If ever I wanted to follow a papal trip, Pope Francis’ three days in Turkey was it! Obviously, any papal trip is an exciting, challenging, historic event, and just the idea of following a Pope, covering his words and deeds and being present at a time and place in history, is a unique personal and professional satisfaction. And, I must admit that traveling some day on the papal plane is at the top of my bucket list!

I have been to Turkey three times – in June 1996 as a member of the Holy See delegation to the U.N. Conference on Human Settlements, in February 2009 with a pilgrimage from Santa Susanna parish “in the footsteps of St. Paul” (it was the Year of St. Paul) and again in November 2006 for Pope Benedict’s amazing pilgrimage. I remember every event, every place, every moment of that trip as if it had indeed happened just this past weekend.

I have to say, however, that one of my favorite moments eight years ago was Benedict’s visit to Ephesus, to Mary’s House where he said a beautiful intimate Mass, just a few hundred people, including the media. Unforgettable hours! I am sorry that Pope Francis did not have – or make – an opportunity to visit unique Ephesus!

For reasons beyond my understanding right now, I cannot access the photos I took in 2006 in Turkey, especially Ephesus. They are on my external hard drive and I am having a problem accessing the photos and documents that I have copied there. I did find all the stories I wrote eight years ago from Ephesus and Istanbul – in fact, exactly eight years ago today I was winging my way back to Rome from Turkey.

The pictures you see here today are from news.va


I could probably write a 20,000 word column if I recounted all the important events of the last three days, highlighted by Pope Francis’ three-day trip to Turkey where he issued a heartfelt appeal for peace and an end to violence done in the name of religion, prayed in the Blue Mosque with Muslim imams, attended a liturgy at the Ecumenical Patriuarchate in Istanbul and prayed for Christian Unity, signed a Joint Declaration with Patriarch Bartholomew and met with a group of young refugees from Africa and the Middle East before returning to Rome Sunday evening.

Sunday, of course, marked the first Sunday of Advent and the opening in Rome, in St. Peter’s Basilica, of the Year of Consecrated Life, The Pope wrote a Letter for this year, though it will actually be 15 months long as it will end with a papal Mass on the Feast of the Presentation on February 2, 2016, the day traditionally dedicated to the consecrated life. Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, presided at the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

It was announced Friday that the Pope has issued a plenary indulgence for this special Year: (VIS) – The Holy Father, on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, will concede plenary indulgences, with the customary conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer in keeping with the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff) to all members of the institutes of consecrated life and other truly repentant faithful moved by a spirit of charity, starting from the first Sunday of Advent this year until 2 February 2016, the day of the closure of the Year of Consecrated Life. The indulgence may also be offered for departed souls in Purgatory.

Click here for Pope Francis’ Letter: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-issues-letter-for-year-of-consecrated-life

As I said above, it is not my intention to relive the papal trip to Turkey on this column today. I am sure many of you saw all or part of that very important visit on EWTN or read snippets of news stories or saw my postings on Facebook (facebook.com/joan.lewis.10420) during a period that you most likely spent with family and friends, celebrating Thanksgiving, shopping, watching football games and travelling.

What I want to offer today is a look at Catholic-Orthodox relations as both sides struggle for full Christian unity. How did that disunity come about? On what points is there agreement? Disagreement?

Oceans of ink have been used over the centuries to write about Catholic-Orthodox relations since the East-West (Constantinople-Rome) schism of 1054, so it is not my intention to give a full, historical review here. I do hope, however, to help you understand some of the issues involved in this split.

In two parts, I will offer Pope Francis’ words during his trip this weekend, Pope Benedict’s words during his 2006 trip to Istanbul, some background research I did for Benedict’s visit and excerpts from a lengthy interview I had in 2006 in Istanbul (Phanar) with Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, spiritual leader of some 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Christians, and exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The interview with Archbishop Demetrios will appear here tomorrow (ecumenism in doses!).


