Pope Francis of Rome recently made a visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and made a grand gesture of asking for the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch on himself and his church. So once again we are treated to all sorts of commentary from both the “left” and the “right” on the supposed imminent reunion with Rome, bolstered especially by words from the Ecumenical Patriarch regarding Orthodoxy and Rome being “sister churches,” that the Church is “divided,” etc.—words which, if taken as precise dogmatic statements, would seem to be contrary to Orthodox tradition, which sees the Church as undivided and uniquely identical with the Orthodox Church. And of course, while his gestures are not so grand as those of the Jesuit Pope, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew also does some things which bring happy tears to unionists and boil the blood of those who oppose even dialogue with Rome.
What may mitigate some of the excitement of those who think reunion or betrayal (depending on one’s commitments) is imminent are some statements from the Ecumenical Patriarch himself which, at least to my mind, are far more precise and direct on the question of whether and how there is to be any union with Rome by the Orthodox Church. Happily, a compilation of these statements was recently posted by the traditionalist Roman Catholic weblog Rorate Cæli. (Thanks, guys!) Here they are (some a little expanded from the sources), along with a quote alluded to in their post but added here (from the 1997 Georgetown speech) and another I’m adding:
From a 2010 speech to the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Romania:
The holy 1st Ecumenical Synod drafted – dear brethren – the first Symbol of the Faith, which was later completed by the holy 2nd Ecumenical Synod of Constantinople in 381, with its five last articles. Both these holy Synods served the most sacred and loftiest purpose in the lives of Christians, which was none other than the unity, the concordance and the peace of the Church.
Through their dogmatic ruling, which is succinctly crystalized in the sacred Symbol, they outlined the “basics” of the Orthodox belief, every transgression of which places those who dare, outside the corpus of the Church.
At the Fanarion, in the old conference hall of our Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, among other depicted themes is artistically inscribed on its four walls the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople, which clearly denotes – in the likeness of a fiery circle – those sacred “basics”, which no-one can possibly ignore or overstep.
It only took (much later on) the addition to the Symbol of one and only word: the familiar “Filioque”, to create new cacodoxies and schisms and heresies, which, to this day holds Western Christianity a long way away from the Orthodox East.
From a 2011 speech on Mount Athos:
“So we also are fully aware of the responsibility, which we wear with the hierarchical and patriarchal omophorion on our shoulders.”
The Ecumenical Patriarch condemned the attitude of the deniers of the dialogue “with the heterodox”, stressing that “holding the truth” in the Orthodox Church allows us to not fear “any deduction or counterfeiting of our holy faith,” but he will continue the dialogue “to persuade the well-meaning of those who dialogue with us.”
“On the whole, the dialogue may appear at a loss. Divine Grace however attracts to the truth those who are participating in it. Is it not worth a dialogue, even if only one soul approaches towards the truth?” asked Bartholomew.
The Ecumenical Patriarch said that he has repeatedly stressed in the past “the essential differences between Orthodoxy and other confessions.” Referring especially to the dialogue with the Catholic Church he emphasized that the Orthodox Church always prays “for the union of all” and may not refuse herself when invited to a dialogue on the purpose of attaining this union, “as is desired by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself”, but not without substantial conditions:
“Union is the ultimate goal, but before that there should be the identity in the faith.”
“Speaking years ago to our Roman Catholic brothers I pointed out the path regularly followed by the Roman Catholic Church by accepting more and new doctrines, and in its journey towards our Church, instead of converging towards union, it has departed and driven further apart one another” (University of Georgetown, 21 October 1997), added Mr. Bartholomew. He said further:
“Furthermore, it is not true that we overlook the preconditions to the union of churches, nor is it true that we overlook the differences which prevent union.”
From the 1997 Georgetown University speech:
Assuredly our problem is neither geographical nor one of personal alienation. Neither is it a problem of organizational structures, nor jurisdictional arrangements. Neither is it a problem of external submission, nor absorption of individuals and groups. It is something deeper and more substantive. The manner in which we exist has become ontologically different. Unless our ontological transfiguration and transformation toward one common model of life is achieved, not only in form but also in substance, unity and its accompanying realization become impossible.
