John of Pergamon: The meeting at the Phanar took place in “anticipation” of full communion
The Orthodox Metropolitan theologian talks about how theology has divided the Church. Now it must help overcome the obstacles that are standing in the way of full communion between catholic and Orthodox faithfulGianni Valente rome
Pope Francis has publicly referred to him as the greatest Christian theologian around. But Joseph Ratzinger also held him in high regard when he was Pope. The Metropolitan of Pergamon, Ioannis Zizioulas, previously a member of the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, attended the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of St. Andrews alongside Pope Francis and the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, on Sunday 30 November. Under the vaults of the Patriarchal Church of St. George in the Phanar on the Golden Horn, Metropolitan Ioannis – who co-chairs the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church – was also struck by the words the Bishop of Rome pronounced at the time. Particularly when the Pope said that in the context of the efforts being made to achieve full unity between Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the Catholic Church "does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith”.
Those were powerful words the Pope pronounced at the Phanar Your Eminence.
Coming from a Pope, those words are very powerful indeed and represent a big step forward, which the Orthodox will appreciate. Because for many centuries, the Orthodox believed that the Pope wanted to subjugate them. And now we see this is not in any way true. The emphasis he placed on professing and sharing the same faith is also important. Professing the same faith is the only basis of our unity. The question is recognising what that same faith is; we need to profess this faith together in order for us to be in full communion.
Which criterion should be followed?
For us members of the orthodox Church, the common faith that makes full communion possible is the one professed in the 7 Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium. We need to clarify, from a Catholic point of view, whether a common faith that allows for sacramental communion should also include certain doctrines and dogmatic definitions which were established unilaterally by the Catholic Church. This point needs to be clarified in order to determine what concrete consequences may derive from the Pope’s words at the Phanar.
Is this clarification also to do with the Pope’s role and his ministry?
Of course. If the reference criterion being looked at were the shared understanding of the role of the Bishop of Rome which prevailed in the first millennium, then there would be no problem. We know that in the second millennium, different conceptions of the papacy emerged. And this issue has been at the centre of the Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches’ work for years. In the first millennium, the question surrounding the primacy of the Bishop of Rome was not about him not being recognised as an individual, but as the head of his Church. When we speak about primacy, we refer to the primacy of Roman Catholic Church, which is exercised by the Pope, who is Bishop of that see.
Is Christian unity only of interest to Christians?
In the speech he gave at the end of the liturgy for the Feast of St. Andrews, Patriarch Bartholomew reiterated that the Church does not exist for itself but for the whole world. For the salvation of men and women who live in the world. Unity also helps give a stronger common testimony in the face of the problems that afflict the world and society today. Environmental problems, for example, or problems linked to the protection of creation. This is another important message that came through from the Pope’s visit to the Phanar.
Some say Christians should work together on concrete issues, leaving aside their attempts to mend theological and sacramental divisions. What do you think?
We tend to distinguish between co-operation and aspirations of unity. I believe “collaboration” is not enough. Our greatest wish is to achieve full communion in the Eucharist and across the Church’s structures. This is not yet possible. But it is still something we cannot forget or put aside.
The Ecumenical Patriarch said that Pope Francis has reignited hope among Orthodox faithful by assuring that the Churches will return to full communion during his.
The current Pope has given some very important signs that give us the hope that quick progress will be made in achieving full communion. The way in which he is carrying out his ministry removes the many apprehensions and fears of the past. With the current Bishop of Rome we are seeing a ministry os charity and service. And this really is a big step forward. Furthermore, in some parts of the world like the Middle East, Christians are suffering and their persecutors do not stop to ask them whether they are Catholic or Orthodox. All that matters is that they are Christian. This means that from the outside, we are seen as one family, the divisions we sometimes seem to have grown used to, are of no consequence. This also suggests that whether we like it or not, with this Pope and under the current circumstances, so many opportunities are presenting themselves from an ecumenical point of view.
On the way back from Istanbul, Pope Francis quoted Patriarch Athenagoras who suggested that to make progress on the path toward full unity, all theologians needed to be left on an island to discuss, while the Churches went on with their work. “If we wait for theologians to reach an agreement,” the Pope said, “that day will never come!”
Yes, this may be true. But at the same time, history tells us that theology has divided the Church. So now, theology must help remedy and unite the Church. We cannot ignore the theological disagreements that have caused division in the Church.
Will the pan-Orthodox Synod due to take place in 2016 deal with the question of unity with the Catholic Church?
Perhaps, but only in broad terms. It could be the right time to take stock of the big steps forward that have been made. But I do not think we will see anything more than this. The focus will be mainly on existing problems in the Orthodox world.
The latest theological discussions between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have not yielded many results, particularly due to the divisions that have emerged between the Orthodox Churches. How do you explain his?
It is important for the Orthodox Churches to be united. Unfortunately I see some Orthodox adopting the old attitudes of hostility toward the Catholic Church and toward the papacy. And this certainly does not make the situation any easier.