The First Ecumenical Patriarch at a Papal Inauguration (not just since 1054)?

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Greets Pope Francis

The following article is republished with kind permission from the author, Dr. George Demacopoulos, via the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

The Extraordinary Historical Significance of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s Presence at Pope Francis’ Installation as Bishop of Rome

Amid the crush of news reports in the past month that followed Pope Benedict’s unprecedented resignation from the papacy, one of the most intriguing was the decision by His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to attend Pope Francis’ installation as Bishop of Rome. The occasion is being presented in the media as something that has not happened since the ecclesiastical schism that separated Christian East and Christian West in the eleventh century. But that characterization is almost certainly wrong–this is quite likely the first time in history that a Bishop of Constantinople will attend the installation of a Bishop of Rome. And this is a profoundly bold step in ecumenical relations between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, one that could have lasting significance.

Prior to the sixth century, the election of a Roman bishop was a local affair. In most cases, the new pope was chosen from among the city’s clergy and was typically either the eldest priest or the eldest deacon. There were a few exceptions, but this was the typical pattern. News of an election would circulate throughout the Christian world but that news flow would have been too slow to enable high-ranking Church officials from the East to travel to Rome for the event.

During the sixth century, Byzantine armies conquered the Italian peninsula, returning the city of Rome to the imperial Roman government, now centered in Constantinople. In this context, which lasted from the mid-sixth century until the loss of Byzantine influence in Italy in the eighth century, the election of a new Roman bishop required the approval of the Byzantine emperor (the same, of course, was true of the election of a new Ecumenical Patriarch). Under such an arrangement, papal elections took longer but there still would be no reason for an Eastern Patriarch to travel to Rome for the installation.

There are a few examples from this Byzantine period, such as the election of Pope Pelagius I in 556, where the man elected to be the Roman bishop was actually in Constantinople at the time of his election. While it is possible that the sacramental ceremony to install the new pope could have occurred in Constantinople–whereby the Patriarch of Constantinople would have been present–it is far more likely that the official ceremony would have occurred in Rome and, therefore, would have been conducted without the Patriarch’s presence.

At the conclusion of Byzantine influence in papal elections in the eighth century, the election of Roman bishops returned, again, to local considerations. And, as geo-political factors continued to push Italy and the Eastern empire in separate directions, relations between individual popes and patriarchs became more sterile and distant–indeed, between the ninth and fifteenth century there are only one or two occasions where a Roman bishop and an Ecumenical Patriarch ever met in person.

With all of this in mind, His All-Holiness’ decision to travel to Rome for Pope Francis’ installation as Roman bishop is an extraordinary event in the history of Christianity. And it is significant for reasons far beyond its novelty. First and foremost it is a powerful symbolic gesture for the cause of Christian unity. It demonstrates in unprecedented fashion the extent to which the Ecumenical Patriarch considers the relationship with the Roman Catholic Church to be a priority. For their part, members of the Vatican staff have responded to this grand gesture and have arranged for the reading of the Gospel at the installation to be sung in Greek (rather than Latin) in recognition of the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch has taken this unprecedented step.

The Christian world has been divided for so long that the establishment of an authentic reunion will require courage, leadership, and humility. It will also require a foundation in common faith and concerns. Given Pope Francis’ well-documented work for social justice and his insistence that globalization is detrimental to the poor, it would appear as though the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic traditions have a renewed opportunity to work collectively on issues of mutual concern. With our Lord’s assistance, that common cause can be transformed into more substantive theological work. But such work requires a first step and it would appear as though Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is willing to take such a step.

George E. Demacopoulos, PhD
Archon Didaskalos tous Genous
Historian for the Order of St. Andrew
Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University


  1. Salve Orthodoxa! An RC speaking here, this gesture made us Latins very happy, so I offer a heartfelt thank you! Now I’m nothing but a layman interested in theology, but I fully understand that reconciling our theological method (inherently Aristotelian, sometimes tending toward rationalism) with yours (inherently Neo-Platonic, more mystical) will be a heroic feat. Can it even be done? I don’t know, but as the Scripture says, with God nothing is impossible. You definitely need to visit more often though – I mean, one visit = Greek singing, more visits = we fix our vandalized (yes, I dare to say vandalized) liturgy? One can always hope! 🙂