No one ignores the fact that the model for all of us is the person of the Theanthropos (God-Man) Jesus Christ. But which model? No one ignores the fact that the incorporation in Him is achieved within His body, the Church. But whose church? Because of the varying responses to these basic questions, we marched on divergent courses. This is easily understood and unavoidable. For whether we comprehend this or not, our existence is ontologically shaped in symphony and harmony with our inner self. According to the description of our Lord, in Matthew 15:11, not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth.
Patriarch Bartholomew said among other things that he neither betrays Orthodoxy, nor does he pursue ecumenist ideas, as it has been said.
“With this tactic (the dialogue) we are not betraying Orthodoxy, as we have been accused, nor do we support ecumenist perceptions; rather, we preach to the heterodox and to everyone the Orthodox truth”, he stated characteristically.
The Ecumenical Patriarch made an extensive reference to the reactions that exist on the matter of the theological dialogue, both in Bulgaria and in other countries, noting that these actions aspire to a mutual understanding and in time acceptance, “by the heterodox of the one Orthodox faith”.
“They (the dialogues) do not aspire – as was written in both Bulgaria and elsewhere – to the creation of one, mutually accepted ‘aggregate’ of beliefs. That is, there is no attempt through this so-called ecumenical movement to attain the acceptance of one ‘Christian syncretistic confession’; only a deeper penetration into the Christian Orthodox faith and the communal collaboration of all those who invoke the name of Christ”, stressed Patriarch Bartholomew.
He also added that:
“We Orthodox, who possess the fullness of the Truth, are not afraid – as it is thought – that we shall be influenced by the views of our heterodox brethren on dogmatic issues.”
In regards to the discussions and dialogues between all the Orthodox Churches and the heterodox, they have as an ultimate purpose the fulfillment of the will and command of the Lord: ‘That all may be one’ (Jn. 17:21). Now they contribute towards societal cooperation and the witness of the truth, and these are aimed at mutual understanding and for the acceptance in time by the heterodox of the one Orthodox faith. We do not aim, as it is written in Bulgaria and elsewhere, towards the creation of a commonly acceptable ‘conglomeration’ of beliefs. That is, we are not pursuing through the so-called ecumenical movement the acceptance of a ‘Christian syncretistic confession’, but a deepening in the Orthodox Christian faith and in societal cooperation with those who invoke the name of Christ. Naturally, we do not fear, as Orthodox, who have the fullness of truth, that we will be affected by the views of our heterodox brethren on doctrinal issues. We are simply following the long held ecclesiastical tradition, encapsulated in the advice of Saint John of the Ladder: ‘In the case of those who malevolently dispute with us, whether unbelievers or heretics, we should desist after we have twice admonished them. But in the case of those who wish to learn the truth let us never grow weary in well-doing. However, we should use both opportunities for the establishment of our own heart’ (Ladder, Step 26:125). Through this strategy we are not betraying Orthodoxy, as criticized, nor do we support ecumenistic concepts, but we proclaim to the heterodox and to all the truth of Orthodoxy.
From the March 2014 speech to the synaxis of primates of the Orthodox Church (this statement precludes a papal model of church governance):
As we know, the Orthodox Church comprises a number of autocephalous regional Churches, which move within certain boundaries defined by the Sacred Canons and the Tomes conferring their autocephaly while at the same time being entitled to full self-administration without any external interference whatsoever. This system, which was bequeathed to us by our Fathers, constitutes a blessing that we must preserve like the apple of our eyes. For it is by means of this system that we may avoid any deviation toward conceptions foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology concerning the exercise of universal authority by any local Church or its First-Hierarch. The Orthodox Church comprises a communion of autocephalous and self-administered Orthodox Churches.
And is it true that +Bartholomew really intends to unite with Rome himself? From a 2013 statement in Turkey:
Speaking at a meeting at the university of Kadir Has in Istanbul, Hurriyet reports, Bartholomew I said he believed ‘there is a possibility for the next generations to see the churches of the East and West reunited’. ‘This will probably not happen during my life’, he added.
Yes, there are a lot of things that faithful Orthodox can criticize in the various statements and gestures that the Ecumenical Patriarch has made regarding Rome if they are taken as isolated and absolute, but when it comes to addressing the issue of reunion head-on, not merely offering up diplomatic hints and gestures, His All-Holiness actually sounds pretty uncontroversial.