Pope in a Minefield

By Tim Kelleher

Past the first-hundred-days mark, impressions of Jorge Bergoglio's papacy suggest it's being widely experienced as an excitement -- a wave of yet undetermined proportions, nowhere near its crest. In the process, the man continues to stymie a trailing chorus of soothsayers.

Yet, with acceptance of the yoke, this first Jesuit pope became heir to a multitude of unenviable challenges -- including deed to the minefield of Christian ecumenism.

At a time when forces warring under the banner of secularism find a convenient, if de facto, partner in those doing so in the name of Islam, the need for Christian unity to rise from the soil of genuine reconciliation, has never been more urgent. The minefield Francis is obliged to tread must, therefore, be cleared.

The scandal is that for centuries, the sine qua non of this project has been a hostage of the wounded relationship between Latin and Orthodox Catholicism.

With roots of the challenge running tangled and deep, it is imperative for the urgency to jump beyond the worthy world of ecumenical specialists, and catch fire amongst a people schooled in the challenge, its stakes, and their own critical role in it.

In his, My Journal At The Council, Yves Congar registered a kindred exhortation on the eve of Vatican II, "Christian public opinion must force the Council to exist in fact, and to achieve something." (Italics mine)

It may seem ironic then to claim as indispensable the acknowledgment that there is no such thing as the Catholic or the Orthodox Church.

As the Bible is a library, discerned by Tradition to be one integral book, the Church too, has always been a communion of churches, that as one, extends the Body of Christ in space and time. Jerusalem in communion with Antioch; Antioch with Alexandria; Alexandria with Rome, Rome with Constantinople -- all in a mutual fealty whose anchor is Peter.

The arrangement has never been in essential dispute -- even after the culmination of the Great Schism in 1254. Indeed, as Kallistos Ware reminds, during the Council of Florence, (1438-39), which sought to repair the breach, ten months were spent grappling with the issue of the filioque, and ten days addressing the subject of papal primacy. Some seven hundred years hence, the situation is nearly reversed.

While it would be stretching to claim dogmatic issues present no impediments to communion, Walter Kasper, former President of the Vatican's own Council for Christian Unity, maintains that it is the role of Peter today that poses the largest obstacle.

In this regard, the pontificate of Benedict XVI proved a mixed bag, with omission of the title, "Patriarch of the West," from the Annuario Pontificio, emblematic of some unfortunate puzzlements.

Of course, the deed Francis holds makes him but co-owner in the minefield. As partners, Orthodox leaders have a surfeit of reasons to join him in a sprit of heroic humility. Here too, the climbing is steep.

In recent years, gatherings of Catholic-Orthodox commissions have raised a window onto contours of intra-Orthodox discord that appear to run along more jurisdictional than theological lines.

A formidable dimension of that discord is political in character, global in scope, and observable right now on the North American continent. To depict it as a kind of "proxy war," waged by parent churches, would be extreme, but the analogy does, at times, present itself.

The issue that brings matters to quickest focus has to do with episcopal overlapping. That is, in any given place, there may well be a multiplicity of active bishops from across the spectrum of jurisdictions.

Violation of so fundamental a canon constitutes no less than a diminishment of Orthodoxy and its evangelical witness. Dedicated men and women continue the struggle to set things right, but despite a steady flow of high-minded pronouncements, Congar's call to achieve something has yet to be fulfilled.

Parent churches typically exert major influences on progeny in the various stages of diaspora. However, what happens in America may ultimately exert that influence in the other direction.

Among those churches, the Ecumenical and Moscow Patriarchates stand preeminent. Coincidentally, or perhaps in consequence, their rapport has not always modeled the fraternal warmth we might expect. Ukraine is a case in point.

As in other places that have endured Ukraine's depth of tragedy, history is not just a subject in the curriculum. It is a specter, encountered daily, on every corner, haunting with memories of war, and the particular grief of a Soviet system linked indelibly to Moscow.

In that capital today, Vladimir Putin's courtship of its Patriarch, and the latter's reciprocal embrace, is viewed by some as restart to a Byzantine fusion of cross and crown unique in the modern Orthodox world, and cornerstone to the dream of a reconstituted Russian empire.

It's no secret that for Mr. Putin, Ukraine is a theory, indulged on Russian soil, with a sovereignty leased for as long as its landlords deem useful. On this, Patriarch Kirill seems in sync with his counterpart.

With the anniversary marking the baptism of Kievan-Rus on the horizon, Kirill announced to Ukraine's four principal churches that Moscow would be taking full charge of related events. Except for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), all seem agreed that Kirill's position represents an ominous presumption.

Sadly, there's not much more they do agree on -- beyond the Councils, Creed, and sacraments. Just last week factions within the UOC-MP appealed to both Moscow and Kiev government leaders to intervene in what is depicted as a drawn out coup within that church. We might marvel then at the optimism of Kasper's successor, Cardinal Koch when referring to Ukraine as, "A laboratory of ecumenism."

