Pope Francis’s Engagement with the Orthodox

by Pantelis Kalaitzidis | български | ქართული | Română | Русский | Српски

This essay was published in Greek at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.

Pope Francis

Since the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has appeared in front of the crowd gathered physically at the St. Peter’s square and the entire world watching through mass media as “bishop of Rome,” adopting an ecumenically friendly language to describe his ministry, compatible with the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Orthodox Church. What is more, Pope Francis has repeatedly and in various occasions underlined the concept of “synodality” as both a constitutive dimension of the Church and a crucial step on its way toward the third millennium. Needless to say, “synodality” is fundamental to the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, and for good reason it has been recognized as one of the most significant contributions of the Orthodox to ecumenical dialogue. Adopting, therefore, a theological and ecclesiological principle that characterizes the Orthodox Church (despite some weaknesses that should be admitted in practical implementation in inter-Orthodox relations), Pope Francis pointed out the fruitful ways in which ecumenical dialogue and the approach to the confessionally “other” could enrich internal ecclesial procedures, becoming beneficial for each single Christian tradition.

Under this perspective, there was no surprise that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has been mentioned in the papal encyclical “Laudato Si” (2015) as a source of inspiration for Pope Francis’ ecotheological vision. This recognition of the value and the importance of the longstanding commitment to environmental issues shown by Patriarch Bartholomew, who for decades has been preaching that caring for the environment is a religious imperative and whose name has become synonymous with ecological theology, earning the title “Green Patriarch” thanks to his persistent endeavors, highlights, in the best possible way, how the collaboration between church leaders could raise the awareness of competent civil authorities and public opinion on global issues, such as the climate change and the protection of the planet. In few words, the openness of Pope Francis and his constructive and positive approach to sensitive issues concerning the Orthodox tradition are promising signs of the common path of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches toward  full communion. An additional element that should be stressed and explains the increasing popularity of Pope Francis among the Orthodox, despite the wounds of the historical past,  is his public discourses, statements, gestures, and writings, all representing an open-minded Christianity, a Church of the “humble and poor,” honestly working toward repentance and reconciliation.

The Character of Pope Francis’ Visit to Cyprus and Greece

The Eastern Mediterranean region is undoubtedly of central importance for the historical course of Christianity through the centuries. Both Cyprus and Greece are directly or indirectly linked to the missionary tours of St. Paul. Pope Francis’ visit, therefore, could easily be described as a pilgrimage to regions connected to the very origins of Christianity, in the footsteps of the Apostles. In addition to their Christian roots, a further feature of Cyprus and Greece relates to their common cultural background based deeply on the Hellenic cultural tradition. It could not be an exaggeration to say that Pope Francis’ recent trip was scheduled as a tribute to the constructive encounter between Christianity and Hellenism, firstly manifested in the New Testament and consequently through the doctrines of the ecumenical councils in the first millennium and the theological elaborations of the Greek Fathers of the East.

 On the other hand, a papal visit does not bear only a historical dimension but also involves a symbolic meaning, offering perspectives on crucial contemporary issues. Against this background, Pope Francis’ visit to Greece and Cyprus took place at a moment when the flow of refugees into Greece, due also to the recent political crisis in Afghanistan, are expected to increase. There is no reason to explain further the particular sensibility that Pope Francis has demonstrated toward the refugee crisis. It suffices to mention here that the previous visit of Pope Francis to Greece was in 2016, when, together with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and the Archbishop of Athens Hieronymus II, they visited the island of Lesbos in order to express their moral support and solidarity toward refugees and asylum-seekers trapped on the island, and to encourage the local population which has been engaged with refugee hospitality and integration. This time, a second visit to Lesbos was included in the papal program,  which should be seen not as a mere commemorative act but rather as a reminder of the Christian moral duty of caring and advocacy toward whoever is suffering.

Additionally, the visit of Pope Francis offered a further opportunity to the local Christian population both in Greece and Cyprus, belonging primarily to the Orthodox tradition, to overcome prejudices, past conflicts, and complaints mainly due to the Fourth Crusade and the practice of proselytism, and to improve their feelings toward their Roman Catholic fellows, ceasing to see them with suspicion and reservation but instead as true brothers in Christ. It should be noticed in this context that the Pope not only asked forgiveness for the above but also went so far as to express his shame for the hostile attitude of the Roman Catholic Church against the Greek Revolution of 1821, and the struggle for freedom.

Challenges and opportunities of Pope Francis’ visit

As it has been mentioned above, overcoming prejudices of the past was one of the great challenges and opportunities of this papal visit in Greece and Cyprus. If one would like to be honest and clear in this regard, one must admit that for decades, in both Orthodox countries of Greek language and culture, a strong anti-Western movement has emerged, based on unfortunate historical reasons, on a populistic narrative of Greek uniqueness, and on exclusivist ecclesiological ideas. In addition, despite the institutional participation of all canonical autocephalous Orthodox Churches in the ecumenical movement and their fruitful and constructive contribution in many crucial issues, and despite the leading role of distinguished Eastern Orthodox theologians in promoting ecumenical understanding and theological reflection towards Christian unity, it seems that from the Orthodox side, especially in the monastic milieus, the low clergy and the grassroots, there has always been a standing suspicion towards, if not an open rejection of ecumenical dialogue. This goes along with the ambiguity and the dual language of many Orthodox representatives in the ecumenical movement (ecumenical language ad extra, conservative and defensive, but not principally anti-ecumenical, ad intra).

The Orthodox Church was thus, and to a certain degree continues to be, a fertile field in which these tendencies are growing and flourishing. Seeking the origins of such trends lies beyond the scope of this essay; however, I could note that a certain anti-Catholic sentiment among certain Orthodox circles is prevalent. For this reason, some manifestations against the papal visit were definitely expected in advance (as it happened at the end) due to a small but noisy minority of Orthodox fundamentalists. Nevertheless, compared to the last visit of pope Francis to Greece in 2016, but much more to the visit of John-Paul II to Athens in 2001, the reactions were explicitly less dynamic, a fact that could be interpreted as a sign of hope and progress for mutual respect between Orthodox and Catholics. In this regard, the visit of Pope Francis in Cyprus and Greece may indeed mark a moment of joy with ecumenical importance, in the sense that it could concretize the progress in the official theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church during the last decades.

Dr. Pantelis Kalaitzidis is Director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, Research Fellow of KU Leuven (Belgium) and Münster University (Germany), Member of the Executive Committee of the European Academy of Religion (EuARe-Bologna).