Pope Francis surprised the world when, speaking to an international gathering of priests in Rome on June 12, he announced that the Catholic Church was “ready to renounce” its method of calculation of the date of Easter in order to reach an agreement with the Orthodox Church, so that all Christian churches can celebrate Easter on the same day.
Picking up on what his predecessors from Paul VI onward proposed, his offer would have a greater impact than theirs. It extends not just to the Orthodox but to all the Eastern churches in the Middle East. Francis wants all the Christian churches to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on the same day.
His offer of renunciation brought to mind something that Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., then archbishop of Milan, told me in the mid-1990s, when in an interview I asked him what he considered the greatest obstacle to Christian unity. His reply: “the spirit of possessiveness.” He explained that none of the Christian churches wanted to lose anything of what they each possessed; each one wanted to hold onto all it had. He rated that as the main obstacle to unity; whereas he believed that what is really needed is the spirit of kenosis, the emptying of oneself. Francis has now taken that kenotic step—the latest but probably not the last in his effort to reach unity with the Orthodox.
He began the walk to unity with the Orthodox on the night of his election, when he appeared on the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time and called himself bishop of Rome, not pope. He has continued that journey ever since.
That first public gesture less than an hour after his election so impressed the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, that he decided to attend the ceremony for the inauguration of Francis’ pontificate. It was the first time in history that an Orthodox patriarch attended such an event. It marked the beginning of what has developed into a very deep and close relationship between the two Christian leaders, marked by warm friendship and mutual esteem.
On that occasion Bartholomew invited the Argentine pope to join him in Jerusalem for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the historic meeting between Patriarch Athenagoras and Paul VI in January 1964, which opened a new chapter in Catholic-Orthodox relations. Francis agreed. The two leaders met in private in Jerusalem for some hours on May 26, 2014 and later prayed together at an ecumenical service in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. The good chemistry between them was visible to everyone present, including America’s correspondent.
During their encounter in Jerusalem, Patriarch Bartholomew issued a second invitation to Francis, this time to join him for the celebration of the feast of St. Andrew, the brother of St. Peter, at the Phanar, Istanbul, on Nov. 30, 2014. Francis joyfully accepted. This new encounter began the previous evening, when the bishop of Rome joined the patriarch at a solemn prayer service in the Church of St. George and, at the end of it, went and bowed his head in front of Bartholomew and asked for his blessing. This act of humility made a big impact on the Orthodox.
More recently, Francis invited Bartholomew to be one of the presenters of his encyclical, but having a prior commitment he sent instead Metropolitan John of Pergamon.
The pope believes in “doing” ecumenism, not talking about it—hence his offer of renunciation of the Roman method for calculating Easter (following the Gregorian calendar of 1582) and his readiness to reach an agreed date with the Orthodox (who follow the Julian calendar of 46 B.C.), so that the Christian churches in Constantinople, Moscow and Rome can celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the same day.
On the same quest for unity, Francis has reached out more than once to Patriarch Kiril of Moscow, expressing his desire to meet and talk with him at a venue of the patriarch’s choosing. Kiril has not yet agreed to do so, but he has praised the direction Francis has taken as bishop of Rome and expressed appreciation for the stance taken by the Holy See, under his leadership, on the conflict in Ukraine. Francis waits patiently. He hopes, moreover, that the Pan-Orthodox Synod in 2016 may accept his offer about Easter.