Moran Baselios Marthoma Paulose II with Pope Francis during their meeting on Friday at the Vatican (AFP photo/Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis met with the head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, an Eastern rite independent church that counts around two million members, mostly in the Indian region of Kerala.
It dates its origin back to St Thomas the Apostle and was “rediscovered” by Europeans only when the Portuguese started setting up commercial bases in Southern India in the 15th century.
Catholicos Moran Baselios Marthoma Paulose II spent two days in Rome as part of a Europe-wide tour and had a 45-minute meeting with the pope on Thursday.
Both church leaders praised the progress of the ecumenical dialogue between the two churches in the past decades but didn't shy away from mentioning past and present tensions.
Francis acknowledged the “division and rivalry which have marked our past.”
The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has often criticized in the past the use of the title of Catholicos and Successor of St Thomas by the head of its Catholic counterpart, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, headed by Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, the youngest cardinal that elected Pope Francis in March 2013.
Some Orthodox Christians publicly expressed their hope that Pope Francis would address this controversy, after Pope Benedict had boosted the status of India's Catholic Eastern churches by bestowing the red hat to their leaders.
In their meeting, though, Pope Francis and Catholicos Paulose II seemed to skirt away from the controversy and focused instead on what the two churches can do together.
“Wherever possible and appropriate, we are willing to cooperate with our sister churches in ministering to the pastoral needs of the people, particularly the poor and the marginalized,” the Catholicos Paulose II said in an official speech delivered at the end of his private meeting with the pope.
“Some of the present pastoral issues may be resolved on the basis of the common tradition that existed before the unfortunate division in the Indian church in the 16th century,” he added, inviting the pope to visit India.
Both leaders also emphasized the dialogue between the two Churches, which dates back to the Second Vatican Council.
Francis encouraged the two Churches to work towards reconciliation and harmony through theological dialogue and by cultivating a “culture of encounter,” overcoming prejudices and closed attitudes.
In 1990, a joint commission was created between Catholics and Orthodox Syro-Malankars, which led to an agreement for “the common use of buildings of worship and cemeteries and the necessity to identify new forms of collaboration in the face of growing social and religious challenges.”
Visiting Rome last spring, the Rev Abraham Thomas, secretary of the Department of Ecumenical Relations of the Orthodox Syro-Malankara Church, said dialogue with Catholics and other Christians in Asia should focus on “making the ‘voice of the Holy Spirit’ clear to the world.”
He accused “institutionalized Churches” of “imitating the multinational companies” rather than working together to resist the social, environmental and cultural imbalances forced on communities by Western-led globalization.