‘It is with joy that we have met like brothers’

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill appeal for ecumenical unity in historic meeting

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church came together and set a precedent for ecumenical relations in a historic meeting that took place in Cuba on Feb. 12.

The meeting was the first time in history the leader of the Catholic Church and a Russian Patriarch have met. Its importance is marked by the fact that their respective churches contain the largest number of faithful compared to all others.

“It is with joy that we have met like brothers in the Christian faith who encounter one another to speak face to face, from heart to heart, to discuss the mutual relations between the Churches, the crucial problems of our faithful, and the outlook for the progress of human civilization,” the two leaders wrote in a joint statement.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill acknowledged the rift that has long existed between the two churches, and called for improved ecumenical relations in order to address the crises facing Christians today and come to collective solutions.

“By meeting far from the longstanding disputes of the ‘Old World,’” they wrote, “we experience with a particular sense of urgency the need for shared labor of Catholics and Orthodox. We are not competitors but brothers, and this concept must guide all our mutual actions as well as those directed to the outside world.”

The two leaders addressed several pressing matters in their statement, including the crisis within the family and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“Our gaze must first turn to those regions of the world where Christians are victims of persecution,” they wrote. “We call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East.”

The meeting comes as a sort of precursor to the impending Pan-Orthodox Council set to gather June 16-27. This meeting will mark the first gathering of all Orthodox Church leaders in 1,200 years.

Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Church in Lakewood and director of ecumenism for Our Lady of Lebanon Eparchy, said the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill has a greater meaning, one that concerns not only the good of Christendom, but of the entire world.

“If Christianity moves in the right direction, making the right moves at the right time, Christianity can save the entire world,” Father Mahanna said. “That’s what Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill are doing as an outcome of their meeting.”

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.