November 24, 2006


The pope’s trip to Turkey

(No audio version this week)

The world will be watching even more than usual as Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey next Tuesday through Friday. The riots by Muslims that followed the talk he gave in Regensburg, Germany, have prompted concern for his safety in a Muslim country.

Let’s remember, though, that the objective of improving relations with Muslims will be only a secondary purpose of the trip. The primary purpose will be to further the cause of Christian unity. The pope is accepting the invitation of both the Turkish government and the Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict has emphasized his desire to seek union with the Orthodox Churches. Perhaps this pope from Germany will be able to achieve closer relations with the Orthodox Churches than Pope John Paul II, the pope from Poland, could.

It’s significant that Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church has publicly asserted that Benedict will become famous and will be remembered. The patriarch said that relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Vatican will develop for the better because of Benedict. There are now meetings between the Russian Orthodox and the Vatican that the Orthodox refused to have while John Paul was alive.

Next week’s meeting, though, is with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. His predecessors can be traced back to the early days of Christianity. The Roman Emperor Constantine made his home in Constantinople, changing its name from Byzantium (today it’s called Istanbul). Four of the first eight ecumenical councils were held in Constantinople, and the patriarch of Constantinople was accorded the honor of being second only to the pope.

Through the centuries, though, tensions arose between the Church of the West, centered in Rome, and the Church of the East, centered mainly in Constantinople, although there were also patriarchates in Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. The patriarch of Constantinople usually had the support of the emperor of the Roman Empire, since he also lived in Constantinople.

Eventually, there developed two fundamental differences between the Church of Rome and that of Constantinople. One was over papal claims of primacy. The Eastern Church looked on the pope as first in honor, but did not grant him supremacy of power and jurisdiction. The popes, on the other hand, insisted on exerting ultimate control over the Eastern as well as the Western Churches.

The other issue was theological. The two Churches disagreed on whether the Holy Spirit proceeded only from the Father or from the Father and from the Son. That disagreement continues today.

The disagreements got so bad that, in 1054, during an attempt at reconciliation that failed, the pope’s representatives excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople and his supporters. The patriarch retaliated by excommunicating the pope. The East-West Schism is dated from July 24, 1054. The Eastern Church thereafter became known as the Orthodox Church. (There are, though, numerous Eastern Catholic Churches, with their patriarchs, that are fully in communion with Rome.)

Because of this history, the Patriarchate of Constantinople retains a primacy of honor among the Orthodox Churches, which is why it’s called the Ecumenical Patriarchate. However, each of the 15 Orthodox patriarchates is an autocephalous (independent) Church. There is no equivalent of the pope among the Orthodox.

With the spread of Islam, Christians in the Byzantine Empire became fewer and fewer. The final end of the Byzantine Empire happened on May 29, 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror. Since then, the Russian Orthodox Church has become the largest.

The Catholic Church still considers itself to be in almost full communion with the Orthodox Churches. The Churches, according to the Catholic Chuch, are joined in the priesthood and Eucharist and in various other ways.

Pope Benedict hopes that his visit next week will strengthen ties with at least some of the Orthodox Churches. He is scheduled to participate in an Orthodox liturgy next Thursday.

Nevertheless, he will undoubtedly also remember the secondary purpose of his trip. During his trip to Cologne for World Youth Day, he met with Muslim leaders and emphasized that they have a responsibility to take action against Muslim extremists who are responsible for terrorism. He might be just as forceful while he’s in Turkey.

— John F. Fink

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