Will Pope’s visit to Georgia bring closer relations between Catholics and Orthodox?
It is widely thought that the success of the recent Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church was strongly influenced by Pope Francis’ meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, in Cuba last February.
The 14th Plenary Session held in Chieti, Italy, on 15-22 Sep represents a further step on the path of unity. It ended with representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches signing a joint document regarding synodality and primacy. This agreement represents encouraging progress towards unity after almost a decade of stalling – a final document has not been produced since 2007.
Mgr Andrea Palmieri, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity stated the agreement reached at the ecumenical gathering points to ways of “resolving problems still existing between Catholics and Orthodox today.”
The Archbishop of Chieti-Vast Bruno Forte, one of the representatives of the Italian Episcopate most committed to ecumenism whose diocese hosted the ecumenical meeting, said he was very satisfied with the result. The only failing in the recent plenary was the abstention of the Georgian Orthodox on the final document, while the controversy continues on the Uniates, although it is not “emphasized” added Mgr Bruno.
Pope Francis’ recent visit to Georgia has no doubt strengthened bonds with the Georgian Orthodox leadership. It builds upon the positive outcomes already achieved at the 14th Plenary Session and the meeting with Kirill in Cuba.
When they met in Georgia, Patriarch Ilia II called Francis “beloved brother in Christ” and talked about the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox. He thanked the Pope for “this opportunity to work” in the inscriptions and in the Vatican Library documents concerning the past of Georgia. “His is a historic visit to our country ” concluded llia ll “God bless our two Churches.” The Patriarch gave the Pope a Georgian icon.
Francis in his speech recalled the Patriarch’s visit to the Vatican in June 1980, when he embraced St. John Paul II. Francis said that Ilia II had opened “a new page in relations between the Orthodox Church of Georgia and the Catholic Church, making the first historic visit to the Vatican of a Georgian Patriarch. On that occasion he exchanged with the Bishop of Rome, the kiss of peace and promise to pray for one another.” The Pope also mentioned the presence of Georgian faithful who carry out research in the Vatican Archives and the pontifical universities in Rome and also the presence of a Georgian Orthodox community, “housed in a church in my diocese.”
Pope Francis was full of praise for the Georgian faithful and especially Patriarch llia ll. He commented on his return flight to Rome: “I’ve never imagined so much culture, so much faith, so much Christianity…It is a believing people and an ancient Christian culture! A people of so many martyrs. I discovered something that I didn’t know: the breadth of the Georgian faith. The second surprise was the Patriarch: he is a man of God. This man has moved me. I found many times that my heat was moved and full of the sensitivity of having found a man of God, truly a man of God.”
Francis stressed that we should not let theological differences hinder unity, which was the ultimate goal we should all pray for and work toward: ”And on the things that unite us and separate us, I say: don’t make us discuss things of doctrine, leave this to the theologians. They know better than we do. They discuss, and they are good. They have good will, the theologians on one side and the other, (but) what must the people do? Pray for each other, this is important: prayer. And second: do things together.”