Pope Francis travelled to Istanbul this past weekend principally to participate in celebrations marking the feast of St. Andrew, patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Holy See and the Patriarchate exchange regular annual visits and send delegations for the feast days of their respective patrons. The Vatican celebrates the June 29 feast of Sts.Peter and Paul, Apostles and the Orthodox patriarchate marks the November 30 feast of St. Andrew. Roman Catholics believe St. Peter was given the mandate by Christ to lead the church and was thus the first Pope. The Orthodox believe that mandate was given to Peter’s brother, Andrew.

St. George Church, where Patriarch Bartholomew I on Sunday celebrated a Divine Liturgy in the presence of Pope Francis to mark the patronal feast day, is located in the Fanar neighborhood (also spelled Phanar, the more traditional spelling) of Istanbul. The name is the Turkish transliteration of the original Greek word meaning a lighting lantern, a streetlight, a lightpost with a lantern. The name is also linked to the classical phanárion and the modern fanári meaning “lantern.”

Pope Francis - Fanar  2 Pope FRancis - Fanar 1 Pope Francis - Fanar 3

The Phanar neighborhood became home to many Greeks as well as to the Patriarchate of Constantinople after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, 400 years after the Great Schism. Today a complex known as Phanar houses the offices of the patriarchate and the residence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Just as the term Vatican – Vatican City State – is used the describe the heart of the Catholic Church, the Holy See, Phanar is often shorthand for the Ecumenical Pariarchate.

Pope Francis, speaking Sunday, November 30 at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church of St. George in Istanbul, said, “the one thing that the Catholic Church desires and that I seek as Bishop of Rome…is communion with the Orthodox Churches.”

“By happy coincidence,” he said, “my visit falls a few days after the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Christian Unity.  This is a fundamental document which opened new avenues for encounter between Catholics and their brothers and sisters of other Churches and ecclesial communities.

“In particular,” explained the Holy Father, “in that Decree the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Orthodox Churches “possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy” (15).  The Decree goes on to state that in order to guard faithfully the fullness of the Christian tradition and to bring to fulfilment the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christians, it is of the greatest importance  to preserve and support the rich patrimony of the Eastern Churches.  This regards not only their liturgical and spiritual traditions, but also their canonical disciplines, sanctioned as they are by the Fathers and by Councils, which regulate the lives of these Churches (cf. 15-16).

Pope Francis said he believes “that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation.   Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit.  I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.  Further, I would add that we are ready to seek together, in light of Scriptural teaching and the experience of the first millennium, the ways in which we can guarantee the needed unity of the Church in the present circumstances.  The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome, “the Church which presides in charity”, is communion with the Orthodox Churches.  Such communion will always be the fruit of that love which “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (cf. Rom 5:5), a fraternal love which expresses the spiritual and transcendent bond which unites us as disciples of the Lord.”

Eight years earlier, Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I celebrated a Byzantine liturgy in the church of St George in Istanbul on the November 30 feast of St. Andrew. In his talk that day, Pope Benedict said, “the divisions that exist among Christians are a scandal to the world and an obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel.”

One of the principal reasons for the thousand-year old split between Catholics and Orthodox is the Petrine ministry – Petrine referring to St. Peter – and the Petrine ministry being the office of the Pope.

Benedict made reference to that as well in his talk. He said that Christ gave Peter and Andrew the task of being “fishers of men,” but entrusted that task to each in different ways. Peter, said the Pope, was called “the rock upon which the Church was to be built and entrusted him with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” Peter traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome “so that in that city he might exercise a universal responsibility.”

“The issue of the universal service of Peter and his Successors,” said Benedict XVI, “has unfortunately given rise to our differences of opinion, which we hope to overcome.”