"We do not have unity because there are those who do not want it." This pungent assessment comes courtesy of Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), a body whose existence is an exceedingly sore point in relations between Rome and Moscow. And, it is with the UGCC that we return to Pope Francis. Through Shevchuk, we return to him in a personal way.

Ukraine's Greek Catholic Church is the largest Eastern church in communion with Rome, reunited at the Council of Brest in 1596, whence the pejorative, Uniates, derives. Up to the moment the Soviet ban ended, it had been the longest-suppressed religious body in the world.

With a history too complex to treat here, of pertinence is the UGCC's role as a relentless engine of Ukrainian nationalism. Thus, as Pope Francis looked out from the balcony of St. Peter's, beyond urbis et orbis, it didn't take long for him to see where Moscow stood.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, head of the Department of External Church Relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, appeared eager to preempt any notion Francis might have of enhancing the position of the UGCC in the Ukrainian "laboratory," warning, No good could come of it. Oxford-educated Hilarion is a young, highly accomplished, English-speaker, said to enjoy genuinely cordial relationships with Western church figures. One wonders, therefore, just how much of his warning to Francis is a function of obedience to superiors.

As the world is discovering, Francis too is cordial. He is also courageous. And to a greater degree than predecessors of recent memory, he has a deep affection for the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Since his election, we have learned that Jorge Bergolio experienced what he regards as the precious mentorship of Fr. Stephan Chmil, a priest of the UGCC from whom he gained intimate acquaintance with the Ukrainian Church. What is also emerging -- and of potentially tremendous significance -- is Francis's relationship with Sviatoslav Shevchuk.

As a "baby bishop," Shevchuk was sent to Argentina where Bergolio took his own turn at mentoring. By all accounts, the two became close, and remain so. The fact that an icon given by Shevchuk was among the few possessions that crossed the Atlantic to grace the new pope's apartment, suggests something of their bond.

In March, 2011, at the age of 40, Shevchuk was entrusted with leadership of the UGCC worldwide. As major archbishop of such an important church, he is patriarch in all but the title Rome has denied his predecessors as a cost of improving relations with Moscow. And though the UGCC has borne the weight of this subordination patiently, there is a sense that the sand in the hourglass of that patience may be down to its last grains. The bond between Pope and Archbishop then, puts Francis in a delicate position.

In terms of overarching intentions, Francis has so far chosen to engage largely through the language of gesture -- a spontaneous, compelling, self-disclosure, that can sometimes feel like water bursting forth from desert rock -- catching us parched and unprepared in equal parts.

But, are there, in fact, any clues to what Francis has in mind with respect to ecumenism? Maybe.

To begin, Francis is making clear that he understands his office to be rooted squarely in his function as bishop of Rome. It is the title he uses most when referring to himself, and which has been given priority of place in the new Annuario Pontificio.

As gestures go, this one is big, pointing to an ecclesiology that is authentically Catholic, and particularly suitable to Orthodoxy.

Next, at the installation of Francis, the list of Orthodox leaders in attendance was noteworthy. Patriarch Kirill chose to send Metropolitan Hilarion in his stead. A gesture in itself, it managed to highlight the presence of Bartholomew I, successor to such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzus, and who as Ecumenical Patriarch is regarded as primus inter pares within the Orthodox communion.

Furthermore, during the installation liturgy, Francis restored the tradition of proclaiming the Gospel in Greek -- language of the early church, the New Testament, and parentally, of Orthodoxy itself.

Something I've not yet heard mentioned is that across the Tiber -- a short cab ride away -- sits the Pontificio Instituto Orientale, the preeminent academic contact point between ecclesial East and West. Founded and run by Francis's own Jesuit order, the contributions made by this Institute would be difficult to exaggerate. It has formed generations of scholars from around the world, many of whom have gone on to leadership roles in the various churches. Francis is undoubtedly familiar with its extraordinary service to the Church, and its value as a resource going forward.

Lastly, there is his friendship with Shevchuk.

In the Middle East and Africa today, ancient churches are suffering persecution on a staggering scale, with obscene regularity -- and with scant notice from a press loath to identify perpetrators or contextualize motives. In the face of this, the various Christian churches are demonstrating a powerful capacity to rise above divisions.

In North America, and the West generally, forces press a campaign to bully the culture into accepting that "religious freedom" is somehow a contradiction in terms - wherein the viability of one element requires extinction of the other. Incredibly, codification of this aberrance is already under way. A handful of years ago such a claim would have been dismissed as histrionic. Today, it is a story unfolding by the headline.

In this environment, few things are capable of seizing the world's attention, or providing the Body Of Christ the singular opportunity to move beyond its shameful impasse. An ecumenical council is such a thing.

Is it impossible to believe -- or hope -- that Francis would convene one? Or invite every patriarch to meet as a body with Peter in order to achieve something?
We shall see. In the meantime, destruction advances, mocking the divide between Latin and Orthodox Catholicism. Most of all, it is emboldened by mines planted in God's vineyard by those of us who would call ourselves Christian.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.

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