    I want to ask: what is the general state of the Faith among Orthodox? Healthy? I ask this, because we have a rather large number of “liberal”/”progressive” believers (that is people too lazy to convert to Protestantism). I do not question their dedication to social issues, but they seem intent on warping the Tradition to make it acceptable to popular culture (abortion, divorce, female priests and all that). When I look at the mess that is Anglicanism in Britain… well, I get a bit scared sometimes. There seems to be an authority problem among moderns, which corrodes all trust in tradition (we tend to blame Duns Scotus and William of Ockham for this voluntarism). Does this attitude manifest itself among the Orthodox faithful?

    1. This attitude you are speaking of resides among those who converted from other faiths such as Protestantism, or, they are just your typical modernists. These modernists want to change the traditions to suit their own passions. Overall though, modernism is being rejected by Orthodoxy because Orthodoxy has always been more traditional than any other Church has. It doesn’t change like other faiths do. It may change in individual churches depending on the priests preferences and such, but overall it doesn’t change much.

      There maybe some theological modernist heresies among many of the Orthodox priests and parishoners. Like for instance the priest may teach wrongly or have wrong ideas about something, or he may guide someone wrongly. But this should come as no surprise as nobody (even a priest) is perfect, which is why we should pray for the clergy and the people.

      The heresy of ecumenism is one of the greatest enemies of the Church today. It is the heresy and belief that all creeds can become one and that it doesn’t matter what church you go to. This is anti-traditionalism and it is a trick of the devil brought under false love and unity. Some convert priests from Protestantism can and do harbor this kind of thinking, they think that even a Protestant is safe and sound and can be “saved” outside the Orthodox Church. This is not how the Fathers of the Church viewed salvation at all.

      To us Eastern Orthodox who are traditionally minded, Patriarch Bartholomew’s presence at the inaugural mass has the potential to be a bane on the Church as well as a blessing. There are serious theological differences between the two Churches, the most serious of all is the belief in the Pope. To us Orthodox who are traditionally minded we see the Pope as an anti-christ. So I would not see this whole thing as a bed of roses. No bishop or priest is infallible, there have been bishops and priests who betrayed the Church by adopting heresy and causing schism. This is even more true with the Pope, being that he has the most power of any bishop. It was the Pope who caused the Great Schism of 1054.

      To reconcile with the Pope and the RCC they would have to renounce their papal infallibility doctrines, and other theological heresies about Mary. Also they would have to change the services. I can’t really see how the Pope is actually going to let any of that happen. Which is why I think inter-relations with the Latins (RCC) is dangerous.

    2. For whatever it may be worth, I would disagree with the statement made by another commenter that traditionally-minded Orthodox see the pope as an anti-christ. There really is no such dogmatic statement, not even in the strongest denunciations of Latin innovations that have come from the conciliar mind of the Orthodox Church.

      That said, there are many things that we believe need to be rectified in the Roman Catholic Church before communion would be possible.

      Regarding ecumenism, well, that word can mean a number of things. If it means compromise on doctrine and/or the belief that there are many “branches” of the one true Church, then of course that is a betrayal of Orthodoxy. If, however, it means serious theological engagement in an effort to witness Orthodoxy to the world, that is not only permitted but actually commanded, since it is part of our duty to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.

      Also, I think it is not really correct to divide up the Orthodox and Rome into Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian forms of theology. It’s neither that simple nor, especially in the case of supposed Orthodox Neo-Platonism, actually apt.

      As for the general pastoral state of Orthodoxy, I think our biggest problem is not modernism or liberalism, but rather nominalism. Even most supposedly Orthodox countries actually have very low church attendance. There are signs of revival here and there, though, and that is encouraging. We are still in the process of coming out of something of a long sleep, largely brought on by centuries of Ottoman invasion and occupation, Russian secular imperial subjugation and atheist Soviet domination.

  2. Mikhail says: “Some convert priests from Protestantism can and do harbor this kind of [ecumenical] thinking, they think that even a Protestant is safe and sound and can be “saved” outside the Orthodox Church. This is not how the Fathers of the Church viewed salvation at all.”

