Today is Saint Patrick’s Day, a feast day typically celebrated when “everybody is Irish” and consumes copious amounts of beer and traditional Irish cuisine. While fun, it tends to underscore the real meaning of the day, which is Saint Patrick’s evangelism in Ireland.
What many either forget or fail to realize in the first place is that Saint Patrick is not a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox saint, but rather a product of one universal church.
Having lived in the 5th century, Saint Patrick would have known only one Christian church. From the five original churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, Christians worked to spread the faith to Africa, Northern and Eastern Europe, Persia, and beyond.
While this Pentarchy – the five original churches – each administered their own diocese, or see, all were united in one communion; or, as more eloquently stated in the Nicene Creed, “In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”
Sadly, the Great Schism of 1054 split the Church into Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) halves, where it has stayed for nearly a millennium. The first nine centuries of mutual excommunication – particularly after the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in 1204 – saw little effort to reconcile the two halves of Christendom.
1964 finally saw change, as Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem and rescinded the mutual excommunication. The Pope also ordered all relics held by the Vatican of Saint Andrew the Apostle, founder of the Church in Constantinople, to be returned to the Orthodox Church.
As is the case with any old, bitter feud, the first step is the most difficult, but opens the floodgates toward reconciliation once it occurs.
Successive gestures have continually been made in an effort toward unity. In 2004, Pope John Paul II invited current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and other Orthodox clergy to the Vatican. The Pope apologized for Fourth Crusade which sacked the city of Constantinople and the Catholic Church’s failure to prevent that event from occurring.
Pope John Paul II also returned the relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom – both early Constantinople Patriarchs and tremendously important Fathers of the Church – which were stolen during the Fourth Crusade.
Return of the Holy Relics of Saints Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom
When Benedict XVI became Pope, he also continued the effort, visiting the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople as well as inviting Patriarch Bartholomew to speak before the College of Cardinals in the Vatican.
Pope Benedict XVI Visits Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
As a lifelong Orthodox Christian, I was heartened to see Francis ascend to the Papacy. In Pope Francis, I see a man with a history or piety and humility. He is said to have often visited the Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral in Buenos Aries, and has stood up for the rights of Orthodox Christians in his native Argentina. Francis has also spoken of his desire to “further close the nearly 1,000-year estrangement with the Orthodox Churches.”
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kiril seemed to echo this sentiment on Thursday in his congratulatory message to Pope Francis, saying, “both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics should unite forces to defend fellow believers in countries where they are persecuted, and to affirm traditional moral values in the modern secular world.”
While a unified Church would be amazing, I am under no illusions that it will happen in the near future. Major divisions between the two sides still exist, including the Filioque, Papal Authority, and priestly celibacy, among others. Nevertheless, my impression is that Pope Francis is willing to do his part to help bring the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and 300 million Orthodox Christians together again to truly become the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Videos are courtesy of the official Youtube Channel of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople