There are two intriguing facts about Pope Francis which go generally unreported in the media coverage of him.
One is the fact that, as a result of a bout of deadly pneumonia in his youth, he has only one lung.
The other is that, while serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he also served as the ordinary for all Eastern Catholics in Argentina without a prelate for their rite. This may not sound like the snappiest title, but it is deeply important because of how it reveals the Holy Father’s experience with and understanding of the Eastern tradition of Christianity, and with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation looming on the horizon, we are all called to prayerfully reflect on the unity to which Christ calls his church.
St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, famously said that the church needs to “breathe with both her lungs.” This does not just mean the East and West need to re-form a juridical reunion (the recent Pan-Orthodox Council does not inspire one with confidence that any such union between the Orthodox themselves is imminent, let alone between them and Rome), but also that their theology, their worship, and their respective experiences must inform each other. This is where Francis’ experience with Eastern Catholics becomes important.
Obviously his ecology owes a great (and acknowledged) debt to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (see Laudato Si’ 7-9), but his recent gestures with regard to holy matrimony also become much more understandable when looked at through a Byzantine lens. The East and West have slightly different conceptions of marriage; while in the West the sacrament is given by the spouses to each other by means of lifelong, binding vows, in the East it is a sacrament dispensed by a priest, like most other sacraments; vows are not even a part of their wedding ritual. In accordance with this, the East allows — after a properly penitential liturgy — for the possibility of a second marriage after
Why is this important?
In the midst of all the discussion of the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried, many missed the fact that Francis also changed canon law such that now a priest must officiate at any wedding involving an Orthodox or Eastern Catholic spouse. This seemingly minor gesture is actually a strong acknowledgment of the Eastern theology of marriage, and, with that door opened, is it not possible that his gestures toward communing the divorced and remarried are a peek into the doorway?
If so, it removes an impediment to unity, which is important for a lot of reasons. One of these is geopolitical: any peaceful world order must include Russia, and whatever you think of Russia, you cannot understand it (or Putin’s cultural initiatives) without understanding how deeply rooted her existence is in her religion. There will be no national unity between East and West without a prior ecclesial unity. But another is evangelistic: the postmodern mind is often more receptive to the Eastern way of explaining controversial doctrines like the atonement or hell than the familiar Latin formulations. And Francis is, if nothing else, an evangelistic pope.
Besides, he knows better than anyone how hard it is to breathe with only one lung.
Fawcett is a master’s student at Newmal Theological College in Edmonton.