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Pope Francis is quietly paving the road to unity

Pope Francis and Ecumenic Patriarch Bartholomew I (Getty)

Pope Francis is preparing to end this month as he began it: with a concerted effort to reach out to the Orthodox world. On May 31, he is expected to arrive in Romania for a three-day visit. The country has the third-largest Eastern Orthodox population in the world, after Russia and Ukraine.

The Pope started the month with a trip to two other staunchly Orthodox nations: Bulgaria and North Macedonia. There, he safely navigated some of the most perilous ecumenical territory in the world. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has been conspicuously absent from recent rounds of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. It also rejected the Pan-Orthodox Council, a historic gathering of Orthodox leaders, in 2016. The Macedonian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, has been shunned by other Orthodox communities since it declared independence in 1967. Nevertheless, Francis was able to create a positive impression on Church leaders.

His visit to Romania should be more straightforward. The Catholic Church has reasonably good relations with the Romanian Orthodox Church, largely thanks to Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1999. This was the first papal visit to an Orthodox majority country since the Great Schism of 1054. On the final day of his trip to Bucharest, John Paul celebrated an outdoor Mass. The congregation, which included Orthodox believers, began to chant “Unity, unity!” Recalling that moment two years later, he said: “This is the spiritual yearning of a people asking for unity and willing to work to obtain it.”

One of the surprises of Francis’s pontificate is how much time he has devoted to relations with the Orthodox. His home country Argentina is not, after all, a global centre of Orthodoxy (though there are Orthodox communities in the capital, Buenos Aires). Ever since his election, Francis seems to have gravitated towards countries with a significant Orthodox presence: Albania (2014), Bosnia and Herzegovina (2015), Greece and Georgia (2016), and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (2018).

Why does he expend so much effort when the goal of full, visible unity between Catholics and Orthodox Christians is as distant as ever? He appears – rightly – to regard the division as the most lamentable in the Christian world. Yet he also believes that the Holy Spirit is working to repair the breach. As he put it in a message to an Orthodox group last year: “While centuries of mutual misunderstanding, differences and silence may seem to have compromised [Catholic-Orthodox relations], the Holy Spirit, Spirit of unity, has enabled us to recommence a fraternal dialogue.” The turning point, he said, was the historic meeting between Patriarch Athenagoras, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and Pope Paul VI in 1964.

While Francis’s encounters with Orthodox leaders are less momentous, they are still significant. They keep the hope of reunion alive at a time of great division within Orthodoxy (and Catholicism as well). With no equivalent of the Pope, the Orthodox world has always had a loose configuration. But in recent years internal rifts have widened. The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, shunned the Pan-Orthodox Council, called by the current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. It then broke off ties entirely with Bartholomew when he recognised the autonomy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, previously under Moscow’s jurisdiction.

Pope Francis has not addressed these regrettable developments directly. Instead, he has tried to strengthen friendships with all quarters of the Orthodox world. While suspicion of Catholics remains high (especially in Russia), the Pope arguably enjoys better relations with more branches of Orthodoxy than anyone else in the world – Orthodox leaders included. This is remarkable given that for centuries Orthodox churches have regarded the papacy as a threat to their unity.

In Romania, Francis will meet Patriarch Daniel, leader of the country’s 19 million Orthodox Christians. He is likely to receive a fairly warm reception as the Patriarch once taught at the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute near Geneva. While there is unlikely to be a spectacular breakthrough, relations with this major component of global Orthodoxy should be deepened by the time Francis leaves on June 2.

Francis may not live to see Eastern and Western Christians reunited (we may not either). But if that day finally arrives, it will be in no small measure due to him.