By SUZAN FRASER, Associated Press
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, headed Monday for the Vatican to attend Pope Francis's 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.
"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."
The Roman Catholic and Orthodox 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 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, welcomed 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.
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.