At a time when B Paul VI was dying, in 1977, Archbishop Donald Coggan made an official visit to Rome. Coggan, it seems, was in an emotional state. He had recently been to Papua New Guinea, where hordes of Catholics had received Communion at his hands, and the local Catholic Bishop, in floods of tears, had embraced him afterwards and said "It will be even better next time you come".
So, preaching in Rome, Coggan called, in effect, for 'Intercommunion' now. He did so as a good, deeply sincere and well-meaning Christian, of very Protestant origins, who had moved a great distance from his background. He simply did not realise how his peremptory, even if praiseworthy, call would be received. Perhaps he thought that this was the moment to cut through Gordian knots; a moment of Grace when a heart-felt call could move a 400 year old log-jam. Perhaps he believed in a God of Surprises!
I thought of Coggan as I watched those clips of Pope Francis seeking a blessing from the Ecumenical Patriarch, 'both for himself and for the Church of Rome'. Here was another good, deeply sincere and well-meaning Christian who was trying to make a dynamic gesture for that most worthy of causes, the Unity of God's people. My assumption is that he meant his request as a captatio benevolentiae: behold, the Successor of S Peter bows himself down to receive the blessing of another ... does not the Letter to the Hebrews make clear that the lesser is blessed by the greater? Had not his chum and 'fellow-bishop' Justin Welby been dead chuffed when he had been asked to bless the Bishop of Rome?
I do not think that this move had been checked out with His All-Holiness beforehand; the Patriarch's action of smiling and kissing the Pope's skull cap looked for all the world like the kindly, indulgent gesture of a wise parent whose impetuously unrealistic child had suddenly asked for a space-rocket in which to go to Pluto and back before nursery school tomorrow morning.
Why is this a tricky area?
There are sections of Orthodoxy which do not approve of gestural politics implying that Jorge Bergoglio is, for Orthodox, the canonical Bishop of Rome. Holding to their belief that Orthodoxy is the One (and only) Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, they neither understand nor sympathise with the whole ecumenical project. Some of them baptise converts from the Latin Church and even do this to former non-Orthodox who have already been received into another Orthodox jurisdiction by the sphragis. I wonder if the Experts of the Pontifical Council are keeping the Pope briefed on the progress of the petition which is at this moment collecting signatures from Greek clergy and academics who violently disagree with what did go on last month in the Phanar ... a document which has already secured the signatures of several metropolitans of the Church of Greece, and which raises the question of removing the name of Patriarch Bartholomew from the diptychs. Since a number of Greek bishoprics are still under the Patriarch and are not technically part of the Autocephalous Church of Greece, this could even involve contentious feelings among Orthodox Christians within Greece. One of these bishoprics is that of the Holy Mountain.
So, officially blessing the 'Church of Rome' (whether that means the Diocese of Rome or, by synecdoche, the whole 'Papic Church', is not very important) is an act about which any Ecumenical Patriarch might well wish to think extremely carefully. Francis probably intended his request to be seen as yet another example of his far-famed 'humility' without realising that there are Orthodox who would understand it as an aggressive and cunning plot to secure validation for the hairesis papike.
If the Holy Father did this without seeking professional advice from his ecumenical advisers in the PCCU, then I think that there ought to be someone in Rome with the guts to explain quietly to him, man to man, a few of the ecumenical complexities. Folks report that nobody says or does much in Rome these days because, if they are deemed to have put a foot wrong, they might find themselves in uncomfortable disfavour. When a game of musical chairs is going on among the Heads of Dicasteries, this may be an even more nervous time than usual. Fair enough. But is there nobody, apart from Burke, big enough to put the interests of the Church before their curial careers by making an individual approach to the Holy Father?
If, on the other hand, the Sovereign Pontiff had taken advice, and been given the OK, then I think some more curial heads, this time in the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, ought to roll.