They were just three little words – “and the son” – but when Pope Leo IX added them (in Latin – filioque) to the Nicene Creed in 1054, he triggered a schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches that would last more than 900 years.
This weekend, the Bishop of Rome – Pope Francis, spiritual leader of a billion Catholics – and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople – Bartholomew, first in honor among all Eastern Orthodox bishops and representing 300 million Orthodox Christians – will meet in Jerusalem to bury this great schism. The two religious leaders are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the meeting of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, who took the first step toward reconciliation when they shook hands in Jerusalem and ended the mutual excommunications issued by the Pope and Patriarch back in 1054.
It wasn’t just that the Orthodox Church objected to the spin those three words put on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in the all-important statement of Christian beliefs. The Eastern hierarchy also was disturbed by the fact that the Pope in Rome – asserting papal supremacy – had made this addition without properly consulting the church in Constantinople.
Except for one failed attempt at reconciliation in the 15th century, the two churches remained in a state of animosity – and sometimes of conflict – for 910 years. That ended in 1964. But, since then, progress has been slow in reconciling their differences and bringing the two sides closer together.
It was only last year that Bartholomew attended the inauguration of Francis as pope, the first time the head of the Orthodox Church had participated in a papal ceremony in almost 1,000 years. Bartholomew took the occasion to invite Francis to join him in Jerusalem to put meat on the ecumenical skeleton their predecessors had established 50 years ago. The often spontaneous Pope accepted and this weekend’s visit to the Holy Land is the somewhat surprising result.
Bartholomew said in a recent interview that 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 near 1,000-year divide. Hoping to rectify the need for unity, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are scheduled to meet four times during the Pope’s overnight stop in Jerusalem.
In the casual manner by which Francis has become known, the Pope is being accompanied on his visit by two old friends from Argentina: Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and a Muslim imam, Omar Abboud. At the last minute, the pontiff also agreed to be joined by Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai from Lebanon. The Patriarch, who is a cardinal in the Catholic Church, announced on his own he would join the Pope in Jordan on Saturday and travel with him to Jerusalem. The news raised eyebrows in the Vatican and temperatures in Lebanon since that country remains officially at war with Israel.