Cardinal Kurt Koch has just returned from a meeting in Amman where he served as co-president of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. A communique released on Wednesday reflects the difficulties the two sides encountered in the search for agreement on the theme ‘Synodality and Primacy’ which has been at the heart of the discussions since a 2007 plenary meeting in Ravenna, Italy.
During the week-long meeting which concluded on Tuesday, members of the Commission visited a refugee centre in Amman where they heard first-hand the stories of those who have fled the fighting and persecution by Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad also attended the meeting and expressed his support for the dialogue, despite the current difficulties it is facing.
Philippa Hitchen sat down with Cardinal Koch to find out more about the meeting and about his hopes for progress in Catholic-Orthodox relations…..
Cardinal Koch says the first sign of progress is that “all are ready and willing to continue our dialogue and that we will provide a new step, a new coordination committee, in the next year for preparing a new plenary”. After discussion about the text that was prepared by the coordination committee in Paris, he says, it was clear the text could not be accepted, above all by the Orthodox side. During the week the Commission then prepared a new text about the most important elements of ‘synodality and primacy in the first millennium as a source of imagination for rediscovering the unity in primacy and synod in the third millennium’. At the end of the meeting, he says, the Orthodox side did not agree to publish this text, but rather to give this text to the coordination committee for further discussion…..”we hope,” he says, “that the next plenary can finish this text.”
Asked about a timeframe for the next meetings, the Cardinal says there will be a meeting of the coordination committee next year and in 2016 the Orthodox leaders will be taken up with a planned a pan-orthodox Synod so the next plenary may not be held until 2017. He adds that he hopes the pan-orthodox Synod can help to create unity between the Orthodox churches …”because this result will be a good condition for the continuation of our dialogue”.
Speaking of the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Cardinals says they accept the question of primacy on the universal level “ in a pragmatic view and not in a theological view”…..but during this plenary he says there was “very good cooperation… above all Metropolitan Hilarion was ready and willing to be a member of the drafting committee and also agreed to finish and publish this text.”
Asked about the planned visit of Pope Francis to Istanbul at the end of November, Cardinal Koch says the visit can help deepen the dialogue with Constantinople, though he says relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate are already very good: “His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew is very open and very helpful for me, because we have some tendencies in the dialogue, also on the Catholic side, to say there’s no possibility of continuing our theological dialogue about primacy, we must have another issue. But the Patriarch always says no, this theological commission must continue this work, so I think the Pope’s visit can be a good help for the continuation of our dialogue.”
Asked about the witness of Catholic and Orthodox Christians who are suffering and dying together in the Middle East today, the Cardinal says he had hoped for “a better sign of unity” between Orthodox and Catholics, though he adds that all members and all people are very concerned about the situation, above all in Iraq and Syria. He says the King of Jordan is very open to receive up to a million refugees and he talks about their visit to a refugee camp : “this was a very hard experience to meet these people and see their fears, but also their hope and joy. One person said we can’t return to Iraq, not because we’ve lost our apartment, but we’ve lost our church and this is our homeland. This closeness to the church is a beautiful sign….”