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Once-in-a-millenium move: Orthodox patriarch to attend pope's installation

Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I attends a meeting with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi, on Jan. 10.
Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I attends a meeting with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi, on Jan. 10.David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters file

ANKARA, Turkey — Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, left Monday for the Vatican to attend Pope Francis' installation Mass — the first time a patriarch from the Istanbul-based church is attending a papal investiture since the two branches of Christianity split nearly 1,000 years ago.

Bartholomew said he was attending the installation Mass to underscore the importance he attaches to "friendly ties" between the churches and reflects expectations that the new pontiff will advance rapprochement efforts that began decades ago.

"It is a gesture to underline relations which have been developing over the recent years and to express my wish that our friendly ties flourish even more during this new era," Bartholomew told private NTV television in an interview in Istanbul before his departure. "I am very hopeful in this matter."

He is just one of several ecumenical and interfaith leaders who will be attending the Mass, including a sizeable Jewish contingent that reflects Francis' longstanding ties to the Jewish community in his native Argentina. Several Orthodox leaders will be there, although the Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch Kirill is staying home in Moscow and sending his envoy instead.

In a sign of common bonds between East and West, the Vatican said the Gospel during the installation Mass would be chanted in Greek instead of Latin, the language that will be used for many of the other elements of the ceremony.

The Eastern and Western churches were united until the Great Schism of 1054, a divide precipitated largely by disagreements over the primacy of the pope.

Francis' predecessor, the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI, had made uniting all Christians and healing the split a priority of his pontificate. A joint committee has been working to mend the rift between the two churches.

Rev. Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, the spokesman for the Istanbul-based Patriarchate, said Bartholomew would become the first Orthodox spiritual leader to attend an investiture since the Schism. The decision to attend the Mass at St Peter's Square on Tuesday was "the fruit" of the growing dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, he said.

Bartholomew: 'He was won over hearts'

Bartholomew went further to say he would be the first Orthodox spiritual leader to attend an investiture since "at least" before the Schism.

"Even before the churches were divided in 1054, a patriarch from Istanbul did not attend the inauguration," he explained.

The Patriarch said: "From the first day, (Pope Francis) has won over hearts with his modest demeanor... I felt the wish to go and I am going willingly."

Bartholomew has made several previous visits to the Vatican, including attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Bartholomew also hosted Benedict during a 2006 visit to Istanbul, the sprawling city formerly called Constantinople and the ancient spiritual center of the Orthodox churches.

Prof. Ionnis Zizioulas, the Metropolitan of Pergamon and a co-chair of the joint commission promoting dialogue between the two churches, is accompanying Bartholomew to Rome, Anagnostopoulos said. Bartholomew's delegation will also include Tarassios, the Metropolitan of Argentina, and Gennadios, the Metropolitan of Italy.

Francis is familiar with Orthodox traditions from 14 years of heading the Argentine church's commission on Eastern Rite Christians, who are within the Catholic fold but follow Orthodox religious customs, including some married clergy in lower ranks.

The powerful Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the more than dozen Orthodox churches,áwelcomed the election of Francis.

"The new pope is known for his conservative views, and his papacy will evidently be marked by the strengthening of faith. The fact that he has taken the name of Francis — reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi — confirms his understanding of evangelization primarily as assistance for the poor and the deprived, as protection of their dignity," Dimitry Sizonenko, secretary for inter-Christian relations in the Russian church, told the Interfax-Religion news service.

For Orthodox, the new pope's choice of Francis is also important for its reference to the Italian town of Assisi, where Pope John Paul II began conferences encouraging interfaith dialogue and closer bonds among Christians.

In an indication that the Vatican's interfaith and ecumenical partners expect great things from Francis, several Jewish representatives were attending his installation, including the chief rabbi of Rome , the general secretary of the chief Rabbinate of Israel, and representatives from the American Jewish Committee, the World Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League.

The Vatican said Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Jains would also attend, though on the official list released Monday, none were listed.

Muslim delegations

Several mostly Muslim countries were sending delegations, including Bahrain and Lebanon as well as Jordan. Jordanian King AbdullahII had congratulated Francis on his election and said he was committed to working withthe Holy See on interfaith dialogue.

Although Catholics and Orthodox remain estranged on key issues — including married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican — there have been significant moves toward closer interactions and understanding.

The first major breakthrough came in 1964 when Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem with Patriarch Athenagoras in the first encounter between a pope and Orthodox patriarch in more than 500 years. The meeting led to the lifting of mutual excommunication edicts and the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration of 1965 that called for greater harmony among the churches.

An apostolic letter by John Paul II in 1995 encouraged unity between the two branches of Christianity and opened the way for a historic visit to Rome by Bartholomew I, who is considered the "first among equals" of the Orthodox patriarchs, as well as Catholic-Orthodox conferences.

During the first papal trip to Greece in 2001, John Paul II issued an apology for the ravages of the Fourth Crusade, which in the early 13th century sacked Constantinople, now Istanbul, the seat of the Eastern church. In 2006, Benedict XVI was hosted by the ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul in a visit that brought protests from some archconservative Orthodox but generally opened room for dialogue on even closer contacts.

Francis was expected to meet with representatives of other religious denominations, including Bartholomew, on Wednesday.

Among the delegation with Bartholomew will be Ioannis Zizioulas, co-president of the joint commission for Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, and a senior envoy from the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

A meeting between a pope and the head of the Russian church remains one of the elusive goals in efforts to improve ties. The Russian church and Vatican have a host of lingering conflicts including disputes over properties following the collapse of the Soviet Union and objections by Moscow of perceived Catholic efforts to gain followers in traditional Orthodox lands.                                                                                                                                       

The spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, said last week that any possible meeting between Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill "will depend on how quickly" the points of dispute are settled.

Associated Press writer Brian Murphy in Rome contributed to this report.


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