Let's begin with the Churches of the first millennium. Already in the first ten years of dialogue with the pre-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches, or the period between 1980 and 1990, we achieved important results. Thanks to the agreement reached by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II with the respective patriarchs, it was possible to move beyond the ancient Christological controversies that rose up around the Council of Chalcedon (451) and, in regard to the Assyrian Church of the East, around the Council of Ephesus (381).
In its second phase, dialogue was focused on ecclesiology, or on the concept of ecclesial communion and its criteria. The next meeting is planned for Damascus, from January 27 to February 2, 2008. It is there that discussions will be held for the first time on the draft of a document on "The nature, constitution, and mission of the Church." Thanks to this dialogue, Churches of ancient tradition, and even of apostolic tradition, are again establishing contact with the universal Church, after living on its fringes for 1500 years. That this should happen slowly, step by step, is completely normal given the circumstances, or the long centuries of separation and the great differences of culture and mentality.
Dialogue with the Orthodox Churches of the Byzantine, Syrian, and Slavic traditions was begun officially in 1980. We share with these Churches the dogmas of the first millennium; the Eucharist and the other sacraments; the veneration of Mary, mother of God, and of the saints; the episcopal structure of the Church. We consider these Churches, together with the ancient Eastern Churches, as sister Churches of the local Catholic churches. Differences already existed in the first millennium, but at that time they were not perceived as a cause of division within the Church. The real and proper separation took place through a long process of estrangement and alienation, cased by a lack of mutual understanding and love, as Vatican Council II observed (UR 14). What is happening today is therefore, necessarily, a reverse process of mutual reconciliation.
The most important steps were taken during the Council. We must recall, for example, the meeting and exchange of correspondence between Pope Paul VI and the ecumenical patriarch Athenagoras, the famous "Tomos apapis," and the erasing from the Church's memory of the reciprocal excommunications of 1054, on the day before the conclusion of the Council. On this basis, it was possible to revive some forms of ecclesial communion from the first millennium: the exchange of visits, messages, and missives between the pope and the patriarch, especially the ecumenical patriarch; the cordial coexistence and collaboration of many local churches; the permission granted by the Catholic Church for the liturgical use of its places of worship by Orthodox Christians who live among us in diaspora, as a token of hospitality and communion. During the Angelus message delivered on the occasion of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that we are already in nearly full ecclesial communion with these Churches. In the first ten years of dialogue, from 1980 to 1990, there was an emphasis and focus upon what we have in common in regard to the sacraments (the Eucharist above all) and the episcopal and priestly ministry. Nonetheless, the political upheaval of 1989-90 complicated our relations instead of simplifying them. The return of the Eastern Catholic Churches to public life, after years of brutal persecution and heroic resistance paid even at the price of blood, was seen by the Orthodox Churches as the threat of a new "uniatism." Thus, during the 1990's, in spite of the important clarifications brought by the meetings in Balamand (1993) and Baltimore (2000), dialogue stagnated. The crisis became more severe above all in relations with the Russian Orthodox Church after the canonical establishment of four [Catholic] dioceses in Russia in 2002. Thanks be to God, after many patiently conducted efforts it was possible to resume dialogue last year; in 2006, a meeting was held in Belgrade, and about a month ago we met again in Ravenna. On this occasion, there has been a decisive improvement at the level of atmosphere and relationships, in spite of the departure of the Russian delegation for inter-Orthodox reasons. Thus has begun a promising third phase of dialogue. The document from Ravenna, entitled "The ecclesiological and canonical consequences of the sacramental nature of the Church," marked an important breakthrough. For the first time, our Orthodox counterparts recognized a universal level of the Church, and admitted that at this level, too, there exists a protos, a primate, who can only be the bishop of Rome, according to the taxis [hierarchy] of the ancient Church. All of the participants are aware that this is only a first step, and that the journey to full ecclesial communion will still be long and difficult; nevertheless, with this document, we have laid a foundation for future dialogue. The theme that will be addressed in the next plenary session will be: "The role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium." Specifically in regard to the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, relations have been noticeably smoothed over in recent years. We could say that there is no longer a freeze, but a thaw. From our point of view, a meeting between the Holy Father and the patriarch of Moscow would be helpful. The Patriarchate of Moscow has never excluded such a meeting categorically, but maintains that before this it is opportune to resolve the problems that exist, in its view, in Russia, and above all in Ukraine. It must in any case be remembered that many meetings take place on other levels. Among these, we mention the recent visit of Patriarch Alexius to Paris, considered by both sides as an important step.
To sum up, we can affirm that there is still be the need for a continual purification of historical memory and for many prayers so that, on the common foundation of the first millennium, we may succeed in healing the fracture between East and West, and in restoring full ecclesial communion. In spite of the difficulties that remain, there is the strong and legitimate hope that, with the help of God and thanks to the prayer of so many of the faithful, the Church, after the division of the second millennium, will return in the third to breathing with both its lungs.
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