During that trip Pope Benedict showed concern for not only Christian unity but for the legal and juridical status of all minority religions in Turkey, including the Orthodox. He reiterated that concern two months later when, on January 19, 2007 he welcomed Turkey’s new ambassador to the Holy See, Muammer Dogan Akdurm. The Pope called on Turkey to give the Catholic Church legal status as a recognized religious institution: “While enjoying the religious freedom guaranteed to all believers by the Turkish Constitution,” he said, “the Catholic Church wishes to benefit from a recognized juridical statute, and to see the start of official dialogue between the episcopal conference and the State authorities in order to resolve any problems that may arise and to maintain good relations between both sides. I do not doubt that the government will do everything in its power to progress in this direction.”

Some historical background on the East-West split:

What has come to be known as the East-West Schism occurred in 1054 when Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople, leader of the Eastern Christian Churches, and Pope Leo IX, leader of the Western Church, excommunicated each other. The mutual excommunications were lifted only in 1965 when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, following an historic encounter in Jerusalem a year earlier, presided over simultaneous ceremonies that revoked the excommunication decrees.

Differences between the two Churches had been growing for years on issues such as papal primacy, liturgical matters and conflicting claims of jurisdiction. The split almost a millennium ago occurred along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographic lines and the two Churches have been seeking unity ever since.

The Petrine ministry – the primacy of the Pope – was specifically mentioned vis-a-vis the Orthodox Church in the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled “Responses to Some Questions on Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church,” dated June 29, 2007. Pope Francis quoted this document – specifically the fourth question – in his talk during the Divine Liturgy. (This 1,200-word document, excluding footnotes, with five questions and five answers is eminently readable: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html)

Part II – Interview with Abp. Demetrios will appear tomorrow in Joan’s Rome


(Vatican Radio) Half a century on from the first meeting between a Pope and an Orthodox Patriarch, one of the frequently asked questions at the end of this visit to Turkey is how long will it take before the two Churches are reunited again? A second question that’s been on everyone’s lips in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation is what difference will this trip make to the interreligious tensions that continue to inflame conflicts in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, to cite just those places that have been mentioned by name over the past three days. Pope Francis responded to both these questions during a lengthy press conference on the plane back to Rome.

He also walked down between the seats shaking all of our hands with a smile, a joke, a word of thanks for the job that we do.

Pope Francis - Turkey - on plane

On the ecumenical front, he noted that not all Catholics and Orthodox are happy with the progress that’s been made, but he said the work of convincing the more conservative factions must continue with patience and humility. While remaining sceptical that theologians will announce a breakthrough in the dialogue any time soon, the Pope also reiterated his firm conviction that Christians must continue with the daily practise of praying, working and teaching together. No-one is putting a timeframe on the reconciliation of East and Western Christianity, but there is hope that a synod of leaders from around the Orthodox world, planned for 2016 (with Catholic observers possibly in attendance) will help to speed up this urgent ecumenical journey.

On the interfaith front, the Pope spoke warmly of his meeting at the Diyanet in Ankara with Muslim leaders, saying we need to take a step forward in the quality of conversations between people of different religious beliefs. He said he told Turkish president Erdogan that leaders must clearly condemn all terrorist violence that has nothing to do with the Koran, which he called “a book of peace”.  He also mentioned his visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque where he said he prayed for peace in Turkey and beyond. Both the encounter with the Grand Mufti in his place of prayer and his tour of the ancient Hagia Sophia museum, while not novelties in themselves, will surely encourage trust and open doors to understanding the pain of each other’s historical memories.

The Pope also talked about a question that surprisingly hasn’t been under the spotlight – next year’s centenary of the Armenian genocide in which a million and a half people died at the hands of the Ottoman forces. While Turkey has long  denied this historical tragedy, the Pope noted that President Erdogan has recently mentioned the event, saying any such attempts to reach out are positive, however small they may be.

Finally, as we’ve so often seen, Pope Francis’ thoughts at the end of this Turkish trip were with the refugees – those who rarely make news headlines, but with whom he had a last brief encounter before leaving Istanbul. And that’s what this visit was really all about: not grand political gestures or historical religious agreements, but rather about personal encounters and small signs of hope through which we witness to the human values at the heart of our different faiths. (Philippa Hitchens, Vatican Radio – Photo from news.va)