The Patriarch of Constantinople’s official communiqué on the abdication of Pope Benedict is now available in full. It is a warm and glowing tribute to his fellow worker in the vineyard, and testimony to the great leap forward in relations with the Orthodox churches. It is reproduced in full below:
It is with regret that we have learned of the decision by His Holiness Pope Benedict to retire from his Throne, because with his wisdom and experience he could have provided much more to the Church and the world.
Pope Benedict leaves an indelible mark on the life and history of the Roman Catholic Church, sealed not only by his brief papacy, but also by his broad and longstanding contribution as a theologian and hierarch of his Church, as well as his universally acknowledged prestige.
His writings will long speak of his deep theological understanding, through his knowledge of the Fathers of the undivided Church, his familiarity with contemporary reality, and his keen interest in the problems of humankind.
We Orthodox will always honor him as a friend of our Church and a faithful servant of the sacred proposition for the union of all. Moreover, we shall rejoice upon learning of his sound health and the productivity of his theological work.
Personally, we remember with emotion his visit to the See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over six years ago, together with the numerous encounters and excellent cooperation, which we enjoyed throughout the duration of his primatial ministry.
From the Phanar, we pray that the Lord will manifest his worthy successor as the head of the sister Church of Rome, and that we may also continue with this successor on our common journey toward the unity of all unto the glory of God.
The wording of this statement seems very significant, for its naunces are very positive indeed. There is the clear appreciation of Benedict personally: his “wisdom”, his “theological understanding”, “friend of our Church”, etc. But there is also some subtle acknowledgment of a renewed understanding of the papacy for the Orthodox. His mention of Benedict’s “primatial ministry” could of course be construed as referring merely to him as primate of the western, or Roman, Church, and those Churches in communion with it. But that is not a wholly satisfying explanation; in this context there is no real need to mention it. So it could, perhaps, signal a willingness of the Orthodox to renew its understanding of the primatial role of the papacy, which the Orthodox accept already, though in a more restricted sense. On paper, the Orthodox would accept the Pope, all things being equal, as first among equals, and probably as a court of final appeal in matters doctrinal and (maybe) even jurisdictional. In light of the concluding paragraph, one could justifiably conclude that Patriarch Bartholomew is signalling that they wish to continue the progress towards the restoration of communion that has prospered under Pope Benedict.
Pope Benedict is ecumenical in the best and truest sense of the word. May God allow us to build further on these newly-strengthened foundations.