“We embraced each other once, then again and again. We were like brothers meeting after a long separation.” That is how Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople described hugging Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in January, 1964. It was a historic moment. Nine hundred and ten years earlier, the leaders of the eastern and western churches had excommunicated each other. Now the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches of Christianity had taken a big step toward reconciliation.
Athenagoras I, born in Greece, became a theologian and philosopher. He rose through the ranks of the Orthodox church, and drafted its policy approving ecumenism (Christian denominations drawing together). While working to keep Orthodoxy from falling under the power of the Russian Orthodox church, which was manipulated by the Soviet Communists, he sought to break down barriers between the Orthodox church and the Roman and Protestant communions.
Italian-born Paul VI was also active in the ecumenical movement. A key player in the Vatican II Council, he became pope after the death of John XXIII.
On this day, December 7, 1965, an event of international importance occurred. At the same time in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome and in Patriarch Athenagoras’ church in Constantinople, spokesmen read the same prepared statement.
The text expressed gratitude that God had favored them with a chance to meet in Jerusalem–the site of their hug the year before–and the place where the Christian faith originated. Since that moment, they said, they had both wanted to improve brotherly relations between the churches, “to overcome their differences in order to be again ‘one’ as the Lord Jesus asked of His Father..”
Realistically, the statement acknowledged that there were serious obstacles to reunion. “Among the obstacles along the road of the development of these fraternal relations of confidence and esteem, there is the memory of the decisions, actions and painful incidents which in 1054 resulted in the sentence of excommunication leveled against the Patriarch Michael Cerularius and two other persons by the legate (agent) of the Roman See under the leadership of Cardinal Humbertus, legates who then became the object of a similar sentence pronounced by the patriarch and the Synod of Constantinople.
“One cannot pretend that these events were not what they were during this very troubled period of history. Today, however, they have been judged more fairly and serenely. Thus it is important to recognize the excesses which accompanied them and later led to consequences which, insofar as we can judge, went much further than their authors had intended and foreseen..”
They expressed regret for the offensive words spoken over nine hundred years earlier and the excommunications that followed. Although mere words could not erase the differences that divided their denominations, They hoped “that this act will be pleasing to God, who is prompt to pardon us when we pardon each other.” Those differences included disagreement over the dogma of Purgatory, the pope’s claim to be Christ’s Vicar on earth and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. But, as Pope John Paul II would later say, “the things uniting us are far more fundamental than those disuniting us.”
“Athenagoras (1948-1972).” The Kiss of Judas. http:// www.russianorthodoxautonomouschurchinamerica.com/ kissofjudas/Athenagoras-latest.htm [showing how bitterly some viewed the “betrayal”]
Cross, F. L. and Livingstone, E. A. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford, 1997.
Gudzyk, Klara. “Champion of Reconciliation.” The Day. http://www.day.kiev.ua/DIGEST/2002/13/culture/cul9.htm.
“Removed from Memory, Committed to Oblivion!” [The Joint Catholic Orthodox Declaration.] http://www.melkite.com/mle.html