Fr. Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesman, responded today to reports about an ecumenical gathering at Nicaea in 2025. His comments show the nascent nature of this meeting. Fr. Lombardi told Catholic News Agency that the Nicaea gathering “is a nice proposal from Bartholomew, just as his proposal for an encounter on the 50th anniversary meeting between Paul VI and Athenagoras I was.” Further details have yet to emerge on this gathering. In fact, Fr. Lombardi and other Vatican officials appear to know little beyond what Bartholomew I said in his interview with AsiaNews.
Relations between Rome and the Orthodox Church have improved greatly under Bartholomew. Bartholomew has also increased his ecumenical overtures since Pope Francis was elected Pope, or better yet Bishop of Rome. It will be interesting to see how the other Orthodox patriarchs react.
A clue on how the Russian Patriarch will react comes from a recent Catholic-Russian Orthodox concert held in Moscow. Zenit reports that “the choir of the Sistine Chapel, together with the Synodal Choir of Moscow, performed a concert of sacred music on Tuesday night in honor of the 5th anniversary of Kyrill’s reign as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.” The concert was organized by the Patriarchate of Moscow. This is significant because relations between Rome and the Patriarch of Moscow have traditionally been spotty at best.
Following the concert, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, discussed Catholic-Orthodox and Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations:
I would like to express the hope that the spiritual unity revealed in today’s concert will also be reflected in relations between the Russians and the Italians and in relations between the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches. These relations have not always been cloudless and we can see problems arising today too, but we can also see that the Orthodox and Catholic Christians, if there is a wish, know how to work together. And the most important thing is that they know how to glorify God together.
In the same story, Zenit also noted a recent report in The Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU). Before Pope Francis’ trip to the Holy Land, RISU reported that “the chief foreign spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church [i.e. Metropolitan Hilarion] has expressed some misgivings that Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will be meeting Pope Francis during the Pontiff’s visit to the Holy Land.”
The report continues:
Metropolitan Hilarion said that because Patriarch Bartholomew had not consulted with other Orthodox leaders before scheduling his meeting with the Pope, he would be acting on his own behalf, not as a representative of the world’s Orthodox faithful. Although the Patriarch of Constantinople is traditionally recognized as the “first among equals” in the Orthodox hierarchy, the Russian Orthodox argues that he exercises that primacy only when other Orthodox patriarchs explicitly authorize him to do so. In the absence of such a mandate, Metropolitan Hilarion said, Patriarch Bartholomew will be representing only his own particular church, the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
As has become customary, the Russian Patriarchate is sending mixed messages.
What does all of this mean? I am not sure, but I will throw in my two cents:
- Bartholomew’s invitation to the Pope to meet both in Jerusalem and in Nicaea bodes well for Catholic-Greek Orthodox relations. It may prove fruitful for broader Catholic-Orthodox relations as well.
- Bartholomew’s invitation, coming after the recent announcement of the Pan-Orthodox Synod, could show the confidence with which he leads the Orthodox Church, or it could show that he needs help from Rome to strengthen his own authority.
- The concert for Patriarch Kyrill is a positive sign for Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations. It may prove fruitful for broader Catholic-Orthodox relations as well.
- Metropolitan Hilarion’s message at the concert shows a new openness to the Catholic Church. At the same time, his statement before the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land shows that relations between the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarch of Moscow are strained. This is especially the case in regards to dialogue with the Catholic Church.
I am left to ponder two possible scenarios: 1) Better Catholic-Orthodox relations mark a new era of ecumenical progress, or 2) better relations between the Catholic Church and individual Orthodox churches signals that the Orthodox communion is fracturing. This fracturing is made visible by the varying degrees of openness individual Orthodox churches are showing towards Rome.
Let’s hope and pray that the ecumenical overtures of Bartholomew and Pope Francis mark a new era of ecumenical progress.