Istanbul (AsiaNews) - A few days after Benedict XVI's decision to step down from the Petrine ministry, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, testifies to his respect for him and his commitment to relations with the Orthodox Churches and to open new fields (a "third phase") of joint collaboration in the defence of minorities, religious freedom, in ecology, and discussion of the Petrine, the "most difficult" topic to be addressed in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. Here is his interview with AsiaNews.
We all remember the Pope's visit to Istanbul. How significant was that visit?
The visit by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVT to the Ecumenical Patriarchate was a direct response to a personal invitation to attend the festivities of the feast of St. Andrew the "first-called of the Apostles and elder brother of St. Peter, being the Thronal Feast of our Patriarchate on November 30, 2006, which we extended to him upon his election to the Throne of St. Peter. Like his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict decided to visit the Phanar as a symbolical gesture of his commitment to ecumenical relations as well as a confirmation of the dialogue of love and truth between our two Sister Churches. Just we were able to procure with the late Pope John Paul II, at the end of Pope Benedict's visit to the Church of Constantinople, we signed a Joint Statement stressing the need to protect minorities, religious freedom, and the natural environment. The visit, therefore, was a sincere and significant renewal of our obligation and responsibility - as leaders of the Christian Churches in both the East and West - to follow and fulfill the commandment of our Lord, immediately prior to His betrayal and passion, that His disciples "may be one."
Can you describe the relationship with Pope Benedict on a personal level?
Our relations with Pope Benedict have been both closely cooperative and deeply constructive. We have followed with great interest and love his ministry as an erudite and prolific professor of theology in Genu any, as an esteemed and loyal bishop of the Petrine tradition, as the traditional Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as the venerable spiritual leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, several of our current prominent
Orthodox hierarchs throughout the world were privileged to enjoy his lectures and learn from his wisdom. Throughout these years, we have maintained warm and fraternal relations with the present Pope, founded on our common dedication to the unity of our two Churches. For this reason, since his election and enthronement as Pope, we have continued our tradition, which was instituted in the 1960s hetween Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, of the exchange of formal; annual delegations at the respective patronal feasts of our Churches. In his turn, Pope Benedict generously invited us to deliver the only address by an ecumenical leader during the official celebrations in St. Peter's Square for the 50th Anniversary since the opening of the 2nd Vatican Council last October, 2012.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, former President of the Council for Christian Unity, said that Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has entered its "third phase". How, in your opinion, has Benedict XVI contributed to this progress?
The theological discussions between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches has been the focus of our love and attention since 1980, when following the period known as "the dialogue of love" (inaugurated by the late Patriarch Athenagoras and Popes John XXITI and Paul VI), the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue was established by our predecessor Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios and Pope Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Known as "the dialogue of truth/' this commission has met in planning and plenary sessions, publishing agreed statements on the mystery of the Church, the sacraments of the Church, the vision of unity and the problem of uniatism, ecclesiology and conciliarity, and most recently the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church. As you might imagine, these are not easy subjects to discuss openly and honestly, especially since centuries that had elapsed from the time our two Churches had last met at the same table for conversations in the 13th and 15th centuries. Nevertheless, we were convinced that we should persist even throughout the barriers that presented themselves, recognizing that, if we could not yet agree on theological and sacramental union, we could at least agree on our regret for the tragic divisions and hurtful wounds of the past. In this regard, the role of Pope Benedict was substantial and decisive inasmuch as he shared our concern and supported our plea for the restoration of the theological dialogue, which had unfortunately been interrupted in 2000. Thus, in 2006, the members of the Joint International Commission officially resumed dialogue.
Did you ever think that the Theological Commission would one day address the issue of the primacy of Peter? That a document would be approved, and that dialogue on the issue would go ahead?
As we have already mentioned, the development and progress of the theological dialogue was not always without hindrances and challenges. Nevertheless, wc are convinced that genuine and open dialogue, which aims at full and sacramental unity, cannot be achieved without cost. We cannot hope to obey the Lord's commandment to "love one another' and be "one with each other" without a spirit of sacrifice. There can surely be no comfortable or painless way of bearing the cross of Christ. Of course, there has been a purpose and procedure behind the meetings of the plenary sessions and the growing consensus between our two Churches. This is why we commenced with issues such as the Holy Trinity, the Church, and the Eucharist in order that we may advance to issues such as the relationship between our common faith and sacramental communion, as well as the significance and theology of the ordained ministry, especially the role of the bishop. We have always known that the ultimate thorny issue for discussion and deliberation is the role of the papacy in the life of the local, regional, and universal Church.
However, all our essential tenets of faith are vitally interconnected and cannot be isolated in their ecclesiological, canonical, and sacramental importance. It is a blessing, then, that we have persevered over the last two decades of theological dialogue and the previous two decades of fraternal relations between our two Churches. For now we are in a position to break new ground and - in a spirit of humility and love, with a willingness to respect and learn from one another - to grow even closer to the reality that existed in the Church of the first millennium, when we were one body, albeit with many limbs.
Do you think the pan Orthodox Synod that you have been working on for a long time will finally be celebrated? And what it will mean a further step in ecumenical relations?
As you know, the Orthodox Church is a family of fourteen Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches, ail of them united in faith and sacramental communion while remaining self-governing in their interior life. Within this worldwide communion, as first among equals," the Patriarch of Constantinople enjoys a primacy of responsibility, proposing though not compelling, convening though by always consulting. In this respect, we convoked a Synaxis of First H.ierarchs of the Orthodox Churches - the first time that these hicrarchs had assembled since 1872! - gathering together in Istanbul (1992), on the island of Patmos (1995), in Jerusalem and Istanbul on the occasion of the new millennium (2000), and more recently again in Istanbul (2008). Tt is at such Panorthodox gatherings, that one senses the visible expression of the unity of the individual Orthodox Churches, the tangible manifestation of the catholic conscience of the Church. At the 5th Synaxis, we focused on difficulties that plague Orthodox Christianity worldwide, which may share the same faith and worship but in fact present an image of incomplete unity, as if we were not one Church, but rather a confederation of churches, frequently attributing priority to national interests. In this context, we proposed to advance preparations for the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church and to resolve the pending matter of the Orthodox Diaspora, one of the most challenging situations in the Orthodox world. Thus, at our invitation, the Preconciliar Panorthodox Conferences have affirmed their commitment during the second half of the 20th century and activated the agreements during the 1990s of the inter-Orthodox Preparatory Committees regarding the so-called Orthodox diaspora. Moreover, regional Assemblies of Bishops have assembled throughout the world in order to present a unified voice for the Orthodox Church on social and contemporary issues that plague humanity today and as a prelude to the convocation of the Holy and Great Council. It is our fervent prayer and firm hope that all Orthodox Churches will adhere to and embrace the decisions of the Preconciliar Panorthodox Conferences in anticipation of our common vision for the Holy and Great Council.