During his lecture on October 26, 2015, following the conferment of the title of Doctor in the “Culture of Unity” by Sophia University Institute, Bartholomew I recalled the history of relations between the two “sister” churches. Those relations had been marred by centuries of misunderstanding and, in time returned to the path towards unity with the lifting of the mutual excommunications and the steps taken by such figures as Paul VI and Athenagoras I whose legacy has been embraced by Bartholomew I. It is a path that has recently recalled the value of “synodality” as a key element in guiding the Church of Christ, and there were several occasions that expressed spiritual synergy. In his message, read by Cardinal Betori, Pope Francis addressed “the beloved brother Bartholomew” stressing “the common journey our Churches take towards full and visible unity, to which we aspire with dedication and perseverance.” The Patriarch was deeply touched by the Pope’s words and said he was “very” happy, confiding that he would “return to Istanbul stronger, more certain” knowing there was a “a brother in Rome who wished to work and pray with us to accelerate the unity of our churches” and to whom he responded with the “Kiss of Peace” invoking the prayer for a long life for Pope Francis.
The Patriarch’s words breathed a history that had gone from “the refusal to recognise the other as Christian” to the rise of “protagonists of the new springtime in the Church who would make unity the main focus of their pastoral activity for the good of all” and because of their single desire of “advancing the ways of God.” His words also breathed a future history in which both Church and human institutions would understand that “diversities are a gift and not contrapositions, richness and not imbalance, life and not death”
The ceremony was held in the Focolare town of Loppiano, Italy, where Sophia University Institute is located, and that day marked the opening of Sophia’s 8th academic year. More than a thousand people attended the extraordinary event with the presence of His Holiness Bartholomew I – several delegations from the Orthodox Church, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, civic leaders, a Muslim community and over 4 thousand viewers connected via internet.
The recognition statement presented to the Patriarch of Constantinople expressed gratitude “for his courageous, enduring and fruitful patience in favour of a culture of unity” of which he is a “beloved and listened-to protagonist on the international level, on the ecclesial level in the dialogue between the Churches, on the interreligious level in the encounter amongst different religious traditions and experiences, and on the cultural level in the collaboration amongst women and men of all beliefs who follow the path of universal brotherhood.” In an interview, Dr. Piero Coda, President of the Institute, went on to say – explaining the culture of unity – it is not a utopia, but an “inspiration through which Chiara Lubich understood that the charism of unity given to her by God, could also be expressed by culture. There is always a need for mediations, models, as Pope Francis says, a cultural revolution, to channel existence towards new frontiers. This is why Sophia University Institute was begun.”
Focolare president, Maria Voce, spoke for the whole Movement expressed to the Patriarch the joy and the honour of welcoming him to the town of Loppiano, mindful of the leading role he plays as a spiritual and intellectual figure, the value of his testimony and of his “calls to justice and the safeguarding of the environment which is our common home.” “Dialogue is our common priority,” Maria Voce continued, as she stated our wish to “pursue the path in total harmony of ideals and life witness.” Another step, recalled by Bartholomew I during an interview at the conclusion of the ceremony, was the November 2015 gathering in Istanbul, of Bishop Friends of the Focolare from different churches: “There,” he said, “we will be able to express our will to work for the unity of our Churches. We are glad and ready to welcome them and to exchange the Kiss of Peace between East and West.”
Unity in diversity was one of the “new terms” that were mentioned, and that University president Piero Coda strongly emphasised: “the Gospel is not uniformity, but appreciation of differences. Flowing from the same font, they are ‘unity’ precisely in the measure to which they enter into relation with one another; that is, that they mutually recognize the gifts that each of them carries. Therefore, diversity is the flower of unity when it is lived as a relationship, as fraternity, as communion.”
“And it is precisely in the acceptance of the diversity” – the Patriarch concluded – “through the dialogue of love, mutual respect, acceptance of the Other and our availability to welcome and be welcomed, that we will be able to become for the world icons of Christ and like Him, in unity, also be diversity.”