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​To join that which is divided

· Fifty Years since the Meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoras at the Phanar ·

At the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, above the Sancta Porta opened by the Pope on jubilee celebrations, a marble inscription, often unnoticed by pilgrims, reads in Greek and Latin: “For the reconciliation of full communion between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, there was a meeting of prayer in this basilica between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I on October 26, 1967.”

In fact, in 1967, the two leaders exchanged visits to one another’s sees. Thus, the visit of Athenagoras to Rome was preceded by the visit of Paul VI to the Phanar. Addressing Patriarch Athenagoras in the Patriarchal Church of St. George on July 25, 1967, Pope Paul VI remarked: “In the light of our love to Christ and in our fraternal love to one another, we are increasingly discovering the deep identity of our faith, while the points on which we still disagree must not prevent us from comprehending this deep unity.”

In response, Patriarch Athenagoras underlined that their main goal as heads of their respective churches was “to join that which is divided, with mutual ecclesiastical actions, wherever that might be possible, affirming the common points of faith and rule, thereby directing the Theological Dialogue to the beginning of a wholesome community, in the foundation of faith and of the freedom of theological thought inspired by our common Fathers and found in the diverse local traditions.”

Prior to these historic events, Athenagoras and Paul had already met for the first time in Jerusalem on January 5-6, 1964. Between these two meetings, the two leaders jointly lifted the excommunications that burdened their two churches since the great schism of 1054.

Pope Paul and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras were great visionaries; their “great spirits could see into the future.” (Wisdom of Sirach 48.24) While their initiatives may not have created shock waves in the secular mass media, they nevertheless remain groundbreaking milestones for the development of Christianity. What may have seemed to be only small steps in the history of the world ultimately proved to be giant leaps in the history of the church, especially in terms of healing the scandal of division between the two “sister churches” of Rome and Constantinople-New Rome.

Indeed, if we establish the formal correspondence and official visits exchanged by the heads or representatives of the two churches in the context of the silence of schism that marked their relations over almost an entire millennium – from 1054 to 1964, despite occasional efforts toward reunion and isolated echoes of communication over the centuries – then we are able to grasp the extraordinary significance of the striking gestures between Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras.

Today, we are no longer surprised to learn of visits by heads of churches to other churches. Nonetheless, the exchanges and encounters between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras remain at once a memory and a reminder of the enduring power of charity and dialogue. In an age when people and nations are tempted to retreat into isolation and exclusion – whether out of ignorance or apprehension of others – the example of Paul and Athenagoras is a light for two cities built on a hill, from where it shines for the whole world. (Matt. 5.14)

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

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Nov. 21, 2017

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