about the current war.

Everything, in the end, will depend on how things shape up. Pope Francis continues with his idea of the culture of encounter, leaving the debate to theologians. Will it be enough?

The authorAndrea Gagliarducci

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