Impact of the Historic Meeting of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras

By Fr. Thomas FitzGerald

Fifty years ago, the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church took a dramatic turn towards encounter and dialogue.  On Jan. 6, 1964, Pope Paul VI (+1978) and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras (+1972) met on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. They prayed together and exchanged the kiss of peace. This continued a less formal meeting on the previous day.

Such a blessed encounter at that time captured the attention of the Christian world. It marked a dramatic turn from alienation to engagement. This was the first formal meeting of a Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch since 1438.

"May this meeting of ours," said Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, "be the first glimmer of dawn of a shining and holy day in which Christian generations of the future will receive communion in the holy Body and Blood of the Lord from the same chalice, in love, peace and unity, and will praise and glorify the one Lord and Savior of all."

"It was fitting," said Pope Paul VI, "that it should be in this center forever blessed and sacred that we, pilgrims from Rome and Constantinople, are able to meet and join in common prayer."

The Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch recognized that their meeting did not end the schism which persisted since 1484. They knew that both churches now had to address the difficult issues of division. Yet, they also believed that the Spirit was guiding their churches toward reconciliation. They declared in a Common Statement that they "met with the desire to fulfill the Lord's will and proclaim the ancient truth of the Gospel confided to the Church."

The meeting of the pope and patriarch took place at a time when the Catholic Church was engaged in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This gathering marked a renewal of the Catholic Church and formally approved involvement in the quest for Christian unity.  Prior to the Council, the Catholic Church had formally avoided ecumenical dialogues.

With the leadership of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the Orthodox Church also entered into a period of renewed conciliarity with series of Pan Orthodox Conferences (1961-1968). Bringing the Autocephalous Church out of their isolation, these meetings were designed to set the stage for a Great and Holy Council which would address common challenges. They also affirmed Orthodox participation in bilateral dialogues with the Catholic Church and other Christian churches.

Following the historic meeting of the Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church entered into a period of fruitful contacts and reconciling actions.

  1. The limited Anathemas of 1054 were lifted by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch and his Synod in 1965.
  2. Led by the Archbishop Iakovos of America (+2005), the first bilateral Theological Dialogue between Orthodox and Catholic Churches was established in the United States in the same year and has continued to this day.
  3. This was followed by the inauguration of an International Theological Dialogue in 1979.  The goal of these dialogues is the resolution of doctrinal differences and the restoration of full communion between the churches.
  4. Since then, popes and patriarchs have met regularly. In addition, clergy and laity from the two churches have joined in prayer, in study and in pilgrimages designed to foster reconciliation and unity.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will meet with Pope Francis in Jerusalem May 25 - 26 to commemorate the historic meeting of their predecessors. The meeting was proposed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew when he met with the new pope the day after his installation on March 20, 2013.

The meeting in Jerusalem will also be an historic one. It will be a time of renewed prayer for reconciliation. It will also be an opportunity to recall the rich blessings of healing, dialogue and common service as the churches have traveled on the path of reconciliation for the past fifty years.

Rev. Dr.  Thomas FitzGerald, Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is Professor of Church History and Historical and former Dean at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He is the executive secretary of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Bilateral Consultation.