It was, in my view, a wonderful, marvelous thing that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew attended today’s ceremony in Rome in which Pope Francis officially took office. Here’s what it means, according to George Democopoulos:
Prior to the sixth century, the election of a Roman bishop was a local affair. In most cases, the new pope was chosen from among the city’s clergy and was typically either the eldest priest or the eldest deacon. There were a few exceptions, but this was the typical pattern. News of an election would circulate throughout the Christian world but that news flow would have been too slow to enable high-ranking Church officials from the East to travel to Rome for the event.
During the sixth century, Byzantine armies conquered the Italian peninsula, returning the city of Rome to the imperial Roman government, now centered in Constantinople. In this context, which lasted from the mid-sixth century until the loss of Byzantine influence in Italy in the eighth century, the election of a new Roman bishop required the approval of the Byzantine emperor (the same, of course, was true of the election of a new Ecumenical Patriarch). Under such an arrangement, papal elections took longer but there still would be no reason for an Eastern Patriarch to travel to Rome for the installation.
There are a few examples from this Byzantine period, such as the election of Pope Pelagius I in 556, where the man elected to be the Roman bishop was actually in Constantinople at the time of his election. While it is possible that the sacramental ceremony to install the new pope could have occurred in Constantinople—whereby the Patriarch of Constantinople would have been present—it is far more likely that the official ceremony would have occurred in Rome and, therefore, would have been conducted without the Patriarch’s presence.
At the conclusion of Byzantine influence in papal elections in the eighth century, the election of Roman bishops returned, again, to local considerations. And, as geo-political factors continued to push Italy and the Eastern empire in separate directions, relations between individual popes and patriarchs became more sterile and distant—indeed, between the ninth and fifteenth century there are only one or two occasions where a Roman bishop and an Ecumenical Patriarch ever met in person.
With all of this in mind, His All-Holiness’ decision to travel to Rome for Pope Francis’ installation as Roman bishop is an extraordinary event in the history of Christianity.
UPDATE: Watch this clip below of Pope Francis going through the crowds at St. Peter’s Square today. It gets real interesting just past the one-minute mark. Had me in tears by the end. Go, Pope Awesomeshark!