Addressing Catholic and Orthodox leaders in Rome today, Pope Francis acknowledged that many of them belong to churches that witness on a daily basis the spread of violence and “brutality perpetrated by fundamentalist extremism”.
Wherever there is violence and conflict, Christians are called to work patiently to restore concord and hope, he told the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The commission was holding its 14th meeting since its inception in 2003.
Francis was speaking shortly after Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, in an interview with France’s Catholic weekly Famille Chretienne, urged Catholic and Orthodox leaders to “speak with one voice”. “We act separately on many occasions. The Pope makes a statement and the Patriarch [Kirrill] says the same, but they each do it alone. I firmly believe their message would be more powerful if they both spoke with a single voice”, Metropolitan Hilarion said.
However Francis’ analysis of the origins of the spread of violence differs in important respects from the Orthodox analysis. Francis today pointed to social injustice as a major factor. “Situations of such tragic suffering more easily take root in the context of great poverty, injustice and social exclusion,” he claimed, “due to instability created by partisan interests, often from elsewhere”.
His remedy was for the Churches “to sow concord and to work patiently to restore hope by offering the consoling peace that comes from the Lord, a peace we are obliged together to bring to a world wounded and in pain.”
Metropolitan Hilarion in his interview with Famille Chretienne, pointed to the decline of religious belief in Europe as the first problem that the Churches need to address together. “Our Christian identity gives us a strength stemming from God and Christ, when the secularised societies typical of Europe can be described as spiritually weak,” he said.
Patriarch Kirill for his part has often spoken of the “catastrophe taking place in Western Europe” because of the “enormous efforts today being made to prevent primarily the Christians from authentic understanding of the Divine moral law”.
This position is more in line with the joint declaration made by Francis and Kirill when they met in Havana on 12 February last year, when the two leaders spoke of the importance of working together against persecution of Christians.
“Our gaze must firstly turn to those regions of the world where Christians are victims of persecution,” the statement said. “In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.
"Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed. It is with pain that we call to mind the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, and the massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities.
“We call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East.”
However, on the importance of the continuing gifts of Christian martyrs, the two Churches do speak with one voice.
“May the Christian communities be sustained by the intercession and example of our many martyrs and saints who bore courageous witness to Christ,” Francis told the joint commission today. “They show us the heart of our faith, which does not consist in a generic message of peace and reconciliation but in Jesus himself, crucified and risen … The martyrs and saints of all ecclesial traditions are already one in Christ; their names are written in the one common martyrology of God’s Church.”