Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians, says a meeting with Pope Francis in Jerusalem this month will help move the two churches closer to ending their nearly one-thousand-year divide.
The meetings between the ecumenical patriarch and the leader of the world's Roman Catholics on May 25-26 will commemorate the historic visit of their predecessors 50 years ago that launched a dialogue aimed at ending the two churches' schism in 1054.
"We shall say through our meeting and our prayer that it is the intention of both of us to work further for Christian unity and reconciliation," Bartholomew said, sitting at his desk piled high with papers in his Patriarchate office. Around him, golden icons from Byzantium on the walls loomed over standing photos of the patriarch greeting world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
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Although the Orthodox and Catholic churches remain estranged on key issues, including married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican, there have been moves toward closer understanding, beginning with the 1964 meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. It was the first encounter between a pope and Orthodox patriarch in more than 500 years.
Following the meeting, mutual excommunication edicts were dropped, and a Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration of 1965 called for greater harmony.
Echoing that declaration, Bartholomew said the road to unity remains long, but that Pope Francis's acceptance of the invitation to meet in Jerusalem demonstrates that both leaders want to end the divide.
"When it will take place, we don't know; how it will take place, we don't know. Only God knows," he said.
The two leaders will celebrate Mass together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and buried, and issue another declaration. Bartholomew said it had not yet been finalized.