BY CHRISTINA WHITE
THE SPIRITUAL leader of Orthodox Christians around the world has announced he wants closer ties with the Catholic Church — marking a significant breakthrough in relations between the two Churches since they began ecumenical dialogue.
Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarch, said doctrinal and theological differences between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church "must not prevent us facing problems together".
"Europe is becoming united and this will bring [us] closer together," the Patriarch said last Sunday in the Athens daily, Kathimerini, adding that he hoped to end the centuries of animosity since the Great Schism of 1054.
His comments were made as leaders of Christian Churches joined scientists on an Adriatic Sea cruise from June 5 to June 10 to discuss the challenges facing the environment.
Leading the Vatican delegation, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said there was "more that unites us than separates us".
He continued: "Much has been written on the difficulties of the ecumenical dialogue. Instead, for once, the news is positive: two sister Churches wish to arrive at full unity."
Church officials are now working to renew the work of the International Commission of Theological Dialogue on the doctrinal problems that continue to divide the Churches.
Rome has indicated that it will not seek dialogue focusing solely on the basis of the "primacy of Rome" — effectively usurping Orthodox authority. That, said Cardinal Kasper, would lead to a "dead end", a stalemate the Vatican is keen to avoid.
The gradual thawing of relations follows the publication of the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint in 1995 on the imperative of Christian unity.
The Pope's personal initiative deepened the Catholic concept of ecumenism with what has been described as the "boldest papal offer" to Orthodoxy and Protestantism since the divisions of the 11th and 16th centuries.
The Pope stressed that the Orthodox are a "sister Church" with which the Catholic Church seeks "full unity in legitimate diversity".
That union was viewed as increasingly significant in the face of the resurgence of Islam.
But in recent months ecumenical dialogue has been marked by recrimination and a virtual breakdown of ecumenical relations with the Russian Patriarchate.
In February, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow suspended ties with the Vatican after Rome approved four new Catholic dioceses in Russia, accusing the Vatican of "proselytising".
The Catholic Church said the Orthodox Church had gone "down a blind alley" effectively, blocking constructive dialogue.
But earlier this month, the Ecumencal Patriarch and the Holy Father issued a joint declaration — the Venice Charter — on the protection of the environment signalling a new chapter in ecumenical relations.
A delegation from Patriarch Bartholomew is scheduled to visit Rome next weekend for the feast of SS Peter and Paul to continue discussions.
Cardinal Kasper acknowledged that recent events were a "further demonstration" of the good climate that is now being fostered between the Churches.
The joint signing of the charter indicated the level of cooperation that now exists between Orthodoxy and Rome. "In matters such as the protection of the creation, where there are no dogmatic problems to be resolved, there already is collaboration," he said.
The Cardinal insisted that relations with Orthodoxy could not be reduced to the difficult situation that had developed with the patriarch of Moscow.
"We are totally available for dialogue and I am convinced that the problems will be resolved," he said.