Those who remember the hostility between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches prior to the 1964 meeting between His All-Holiness, Athenagoras I and His Holiness, Blessed Paul VI—and even those of us who have only heard of it via history—must acknowledge that the evolution of the relationship between the two Churches in the years since has been nothing short of remarkable.
Still, despite what His Beatitude Sviatoslav, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, referred to last year as a “positive” change of emphasis in interaction, it is clear that an atmosphere of mistrust still remains.
Take, for example, the fact that Orthodox Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky felt the need to clarify that the Orthodox had not accepted papal primacy after the 2007 Ravenna Dialogue; or, that Catholic Father Mark Drew’s 2017 article on the 2016 statement of the Joint Orthodox-Catholic Commission for Theological Dialogue, while painting a balanced and nuanced picture of the Catholic positions, described the Orthodox position as talk of Rome “abandoning her errors and returning to Orthodoxy.”
It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see that statements like these are counterproductive to the desire expressed by Jesus in his high priestly prayer that “all may be one.” A growing atmosphere of mistrust must be put to rest, especially as the spiritual leaders of both Churches prepare to gather in Nicaea in 2025. In order to aid in this process, I should like to highlight what I consider to be a pivotal, yet unnoticed ecumenical gesture made by the Catholic Church last year that helps to bring this prayer to fruition.
On June 24, 2016 Pope Francis accepted the resignation of His Beatitude Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and appointed Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM, a Franciscan priest who was then serving as Custodian of the Holy Land, as the Patriarchate’s Apostolic Administrator, or pro tempore head.
Given the unique ecumenical and interfaith arrangements that exist within the Holy Land, the choice of Pizzaballa as administrator would not have been surprising except that, in the same bulletin, Francis named him as titular Bishop of Verbe and elevated him to the dignity of Archbishop ad persona.
These actions, along with further ones after the fact—such as investing Pizzaballa as Pro Grand Prior of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and appointing him to the Congregation of Eastern Churches, both traditional duties of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem—sent a clear message to those with even a cursory understanding of Catholic ecclesiology: Pizzaballa may not be Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch, but he is meant to be a long-term de facto ordinary.
This is a unique situation within the Catholic Church. It is perhaps easy to ascribe to it the status of one of Francis’ seemingly eccentric decisions, something which many have already done. Yet, as is the case with many of Francis’ decisions, those with trained eyes can see—even if they perhaps cannot understand—the careful detail and reasoning behind his choices. In this case, I believe, Francis’ decision reflects his continued commitment to communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
By not appointing a Latin Patriarch, for the first time since 1276 Francis has created a Catholic Church that does not endorse any Latin counter-claimant to an Eastern see, a courtesy which the Orthodox Church has offered the Latin Church since the Great Schism. The absence of a Latin counter-claimant shows the Catholic Church’s acknowledgment that, in the event of full communion, Jerusalem—like Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch—would be the seat of an Eastern particular church, and that a Latin sister church would be secondary. This would be similar, for example, to the role that the Latin Church plays in Ukraine today.
This arrangement, it seems, would allow the Orthodox Church its rightly deserved and now historically indisputable place of ceremonial precedence over the Latin Church within Jerusalem. At the same time it would allow the Latin bishop to maintain a dignity that is befitting his person as a successor to the apostles.
Given the fact that the Catholic Church accepts the validity of Orthodox Holy Orders, this arrangement would not only affect the blessed and longed for event of full communion or even open communion. It would also affect current ecumenical events wherein, out of respect for the validity of their orders and courtesy for the dignity of their offices, Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs have tended to accord one another the ceremonial dignity befitting a higher ecclesiastical office.
Archbishop Pizzaballa has already displayed this courtesy by travelling to visit the heads of the Eastern Churches in Jerusalem (all of whom would, by Catholic standards, have precedence over him were the Churches in full communion), as opposed to receiving them, after his ordination to the episcopate.
I should like to close by suggesting a practical example of how I feel the Orthodox Church could respond to this gesture of good will. I will freely admit that I suspect it will be unlikely, as it would require a modification of the status quo of Holy Land sites.
I believe that, since the question of contesting ceremonial precedence is now removed at the level of praxis, there is nothing stopping Patriarch Theophilus III from extending an invitation to Archbishop Pizzaballa to the ceremony of the Holy Fire, and allowing him to participate in the same way that the Patriarchs of the Armenian and Coptic Orthodox Churches in Jerusalem do. This would, it seems to me, be an altogether fitting, and dare I say tender, response to Francis’ initial gesture.
Regardless of whether or not Theophilus does this, His Godly Beatitude is right in the following assessment:
The dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches is evolving well, and there is better and a more profound understanding. It is a positive sign because the more our Churches meet and interact, the more the prejudice disappears.
Francis’ decision has certainly helped to deepen this understanding. We can only hope that it will continue to lead all Christians to renewed trust in the dialogue of love to which he, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and most recently, Pope Tawadros II have all shown a firm commitment.
May the Holy Spirit inspire us to join with the Most Glorious and Holy Blessed Virgin Mary the Theotokos, the angels, and all saints Catholic and Orthodox, to pray together for the peace of Jerusalem up until, and even beyond, that glorious day when our Lord’s high priestly prayer will be fulfilled.
Liam Farrer is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Regis College, University of Toronto, and a junior scholar at the Lonergan Research Institute. His dissertation will focus on the relationship between sacraments and eschatology in medieval theology.