Istanbul (AsiaNews) Christian unity as an instrument of evangelization, necessary also for a Europe wounded by secularization; resumed theological dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, currently tackling the key question of the Petrine primacy; religious freedom as a right that Europe should safeguard and promote; the difficult conditions faced by many Christians around the world. A joint declaration signed today by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople focused on these matters. The declaration was signed at the end of a solemn Divine Liturgy celebrated in the patriarchal church on the feast day of St Andrew, patron of the eastern Churches.
It seems the text of the declaration was still being refined until the last minute. There are three identifiable parts to it: ecumenism, proclaiming the Gospel, even in Europe, and religious freedom.
The visit to the Patriarchate, which was the main reason for the voyage, was maligned by Islamic nationalists who depicted it as a quest for unity for a new crusade. Apart from the meeting in the Patriarchate, the much anticipated visit this afternoon to Santa Sophia was also the focus of attention, largely because of fears that the Pope may pray there. Someone even wrote, incredibly: "It would serve to re-consecrate the ancient church." Protests drew little or no following. One was scheduled for today. The barbed description of an eyewitness: "There were 10 protesters, 100 policemen and 1000 journalists."
The cloudy day started with a solemn celebration in the eighteenth-century church of St George, in the lengthy and splendid Byzantine liturgy, sung by deacons and monks. Benedict XVI, who did not wear liturgical vestments, arrived at the start of the morning after having celebrated mass, according to the papal schedule. This piece of information underlined the lack of full communion between Catholics and Orthodox: there was no concelebration.
Among the metropolitans welcoming the Pope at the foot of the small staircase leading to the seat of the Patriarchate, in a tiny street in the neighbourhood of Fanar, there was Giovanni di Pergamo, who led the Orthodox delegation during deliberations of the mixed Commission in its recent session in Belgrade. Entering the compound of the buildings of the Patriarchate and crossing the internal courtyard, the Pope was embraced by Bartholomew I who was wearing liturgical vestments.
Speaking during the ceremony, both Bartholomew and Benedict XVI emphasized the desire to press ahead in the ecumenical journey, as the joint declaration also affirmed. Bartholomew spoke in Greek about "our common desire to continue, without hesitation, our journey in a spirit of love and faithfulness towards the truth of the Gospel and in the shared tradition of the holy Fathers, to restore full communion of our Churches."
To this shared objective, Benedict XVI, speaking in English, added willingness to find an acceptable way in which the Petrine primacy might be exercised. He recalled that to Peter "in a particular way were entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven" and "his journey" would take him to Rome, "so that in that city he might exercise a universal responsibility. The issue of the universal service of Peter and his Successors has unfortunately given rise to our differences of opinion, which we hope to overcome, thanks also to the theological dialogue which has been recently resumed." In this respect, Benedict XVI quoted the encyclical Ut Unum Sint in which John Paul II "extended an invitation to enter into a fraternal dialogue aimed at identifying ways in which the Petrine ministry might be exercised today, while respecting its nature and essence, so as to accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned. It is my desire today to recall and renew this invitation."
Tackling a theme especially dear to him, and which the joint declaration also mentions, the Pope said that the charge of evangelization "is far from finished. On the contrary, today it is even more urgent and necessary. For it looks not only to those cultures which have been touched only marginally by the Gospel message, but also to long-established European cultures deeply grounded in the Christian tradition. The process of secularization has weakened the hold of that tradition; indeed, it is being called into question, and even rejected."
Especially symbolic in this context was the chalice offered by the Pope to Bartholomew and the Gospel the latter gave to Benedict XVI.
And there was a touching gesture at the end of the celebration and after the blessing from the balcony that looks out onto the small courtyard of the Patriarchate, when Bartholomew took and lifted the pope's arm, to the applause of those present.
Naturally, in the joint declaration, there is firstly the desire to continue along the journey and an emphasis on the resumption of works of the mixed Commission, which had been stalled for six years. It reads: "On occasion of the plenary session of the mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue, recently held in Belgrade, we have expressed our joy at the resumption of theological dialogue."
Europe, proclaiming the Gospel, secularization and the difficult life faced by Christians in many parts of the world, were the other significant points of the document solemnly signed to applause in the Throne Room of the Patriarchate.
The declaration said: "We have evaluated positively the journey towards the formation of the European Union. The actors of this great initiative will not fall short of taking into consideration all aspects regarding the human being and his inalienable rights, especially religious freedom, witness and guarantee of the respect of all other freedoms. In any unification initiative, minorities must be protected, with their cultural traditions and religious specificities. In Europe, Catholics and Orthodox, while remaining open to other religions and to their contributions to culture, must unite their efforts to preserve Christian roots, traditions and values, to assure respect of history, as well as to contribute to the culture of the Europe of the future, to the quality of human relations at all levels."
Christian unity, in the Declaration, is an instrument that gives strength to the proclamation of the Gospel in today's world, in which "we cannot ignore the growth of secularization, relativism and nihilism, especially in the western world. All this demands a renewed and powerful proclamation of the Gospel that is adapted to the cultures of our time."
Finally, in the document, there is mention of "places in the world where Christians live today and the difficulties they must face, especially poverty, war and terrorism, but also diverse forms of exploitation of the poor, migrants, women and children."