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Some See Unity Vision Reignited by Pope, Patriarch’s Gestures in Turkey

02 Dec 2014 – By Tom Tracy

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) — After watching firsthand as Pope Francis bowed his head for a blessing from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew during the pope’s 28-30 November trip to Turkey, an American-born Orthodox priest felt a joyful disbelief.

“I couldn’t sleep that night,” said Orthodox Father Emmanuel Lemelson, an American priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate who was part of the official Orthodox delegation during the papal visit to Turkey.

Father Lemelson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in theology and religious studies from the Jesuit-run Seattle University and master’s of divinity from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, told Catholic News Service that, as a young man, he fostered a vision that Catholics and Orthodox Christians would soon be reunited.

“Suddenly that vision has been reignited. I believe that Pope Francis is truly a great leader and has shown great humility, and that he is not afraid,” Father Lemelson said, adding that he thought the ecumenical meeting in Turkey was a sign of greater things to come, of more meetings and of moving things forward in the right direction.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1054 over differences on several matters, including the primacy of the papacy. The two churches have grown closer together in recent decades, but there are long-running tensions in Russia and Ukraine, especially between Orthodox faithful and Eastern Catholics, along with some internal resistance to ecumenical dialogue, especially among the Orthodox.

Before leaving Turkey, Pope Francis said he is ready to go anywhere, anytime to meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, even while acknowledging that Catholic and Orthodox theologians might be slow to agree to end the 1,000-year schism.

Father Lemelson speculated that the dwindling presence of Christians in Turkey and the Middle East, along with the persecution of Christianity in Turkey and elsewhere, is a cause for hastening the ecumenical dialogue and efforts toward greater unity.

Turkey is now 99.8 percent Muslim. Just across the border from Turkey, in Syria and Iraq, Christian minorities are being slaughtered or driven from their homes by militants of the Islamic State.

“I think this comes at a critical moment in history; this sign of unity is important to all Christians to put their nominal differences aside,” Father Lemelson said. “I really believe, based on Pope Francis’ statements and actions, that he has the proclivity and openness to seeking unity.”

Father Lemelson noted Pope Francis’ comment that ecumenical unity would not necessarily mean the Orthodox would have to accept conditions to that unity, except the shared profession of faith.

“Maybe it is because this church in Constantinople, in a region where there is incredible violence and where the church has shrunk [in numbers] — it is not inconceivable that the See might have to leave Istanbul. And makes you wonder if there is a silver lining in this unfortunate suffering, this ecumenism in blood.

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Tags: Pope Francis Unity Turkey Ecumenism Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I