Upon This Rock

John Paul II has challenged the leaders of the Christian world to help him find a new way of exercising his ministry of unity.

text by Chorbishop John D. Faris, J.C.O.D.
photographs by Arturo Mari

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On 7 December 1965, Bishop Jan Willebrands read to the fathers of Vatican II the declaration of Pope Paul VI lifting the excommunication that the ambassadors of Pope Leo IX had imposed on the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, in 1054. At the same time, in the Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint George in Constantinople, the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate lifted the anathemas imposed on the papal ambassadors in 1054 by Patriarch Michael Cerularius and the patriarchal synod of Constantinople.

It is usually said that the rift between the churches of Rome and Constantinople was caused by these 11th-century mutual ex-communications. Therefore it would seem that the mutual lifting of the 900-year-old censures had finally healed the rupture of communion. Lamentably, this was not to be the case; the churches that parted ways at the beginning of the millennium remain apart as the millennium draws to a close.

The reason why the lifting of the censures did not result in the reestablishment of full communion between the two churches was that the separation was not a result of any one event, but of the gradual erosion between them. Surprisingly, 11th century observers did not consider the churches separated. Rather, the mutual excommunications were regarded more as disputes between the heads of the two churches – one of whom, Pope Leo IX, died before the excommunications had been declared.

One of the causes of the estrangement of these churches has to do with the different understandings of “church” that had evolved in the churches of the West and the East.

Universal Church. The Church of Rome had come to view the church as the universal communion of Christians presided over by the Bishop of Rome. While the Bishop of Rome had always enjoyed a primacy of honor among all the bishops, this primacy was not always understood as a superior authority over all the bishops. In the West the barbarian invasions had eroded the effectiveness of the secular authority. To fill this vacuum of authority, the Bishop of Rome assumed many powers that had traditionally been exercised by the Roman emperor.

From the fifth-century pontificate of Leo I, the Church of Rome described the primacy of the Bishop of Rome – the “Successor of Peter, Prince of the Apostles” – as authority over all the bishops and faithful.

The scriptural basis for this concept of primacy is the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16:18-20. This is the only occasion in which the Gospels record the word “church” on the lips of Jesus. He addresses these words to Simon: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)

In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, the phrase is a play on words: kepa means both “rock” and “Peter,” hence, “You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” As the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome was given the keys of the Kingdom; whatever he bound on earth would be bound in heaven and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19).

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Tags: Unity Catholic Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Pope John Paul II