We are all aware that on Tuesday of this week, our Holy Father Pope Benedict begins a visit to the nation of Turkey and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who name is Bartholomew I. I have the impression that some of us in the west are a little fuzzy on just what is happening here and what it means.
To understand it more clearly, we must know something about geography, history, and theology. Let’s start with geography. Way down in the extreme south-east corner of Europe there is a series of waterways which connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea with the Black Sea, which gives access to Asia Minor, the Ukraine and Russia. Thus a ship could sail from London, let’s say, down the west coast of Europe, through the Straits of Gibraltar, through the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, the strait called the Dardanelles, the little Sea of Marmara, the strait of the Bosporus, and then out into the Black Sea. In the world before Christ, the people there built a city on the Bosporus which controlled trade, commerce and shipping between the western world and the enormous hinterland of eastern Europe and the land routes across Asia. The Roman Empire conquered that town, which was called Byzantium, and annexed it and its surrounding area to the empire in 196 A.D.
In the year 330, after the Roman Emperor Constantine had granted the Catholic Church permission to operate openly throughout the Roman Empire, he decided that the empire had grown too great, too unwieldy, and too difficult to govern. So he divided his empire into two parts: the western empire was Latin-speaking and would have its capital city in Rome. The eastern empire spoke Greek and would have its capital city in Byzantium, whose name was changed to Constantinople: the city of Constantine.
Shortly after that, however, the Barbarian tribes from northern and eastern Europe overran Rome, sacked it repeatedly, and reduced it to ruins. Thus within a short time, the western empire crumbled, and the Pope found himself presiding over the once-great and proud city of Rome — now in shambles both physically as well as politically. But in the east the city of Constantinople was prosperous, rich, and powerful. Trouble began to occur between east and west, especially between the religious world of the west, headed by the Pope in the ruined city of Rome and the religious world of the east, headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, as the archbishop there was called. Up to that time, the entire Catholic world had recognized the Pope as the successor of Saint Peter and therefore the head of the Church on earth. But now the wealthy, powerful, prosperous Christians of the east began to wonder why they should accept as their spiritual leader the bishop of Rome, living as he was in poverty and in a ruined political situation.
Added to that, there was the linguistic difference which can be so troublesome, as we know very well from the cases of the province of Quebec in Canada, the language divide in Belgium, and now our language differences with the millions Hispanics in our own country. Then theological differences began to appear: the eastern Christians accused the western Christians of changing the creed by adding the words “filio-que” to it, so that now in the west it stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father AND THE SON. This tragic drifting apart came to its climax in the year 1054, when the western Pope and the eastern Patriarch excommunicated one another. From that time until now, the two great religious groups, which are now called Catholic and Orthodox, have been separated in a situation which is called schism; the Orthodox do not recognize the Pope as their legitimate religious authority. To visit the Patriarch of Constantinople, who still lives in that city even though the city was overrun by Muslims in the year 1453 and is almost entirely Muslim today, is the reason for the Pope’s visit. The city’s name has been changed from Constantinople to Istanbul. It is in Europe, not Asia, occupying land which the Greeks insist is theirs and is being held by the Turks without justification.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.