The Pope and the Patriarch


Like most of the world, I have been paying pretty close attention to what the new Pope of Rome is doing these days.  From what I have seen and from what I have read about Pope Francis they elected a reformer, I pray he is up to the task.

As an Orthodox Christian who came to Orthodoxy from the Roman tradition, I was extremely excited to see that Patriarch Bartholomew attended the Mass of Installation this week in Rome.  He was not the only Orthodox in attendance but what makes this so noteworthy is this was the first time in history that a Patriarch attended a Papal Mass.

The media, in their own way, got most of the facts wrong.  It was not the first time since 1054 that a Patriarch attended as I have just said and as some of my priest colleagues mentioned, this has never happened before.  Delegations would be sent, but Patriarchs never did this in the past.  The other thing they always seem to get wrong is, Patriarch Bartholomew is not the leader of the Orthodox Church, well he is the head of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Spiritual head, but he is not the leader in the same sense we think of the Pope of Rome.

Orthodoxy has many Patriarchs, for example, my Church has a Patriarch, Daniel of Romania.  Patriarch Daniel is the head of the Romanian Orthodox Church.  Each Patriarchate is autonomous and “runs” things in collaboration with the synod of bishops of that particular church.

According to Canon II of the First Council of Constantinople held in 381, Rome has primacy of place and then “The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.”  This does not mean that Constantinople is subject to Rome; Roman Universality came much later and is one of the contentious points between east and west.  This was Primacy of Honor and how the various Patriarchs were to be commemorated during the Liturgy.

The other often misunderstood historical element is the date of 1054.  1054 is the date historians’ use as the final arbiter of formal separation between the Church of the East and the Church of the West, but there was an exceptionally long and complex history there that simply cannot be reduced to a date.  This separation was long and painful, and yes, it came to a conclusion in 1054, but we need to keep things in perspective.

So where does that leave us today?  Unlike some of my priest colleagues and other Orthodox, I think that we must dialogue with our brothers and sisters in the West.  I think that we must do all we can to heal the rift and separation between the two ancient churches.  However, there are certain theological problems that need to be resolved and that does not mean that the Orthodox should compromise the historic faith.  I also think that using terms like heretic and heterodox and not helpful and only hurt the possibility of working together.  We agree on far more than we disagree, sure the disagreements are large, but calling each other names is not helpful and I for one will not engage in it.

Patriarch Bartholomew has invited Pope Francis to come to Constantinople, and I also read, that they both will go to the Holy Land at some point in time.  It would be nice if all of the Patriarchs could have a meeting, a meeting that is more than a photo op we have enough of those already, but a real meeting of substance.  Let us not forget that Christianity is under attack not only by the Muslims but by modernity and the only way that we will defeat both of these is if we do it together.

To those of you who think Patriarch Bartholomew is a heretic for attending the Mass in Rome I bid you farewell.  There will always be the fringe element on both sides who believe they are  holier and more orthodox than the rest.  You are free to leave and set up shop on your own.  To my brothers who use the terms heterodox and heretic, I ask you to reconsider your words.  Yes,  they score great political points, but it is not helpful in any dialogue.  The Orthodox do not need to cede any ground in theology, but we need to approach this in all humility and understanding as the father of the prodigal welcomed home his son.  Now is not the time for arrogance but the time for humility.

You are free, of course, to disagree, but I ask you to do so with respect.

We witnessed a historical event in Rome, and I for one was extremely glad to see this.  I think there is much we have in common with our Roman brothers and sisters, and we need to work together for the common good.  Pope Francis has a heart for the poor in this world and we Orthodox share this concern, let us work together as brothers and sisters on the things we can to make a difference in this world.  We need unity and understanding to resolve our theological issues, and that can happen if we are all open to the Spirit.


  1. I would with you on everything except this statement: “Let us not forget that Christianity is under attack not only by the Muslims but by modernity and the only way that we will defeat both of these is if we do it together.” I think this is a sweeping generalization as the vast majority of Muslims are not attacking or support attacks on Christianity itself. The Muslim does not separate faith from politics are sociology, so any attack (which is the minority of Muslims) is not on the faith, but is a political struggle for control. Islam’s official stance towards the church is one in which the church may exist and perform the liturgy and prayer, but evangelism is not permitted in Islamic nations. Christians and Muslims can and often do get along quite well. I just recently had a lovely time with a Muslim cleric who gave me a tour of his town, and discussed the way in which a Mosque functions and education is done in a Muslim context. He was incredibly hospitable and a kind and gracious man. He certainly has no interest in attacking Christianity, and I believe Christians would be surprised to find how common this is.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

      I would agree with you however, the more moderate Muslims need to denounce the one who are! Until they do that they will all be categorized as the same.

  2. I’m curious as to what term you would use to replace “heterodox”, which is really not a pejorative, but rather a simple descriptor of doctrines held. If it isn’t orthodox and it isn’t outright heresy, the heterodox seems to fit the need.

    1. Why do we need to use any term? why not just say we do not agree or that they are our separated brothers and sisters. I once belonged to the Greek Catholic Church United With Rome, commonly referred to in Orthodoxy as the Uniates, Orthodox did not look at this term as a negative but we did. Simply calling people what they are Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptist, whatever should be enough.

      Thanks for the comment

      1. I understand the word heterodox as classifying the theology of any group that does not have an orthodox understanding. I was once heterodox in my theology, and now I am orthodox (or at least progressing in that direction) in my theology. It is not the same as Uniate, which is a pejorative label.

        1. It is not about how we see the words we use but how others see the words we use. Orthodox do not think that the word Uniate is pejorative or offensive at all but Greek Catholics, or Eastern Catholics, do think it is an insult. I know many people who are insulted by the term Heterodox, including some Orthodox. All I am saying is we need to approach this with love and humility, and putting labels on people from the start is not humble nor is it a loving action. Like I said in the essay we need to be the father of the prodigal son and not the brother, our attitude needs to be one of loving acceptance and gentle correction.

  3. I think we need to mend our own tents first. +Bartholomew needs Rome far more than the reverse. That is never a good place to begin discussions. The Orthodox in the West still don’t know who we are. A missionary Church on the way to autocephaly, or a dwindling diaspora with the territories to be eventually ceded back to Rome?

    Graham – we have all met gracious, courteous individuals. As Muslim theology plays out in the real world, once a Muslim population can claim the State as their own, it’s the dar-al-Islam and that’s that. We are headed for some grim choices in the secular West as we roll out the welcome mat for protagonists from all sides of these conflicts.

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