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On relations between Catholics and Orthodox – Love and truth

On relations between Catholics and Orthodox – Love and truth

It is
indeed a particular privilege and honor to be invited to address you on the
auspicious occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Pro Oriente Foundation. This
event marks a special and significant milestone in the history of relations
between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. In many
ways it is a mirror of the relations between our Churches inasmuch as it
reflects and parallels the extraordinary steps of rapprochement and
reconciliation that began half a century ago and have led to the theological
dialogue and sincere exchanges between us on the parish and local, regional and
national, as well as international levels.

As you are all aware, in a few days,
our beloved brother in Christ, Pope Francis, will visit Istanbul, which has
served as the sacred center and see of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for over
seventeen centuries. We very much look forward to welcoming His Holiness to the
Phanar on November 29th and 30th for the commemoration of St. Andrew the
first-called of the Apostles and Thronal Feast of the Church of Constantinople.
This official visit follows in the wake of our joint pilgrimage to Jerusalem
only a few months ago to celebrate another 50th anniversary, namely the journey
to the Holy Land by the late Pope – now officially proclaimed Saint in the
Roman Catholic Church – Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. We were
deeply touched that Pope Francis accepted our invitation for a common
observance of that occasion, which we proposed to him during our own attendance
at his enthronement and solemn Inaugural Mass in March 2013.

Dear listeners, these instances are
not purely coincidental; nor again are they merely historical. We would dare to
say that they are in fact nothing less than providential. Fifty years ago, such
events would not have been conceivable or even achievable. It is surely the
grace of God that inspired our venerable and visionary predecessors to assume
these bold initiatives. In some ways, after so many years of estrangement and
silence, only the Spirit of God could possibly bring about the conditions and
circumstances for greater partnership and closer relations between our
Churches, which were previously alienated for an entire millennium.

It is precisely within such an
atmosphere of ecumenical openness and sincere desire for dialogue that the Pro
Oriente Foundation was envisaged and established in 1964 by the Viennese
bishop, the late Franz Cardinal König, who discerned the spirit of the times
and perceived the importance of adhering to the commandment and prayer of our
Lord, “that [His disciples] may be one.” (John 17.21) The sacred
purpose and fundamental goal of the Foundation – with its various charters in
Vienna, Graz, Salzburg and Linz – was to improve relations between the Roman
Catholic and Eastern Orthodox as well as Oriental Orthodox Churches, echoing
the papal decree “Unitatis Redintegratio” issued on November 21st,
1964, half a century ago. Its founding president was the renowned and respected
Alfred Stirnemann, who led the Foundation until his death in 1988. We remember
both of these leaders, together with our cherished departed friends, the late
Metropolitans Chrysosotomos and his successor Michael of Austria, Patriarchal
Exarchs of Hungary and Mid-Europe. These two Orthodox hierarchs were
unconditionally convinced of the essential role of positive relations with the
Roman Catholic Church, working tirelessly toward advancing dialogue and
enhancing cooperation. May their memory be eternal and may their example be a
model for us all!

Let us, however, recall some of the
groundbreaking steps taken just over fifty years ago, which in turn led to the
fertile conditions for the creation of a foundation such as Pro Oriente. In the
opening days of 1964, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras broke a
silence of many centuries with just a few simple words and a loving embrace. On
January 5, 1964, when Pope Paul VI met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras on
the Mount of Olives, it was the first time the Western pontiff and the Eastern
primate – the Pope of Rome and the Archbishop of New Rome – were meeting
face-to-face since the Council of Florence in 1438. And the venue for the
encounter in 1964 was the very site where Christ addressed His Father on the
night of His betrayal for the unity of His followers.

Prior to this meeting, for many
centuries the Eastern and Western Churches had no formal contact and little
unofficial communication. After what is today known as the “great
schism” of 1054, there were two brief encounters of exchange and dialogues
of reunification at the Council of Lyon in 1274 and at the Council of
Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39; yet both occasions left feelings of bitterness
rather than hopefulness. The estrangement was further accentuated and sealed
after the tragic events of the Crusades, especially the Fourth Crusade with the
sack of Constantinople in 1202-04 with the unjustifiable slaughter of
Christians by Christians.