    Actually, Mikhail, my experience is that convert Priests are less likely to think this way than some cradle Orthodox Priests (but admittedly my experience is very narrow). Also, would you consider this Orthodox Bishop to be in error then?:

  3. For what it’s worth Fr Andrew, the RCC says original sin is sin in an analogical sense, that it’s a state of deprivation of original holiness and that it’s connected to Adam’s sin’s effects like concupisence and death.

    I suspect it follows that we aren’t really guilty of Adam’s real sin, but only by analogy.

    Do you think that’s compatible with ancestoral or hereditary sin?

    *If* it is, could we then say the Theotokos was preserved from hereditary sin?

    Would one exorcise Mary before baptizing her? Surely not.

    1. No, I don’t think we could say that. After all, she was still mortal, which is one of the effects of our inheritance from Adam.

      BTW, don’t you think this comment belongs somewhere else? I don’t see the Immaculate Conception doctrine mentioned in Dr. Demacopoulos’s piece.

  4. Thank you for the replies, I shall write here, because that comment off-setting is annoying.

    @Mr. Kolitwenzew: I thought, that the “anti-christ” stuff was a Protestant thing! Then again, Dostoevsky is my favourite writer and there’s a definite anti-Catholic animus in his works. Our dear Holy Father seems to be the stumbling block for just about everybody. But to be frank, after centuries of ridicule and insults, this has become a very emotional thing for us. It probably shouldn’t have, but that’s the way it is. Anyway, I’m not that interested to have a theological axe grinding contest here, although Thomism is right, obviously. 😉

    That the modernistic heresies are being rejected is encouraging to hear, but be careful, it is a plague. Just about every part of Western culture is infested and as far I can tell it’s spreading. I’m a Slovak, my country is usually thought of as being very traditional, but we’re definitely parroting whatever junk the western wind brings. And the annoying thing is that it’s not bringing a coherent set of values we can engage, it’s a nihilistic wind, which replies “so what?”. Abortions kill babies? “So what?” The Church does not define what priesthood is, it merely preserves what has been established in the beginning. “So what? We want equality!” “Want” is the operative word here. This sort of voluntarism is very seductive, since it does not regard the will as in need of correction, but as the ultimate and only arbiter of truth, everything collapses into the will-to-power. Our theologians have been trying to find an effective response, but it hasn’t been that successful. Pre-Enlightenment we could rely on the fact that people usually believed that there is an objective moral order in the Universe, but this intuition has been banished in our post-Humean / post-Kantian times.

    @Fr. Damick: Well, that theological distinction was of course an over-simplification, though I think it can be kept in some weaker form. Probably only Origen can be called a Neo-Platonist, since he sadly did not avoid corrupting the faith with some Platonic conclusions. But surely you don’t deny that, for example, Pseudo-Dionysius (with his use of Proclus and Plotinus), Maximus the Confessor or St. Gregory of Nyssa all utilized Neo-Platonism to explain/formulate the faith? Given their prominence for the Orthodox faith (in the West their influence was offset by the Scholastics) I think it was a valid formulation. I don’t mean that as if it is a bad thing, just a matter of fact. (In fact I’m a great admirer of them all, especially the Cappadocians). And I remember reading a book by Nikolay Losskij, where he made a similar point. So, I feel that I’m on a firm ground here! 😉 And of course, my beloved Thomism is not just Aristotelianism, St. Thomas was also a faithful Augustinian. Thomism at its core is a synthesis of Augustiniasm and Aristotelianism. That’s why he was a genius, he took the best of both and combined them. Eh… a rather long exercise in self-justification, I know, but sadly the Eastern Fathers are not that well known among Latin laity or even among clerics (with the possible exception of Dominicans, they seem to know about everything), and I love talking about them, so forgive me if I got a bit carried away.

    Father, don’t you think that the low attendance and modernism are related? Fact is that people get their values from the surrounding culture and many don’t bother examining them. In many places of the West, the culture can be called post-Christian and in some instances openly hostile. Why bother going to Church when you regard it as a mere superstition to which you have some historical/emotional connection? Well, we’ve been there before in the first centuries, but at that time, the world wasn’t a nihilistic hole. We can win the culture back, but first we need to stop it from spreading. And this is where we can work together and it’s very very important.

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