My grandparents lived in an isolated farmhouse in the middle of a large holding in Northern Victoria, far from any main roads. Whenever, therefore, they heard the sound of a vehicle (a rather infrequent event), my Grandmother would call out to my Grandfather: “Looks like we’ve got a visitor, Dad!”
In some ways, the patriarchs of our various churches have been even more isolated than my grandparents were, but in these closing months of 2006 it looks like everyone is calling out: “Looks like we’ve got a visitor, Holy Father!”
The Archbishop of Canterbury is first cab off the ranks, on his first official visit to the Vatican. The statement released by the Pope and the Archbishop doesn’t hold out much hope for full visible unity between the Catholic and Anglican churches in the near, or indeed the far, future, but what it does state is that in this age of secularism, there is much that we can be getting on with together despite our differences. And to read what the Archbishop of Canterbury said with the Pope on life issues–including “promoting respect for life from conception until natural death”–that could be quite a bit.
Next it’s the Pope’s turn to go visiting. This week he has his first official visit with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholemew I, in Istanbul. Meetings between the Patriarch and the Pope are more common these days than they have been in the past. The first meeting following the Schism of 1054 was between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964 in Jerusalem; the last meeting was in 2001 when Bartholemew I visited JPII in Rome.) Nevertheless, this is a BIG THING.
Perhaps, on the scale of things, an even bigger thing (because he has jurisdiction over about three times as many people) is the expected visit of the head of the Greek Orthodox Church (yes, that’s right–the Greek Church is headed by the Archbishop of Athens, not the Patriarch of Constantinople), Arcbishop Christodoulos. whereJohn Paul II was the first Pope to meet with the Archbishop since the Schism in Athens in 2001, but this is the very first time that the Archbishop of Athens has made an official visit to the Pope in the Vatican since the Schism (not counting the fact that he was there for JPII’s funeral, which was not an “official visit”).
Of course, one visit that isn’t happening in the near future is the long hoped for visit of the Pope to the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II. The old pope died waiting for the invitation, and perhaps Papa Benny will too. But in the “on again, off again” relationship between Rome and Moscow, things seem to be moving in the direction of reconciliation, with both Metropolitan Kirill and Bishop Hilarion calling for some sort of alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. As with the Anglicans, here too it is a recognition that despite the differences between Rome and Moscow, what we have in common is far greater and far more urgent in the face of the threat of secularism. Nevertheless, even on this front there has been a “visit”, namely of the local Catholic Archbishop in Moscow, who had an audience with the Patriarch for the very first time on the 8th of November. Today the Archbishop, tomorrow the pope? Well, let’s hope so.