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On Sunday Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will join one another in their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Fifty years after the historical meeting of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, this new meeting aims to do more than commemorate the past. Both leaders wish to provide fresh impetus to the journey toward unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches by offering up the symbol of a joint pilgrimage to the city of peace. 

As anyone in ecumenical conversations knows, without these symbolic gestures theological discussions never get off the ground. Like nudging a domino at the right moment, they can stimulate a process that moves beyond the outer court of ecclesiastical politics into the inner chambers where the wounds inflicted on the body can be bandaged.

The road ahead is no easy one for either leader. As the “first” among the patriarchs who oversee the fourteen self-governing (autocephalous) churches that comprise Eastern Orthodoxy, Bartholomew must lead by consultation and counsel. In a speech given at an Orthodox conference in Toronto, Fr. John Chryssavgis outlined Bartholomew’s ecumenical vision.

On more than one occasion, Chryssavgis emphasized that Bartholomew has no aspirations to jurisdictional control over Orthodoxy. In other words, despite rumors to the contrary, he has no desire to be an Orthodox pope. These rumors attest to the difficult balance between exercising spiritual authority and abstaining from efforts to coerce or impose decisions on others. As Chryssavgis states:

Unlike the pope of Rome he does not claim any power of jurisdiction. The patriarch can’t impose decisions on other Orthodox churches. He does not command; he does not coerce; he does not interfere, at least uninvited in the internal affairs of other churches. He may propose, but he does not compel. He convenes. . . but always by consulting with the other Orthodox churches.” 

The key clause is “at least uninvited.” The central task of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is to lead the family of Orthodox churches and this leadership can look like forms of interference, especially over matters that seem to concern other patriarchates. Two recurring problems are Orthodoxy outside Orthodox lands and tensions between different parts of one of the self-governing churches. In connection with the first, Bartholomew’s efforts to help with the problem of Orthodoxy in North America has prompted many of the charges of some pretense to a universal episcopacy. 

When one adds the role of mediation that the Ecumenical Patriarch must play over situations like the desire of the Ukranian Orthodox to be self-governing instead of remaining under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate, the question of interference looms large. But, as Chryssavgis points out, there is no emperor to call a pan-Orthodox council any more, which means that the burden of those decisions falls to the Ecumenical Patriarch. The historical circumstances of the Orthodox churches requires a greater role for the Patriarch.

A second problem Chryssavgis noted was a “nationalism that becomes idolatry.” While he noted that this could take a Greek, American, or Russian form, it is the Russian form that is most pressing at the moment. Under the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest among the Orthodox churches, and it has become quite active on the world stage.

For his part, Pope Francis has to find a way to balance his push for greater local control through synods with the jurisdictional authority of the papacy. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in light of Pope Francis’ favorite image of the church as the people of God. The interview Pope Francis gave to Antonio Spadaro, S.J. revealed much about his own thinking. The movement into synodality represents his desire to engage in consultation as the way to make decisions. It is to think with the church by trying to move with the people of God in and through local structures. Thus the pope seems to want to slowly move power away from the dicasteries or departments that assist the curia and toward the local level. The signs are that his will be a de-centralizing papacy, and yet these moves can only go so far without altering the current nature of Petrine authority.

The Ravenna Document of 2007 points a fruitful way forward by staking out the common ground. Reflecting the ecclesiology of John Zizioulas, there is an acknowledgment that primacy must exist at the local, regional, and universal levels. Both Catholics and Orthodox are willing to grant primacy to the bishop of Rome at the universal level, but the outstanding issues concern exactly what that means. If Pope Francis continues to move toward synodality, he may yet point the way toward a primacy of love that consults the body and thinks with the church in living communion.

The challenges, however, are great, and therefore we must live in hope. To my mind, this is exactly why the symbolic actions of pilgrimages and other joint actions remain necessary. They become a concrete embodiment of the hope that one day we may all journey together again.

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