The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation joyfully anticipates the coming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and his meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on November 29 and 30, 2006. This meeting will coincide with the celebration of the feast of Saint Andrew, the First-Called Apostle, the Patriarchate's Patron Saint. It will take place in Istanbul, ancient Constantinople, a historic crossroads of peoples, cultures and religions.
The meeting of Pope Benedict and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will continue a tradition begun in 1964 when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras met in Jerusalem, and later in Rome and Istanbul. Since that time, meetings of Popes and Ecumenical Patriarchs have become more regular but no less significant.
These meetings have both expressed and deepened the renewed relationship between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which has been developing since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Pan-Orthodox Conferences (1961-1968). Since then, both churches have affirmed their desire to overcome historic differences through prayer, theological dialogue, and acts of reconciliation.
The meeting of Pope Benedict and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will occur following the recent meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church that took place in Belgrade from September 18 to 25, 2006. Our own North American Theological Consultation, begun in 1965, has now held its 71st meeting in Washington, DC, from October 26 to 28, 2006. Both consultations were established by the churches to examine the theological factors underlying our division and to recommend steps to heal it.
The Pope's pilgrimage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate provides us with an opportunity to express our concern regarding the situation in which the Patriarchate finds itself today. From the fourth century, the Church of Constantinople has exercised a significant ministry in the life of the Church, especially in the East. This ministry has continued to our day, despite drastic changes in the political, demographic and religious context. Today the Ecumenical Patriarchate serves the pastoral needs of Orthodox Christians within its jurisdiction in Turkey and a number of other countries. In addition, it provides a point of unity among the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and coordinates their common witness and service.
We are deeply concerned that the Ecumenical Patriarchate today is subject to severe restrictions placed upon it by the Turkish government. For example, by decisions reached in 1923 and 1970, the government imposed significant limitations on the election of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Even today, the Turkish state does not recognize the historic role that the Patriarch plays among Orthodox Christians outside Turkey. The Turkish government closed the Patriarchate's Theological School on the island of Halki in 1971 and, in spite of numerous appeals from governmental and religious authorities, still does not allow it to reopen, severely limiting the Patriarchate's ability to train candidates for the ministry. In addition, the Patriarchate has recently suffered the confiscation of a number of its churches and other properties by the government.
We very much regret these restrictions placed on the ministry of the Ecumenical Patriarchate both within Turkey and abroad. At the same time, we commend those Turkish government leaders and citizens who advocate greater human rights and religious toleration within the country. The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in late November will highlight once again the crucial role played by the Ecumenical Patriarchate for many centuries not only among the Orthodox Churches but also in the broader Christian world.
Both Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew have affirmed their desire to heal the division between our churches, and to contribute to healing the wounds of our societies. They have affirmed the need for Christians to be people of reconciliation and peace. They have called for mutual understanding among all faiths, and for the elimination of misunderstanding, prejudice and injustice wherever they may be found. We pray that the meeting of the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch will contribute to the unity of the churches and to the reconciliation of all peoples.
St. Paul's College, Washington, DC
October 28, 2006
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