Thus began the historical
“dialogue of love” – a term coined by the late Metropolitan Meliton
of Chalcedon – which in turn initiated a process of gradually breaking down
barriers created over centuries. It was followed one year later – in a joint
declaration read simultaneously at St. Peter’s in Rome and in the Patriarchal
Church of St. George in Istanbul – by the unprecedented “mutual lifting of
the anathemas” on December 7, 1965, when the same two prelates
“removed from both the memory and the midst of the Church the sentences of
excommunication” dating back to 1054, agreeing that “the past be
confided to the mercy of God.”

The year 1969 saw the beginning of a
paramount and hitherto uninterrupted tradition, namely the exchange of formal
annual delegations at the respective Patron Feasts of our two “sister
churches” – in Rome on June 29 for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul; and
in Istanbul on November 30, which Pope Francis will honor at the end of this
month. These momentous initiatives later culminated in the creation – during
the papal visit to the Phanar on November 30, 1979 – of the Joint International
Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the
Orthodox Church. Thus, the Holy See and fourteen autocephalous Orthodox
Churches commenced an official theological “dialogue of truth” on May
29, 1980 – during the tenure of our revered predecessor, the late Ecumenical
Patriarch Dimitrios and the successor to Pope Paul VI, the late Pope John Paul
II – in order to expand the “dialogue of love” and examine jointly
the doctrinal differences between the two sister Churches.

Thankfully today, through the
important and influential contribution of such foundations and institutes as
Pro Oriente, this spirit of fraternal love and mutual respect has replaced the
old theological polemic and reciprocal suspicion. Of course, we are realistic
enough to recognize that much remains to be achieved, and the path sometimes
seems long and laborious. There are the thorny theological issues of primacy
and collegiality, which are currently on the table for deliberation; and there
is the delicate problem of Uniatism, which has already once suspended the
dialogue. However, we must confess that there is no alternative path to
dialogue and reconciliation.

This is especially valid and true
for our age, when we encounter the global use and abuse of religion for
political and other secular purposes; the difficulties facing Christians all
over the world – particularly in the Holy Land and the Middle East, regardless
of confessional identities; the injustices inflicted on the weak and vulnerable
members of contemporary societies; as well as the alarming ecological crisis
which threatens the integrity and very survival of God’s creation. All of these
challenges call for a common and collaborative solution to the problems that
still divide us. They demand our mutual cooperation and shared concern.

Indeed, we might also include here
another aspect of Pro Oriente, which is implied in its very identity, namely
the responsibility and advocacy of Christian minorities persecuted in the
Middle East and Northern Africa, in the very places where Christianity emerged
and flourished from the earliest years of our Church. After all, the term
“orient” is not only an ecclesiastical designation; it is also a
geographical specification. This dimension is surely part and parcel of the
mission and ministry of Pro Oriente, and we would gladly welcome its support in
this vital area. And we are all well aware of the critical situation and
unjustifiable suffering endured by our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and
Northern Africa.

As we declared jointly in Jerusalem
with His Holiness Pope Francis: “We express our shared profound concern
for the situation of Christians in the Middle East and for their right to
remain full citizens of their homelands. In trust we turn to the almighty and
merciful God in a prayer for peace in the Holy Land and in the Middle East in
general. We especially pray for the Churches in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which
have suffered most grievously due to recent events. We encourage all parties
regardless of their religious convictions to continue to work for
reconciliation and for the just recognition of peoples’ rights. We are
persuaded that it is not arms, but dialogue, pardon and reconciliation that are
the only possible means to achieve peace.” Permit us paternally to urge
you to focus more of your attention toward this crisis.

Eminent and beloved friends,

The ecumenical work of Pro Oriente
has proved invaluable and instrumental for the promotion of closer and stronger
relations between our Churches. Its work has undoubtedly been both remarkable
and admirable. Yet, as we all know, in our world, the work of unity remains
constant and unceasing until the fullness of the heavenly kingdom. It is,
therefore, our humble vocation and moral obligation to continue and reinforce
our efforts toward reconciliation. Let us not simply preserve the memory of the
pioneers of this blessed Foundation; let us carry on their example and increase
their endeavors. For this would be the best commemoration and celebration of
their legacy and longing for Christian unity.

May God bless you all – those
directly involved in as well as those who fervently pray for and support the
work of the Pro Oriente Foundation.


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