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Benedict XVI's 'Gesture of Love'

Interview With Professor of Ecumenical Theology

ROME, NOV. 30, 2006 (Zenit) - The exchange of visits between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is a "gesture of love," says Father Giovanni Cereti.

Father Cereti said this in an interview with us on the importance of Benedict XVI's four-day apostolic trip to Turkey, which begins today and will include a visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Father Cereti is a Catholic theologian and lecturer of ecumenical theology at Venice's Institute of Ecumenical Studies, at Rome's Pontifical Theological Faculty Marianum and the Mater Ecclesiae Higher Institute of Religious Studies, connected to the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome.

Q: Every year, on Nov. 30, feast of St. Andrew, a Vatican delegation visits the ecumenical patriarchate, and the patriarchate sends a delegation to Rome for the feast of St. Peter on June 29. When did these visits begin and what importance should we attribute to the fact that it is the Pope himself who is carrying out this gesture on this occasion?

Father Cereti: In relations between Christians the exchange of visits between Churches goes back to apostolic times and has great symbolic and spiritual meaning as a gesture of fraternal love and communion.

The Church of Christ is a communion, and fraternal relations between Christians and churches are an essential expression of this communion, which already unites us to God in virtue of the common faith and one baptism.

After a long period during which, due to external difficulties, these visits could not be undertaken, the Second Vatican Council established a new starting point and the exchange of visits between local churches of the West and the East has become very frequent.

Among all these visits, most significant in fact are those carried out between the two most important sees of Christianity, at the initiative of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I.

They have become habitual on the occasion of important feasts of patron saints of the Church of Rome and of Constantinople, and in some cases it was not just official delegations but visits carried out by their highest representatives. Let's remember that Paul VI visited the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1967, and Pope John Paul II did so in 1979.

On this occasion, Benedict XVI's visit to the patriarch of Constantinople for the feast of St. Andrew is a sign of gratitude for the visit made by Patriarch Bartholomew I to the Bishop of Rome on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 2005.

Q: Is there a common model of unity in the Church recognized by Orthodox and Catholics or is it still to be identified?

Father Cereti: An ecclesiological model already exists, and it also goes back to the Church of apostolic times.

It is the model of "koinonia": The Church of Christ is a "koinonia," a communion, and it lives this communion in the dimensions just mentioned: in the common faith, based on the one revelation; on the one sacred Scripture, and expressed in the symbols of faith of the early Church; in sacramental life, and in particular in baptism, door of entry to ecclesial communion, and in the Eucharist, supreme visible sign of ecclesial communion.

And, finally, the life of charity of the whole Christian people, life of charity that is exercised in multiple ways and which is realized under the guidance of the ordained ministry, and in particular of the episcopate, which, in fact, has the task of being at the service of ecclesial communion.

On this model of communion, Catholics and Orthodox today are in agreement. Such a communion is expressed in the synodal character, or in episcopal collegiality, but at all levels of this synodal character there is a "protos," a first, a president or moderator of the synod or of the council.

Also at the level of the universal Church, a ministry must exist which is called to preside in charity over the communion of the universal Church.

Catholics believe that this task is entrusted to the Bishop of Rome, but the Orthodox also acknowledge that the day that communion between East and West is reestablished, the Bishop of Rome would again take up the place that is recognized for him according to the tradition of the ancient Church between bishops and patriarchs.

Q: Was the schism of 1054 in response to problems of doctrine and faith, or rather to political-cultural problems and to the fact that the mentality of Easterners and Westerners was quite different?

Father Cereti: The separation between East and West is the result of an evolution in the separation of the two parts of Europe, East and West, which took place in the course of many centuries and which led to the growth of two very different cultures, which expressed themselves in different languages, Greek and Latin, and which forged mentalities that were clearly different.

Already in the first millennium there was incomprehension and periods of interruption of the communion between Rome and the East.

The date 1054 is a symbolic date and the mutual excommunication that took place then must be erased from the memory of the Churches as such and has been requested in the 1965 Joint Declaration of Rome and Constantinople.

Unfortunately, the 1054 separation grew deeper in the following centuries, in part because of the Crusades, especially the fourth Crusade of 1204, creating a profound groove between the two Churches. The communication difficulties of past centuries contributed to making mutual prejudices more rigid and at the same time the lack of knowledge of the other side made for a lack of love for the other.

Nevertheless, the separation has never been total; the two Churches have continued to recognize one another as such and in 1439 in Florence mutual communion was re-established in a council that was not understood by the populations and for that reason was not accepted by the Christian people.

Today we could simply reestablish communion with the reception -- even if tardy -- of the decisions of Florence.

In any case, the doctrinal reasons did not justify the separation: Adduced for centuries was the doctrinal motive of the addition of the "filioque" clause in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed on the part of the Western Church, but the Catholic Church has solemnly declared today, for example in "Dominus Iesus," that she professes the same faith of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol in its original form, without the "filioque" clause, which remains as a liturgical addition of the Latin Church and which, however, was never recognized by the Greek-Catholic Churches.

The real great difficulty is the recognition of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. However, this difficulty does not affect that much the principle of the Petrine ministry, but rather the way in which the exercise of this ministry takes place. On this issue it is not impossible to find agreement, as Pope John Paul II wrote in the encyclical "Ut Unum Sint."

Q: It is known that the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches continues to advance. Personally, do you expect an important gesture shortly?

Father Cereti: Personally, every day I expect a nice surprise and it is not to be excluded that it might occur on this visit of Benedict XVI to the Patriarchate of Constantinople: A joint declaration is expected on Nov. 30 that might point to a significant progress.

The Holy Spirit is changing Christians' hearts, who increasingly recognize themselves as brothers and sisters in the one faith in Christ beyond all divisions and who do not tolerate this condition of separation in a Europe and a world that are unifying and in which we must address together the challenges of the future, above all of dialogue with the other great religious traditions of humanity.

The Lord Jesus is calling us to full communion with himself and among ourselves and, only united will we be able to give witness to the world of the credibility of the Christian faith and of the reality of the love of God who has filled out hearts with his love, through the Holy Spirit which he has given to us (Romans 5:5).

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