Orthodox Oriental Co-President of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue
between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches

23 January 2024, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas


We are grateful to God and to all His faithful laborers who made it possible to have 20 meetings for our Joint Commission, which we celebrate on this occasion. In this time, we also commemorated 50 years of modern relationship between Oriental Orthodox Churches and Roman Catholic Church, when Pope Paul VI invited many of our leaders to Tome after hundreds of years of separation. In approaching these milestones, we felt it necessary to start this year by reflecting on the events of these five decades of discussions. I doubt those leaders 50 years ago did not anticipate the fruitful work that has come about since then.

As it is mentioned in our preface to the commemorative book, “Twenty years is both the age of youth and the age of first assessments, the age of all possibilities.” In the Book of Exodus those 20 and above were required to give offerings to the Lord (Exodus 30:11-15), in the book of Numbers they would be required to fight for Israel (Numbers 1:1–3), and in the Gospel of Luke we are told it is the age of those counted in the census (Lk. 2:42-43). An age of challenge, responsibility, accountability, and certainly possibility.

While there are many avenues of exploration and study to make in such evaluation, I would like in my brief time here to focus on 3 essential factors for successful and fruitful dialogue: (1) relationship between our churches, (2) open and thorough theological dialogue, and (3) pastoral issues. I will briefly give examples of how these three factors have pushed and pulled our churches towards and away from each other over the years. My hope is that this brief reflection may help us in moving forward so that we can be more effective and fruitful in our discussions.


1. Relationships between our Churches.

The first five centuries of Christianity our churches were one in faith and spirit. In 2009 and 2010, our Joint Commission explored aspects of our communion and reception of councils in these first five centuries. It recognized how “Signs of this communion included the exchange of synodical letters and letters of enthronement, the veneration of common saints, the exchange of visits and, above all, sharing in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist.”[1] The goal behind this was to better understand how we dealt with one another in the early centuries, as a model for the future.

The entire work of this commission was propelled by the cordial relationship between our patriarchs. This primarily begins with Pope Paul VI, who received Catholicos Khoren I from May 8-11, 1967. This continued with the Mar Ignatius Yacoub III of the Syrian Orthodox, who visited Pope Paul VI from October 24-27 in 1971, and  the meeting between Pope Paul VI and H.H. Pope Shenouda IIII of the Coptic Orthodox Church from May 4-10, 1973. These visits  were instrumental in establishing the Joint Commission, which set forth the groundwork for much of what we do today. Since that time, our relationship with the Catholic Church has ebbed and flowed for many reasons. And I think it is necessary and valuable to explore those reasons. What things led to these tensions, and similarly what things resolved them? You will not find these in our reports or joint statements, but in the stories behind those documents.

One may argue that our churches are closer than they have ever been. Last May, HH Pope Tawadros II visited HH Pope Francis to commemorate 50 years after the visit of HH Pope Shenouda III to HH Pope Paul VI, and 10 years after the first visit between the newly elected Pope Tawadros and Pope Francis. It was indeed an unprecedented celebration.

One aspect that has brought our churches together has been focused on the relics and stories of the saints. At the request of St. Pope Kyrillos VI in 1968, HH Pope Paul VI gifted a portion of the relics of St Mark the Evangelist to the Coptic Church, having returned to Egypt after many centuries. At that time the request for relics of St Athanasius was also received, but was not prepared and presented to the Coptic Church until the visit of HH Pope Shenouda III in 1973. And in the most recent visit of 2023, HH Pope Tawadros received the relics of St Katherine of Alexandria, and then gifted some of the belongings of the 21 Martyrs of Egypt. These relics have been venerated since that time, and always a visible memory of the relationship between our churches.


2. Theological Issues

Our dialogue and this Joint Commission was established primarily to resolve the many issues between our churches that have led to this division. In the first few decades of discussion the primary issue discussed was Christology. In 2003, the preparatory committee set forth the “workplace, agenda, membership, procedures, methodologies and timetable” for the Joint Commission. The agenda included a list of issues that were necessary to address in the coming years. There have been many examples of theological issues that have been significantly addressed by our dialogue, and areas of commonality that we did not anticipate (eucharist, priesthood, etc.). When a major concern has arisen since that time, it has been added to this list for discussion. 

As a result the Joint Commission succeeded in drafting 3 important documents: (1) Nature, Constitution, and Mission of the Church (2009), (2) The Exercise of Communion the Life of the Early Church and Its Implications for Our Search for Communion (2015), and (3) Sacraments in the Life of the Church (2023).

One issue that threatened our dialogue for several years came in 1994 when a Christological agreement with another church contradicted our own Christological agreement with the Catholic Church.

Another challenge is lack of a clear methodology to resolve dividing issues.  Prior to 2003, our methodological approach was to discuss and debate issues until a common understanding could be made, then formalized in a document or statement. This was the format primarily for the pressing Christological issues that have been with us since the time of Chalcedon. Then, the Filioque was explored with 3 papers in 1990, and again in 1992 (5th and 6th meetings of the Joint Commission). Yet this issue not been discussed for 30 years, and the original papers and discussions are unknown to most of the current members of the Joint Commission. This means that much has to be redone. The same can be said regarding the issue of Primacy, which was dealt with in the Pro Oriente Study Seminar in 1994.

In 2003, a new methodology was proposed in which papers are presented by both sides, followed by questions and answers.[2] Finally a concluding report is made which summarizes these points of agreement and discussion. Yet, this methodology was limited in resolving and addressing dividing issue of contentious debate such as the salvation of non-believers (2015) and non-sacramental marriages (2019). Such issues need to be revisited and examined in depth until we can reach some resolution or path moving forward.  


3. Pastoral Issues


At the start of the dialogue pastoral issues were not initially at the forefront of discussion. The primary focus was theological. Yet, as our churches became closer in the first and second elements discussed above, the pastoral issues came to the forefront.

The first one was proselytism, which was discussed in the meetings since 1976. As the Pro Oriente Study Seminar in 1994 stated, “…the dialogue has been interrupted because of the proselytism that the Catholic Church is practising in Egypt until today, in spite of the excellent relations between Alexandria and Rome.”[3] This statement demonstrates of how relationships between the churches can be very cordial on an international level, yet so tense and divisive at a local level. Eventually, this tension led to a stop to the dialogue for several years. Even though the dialogue officially resumed in 2004 (after preparatory meetings in 2003), later meetings of the Joint Commission in 2006 and 2010 again raised the issue of proselytism confronting our various churches.

At the present time we face a real and serious issue relating to the concepts of marriage, baptism, and blessings. We cannot underestimate the impact these issues can have in our dialogue. In 2003, our holy synod decided to stop our dialogue with the Anglican Church due to similar challenges. Recently it has resumed but not in theological or dogmatic terms, but simply in terms of exchange of visits and relationships.

Thus, it is hoped that after a thorough examination of the 50 years of discussions between our churches in these three aspects can yield even more fruit in our journey towards unity in the coming years.




[1] Seventh Meeting Report (Antelias, Lebanon, 2010), p. 1.



[2] “Methodological Considerations for Presenting Papers” (2010).



[3] Republished in Maged Attia, “The Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement,” (Cairo: Bishopric of Youth Affairs, 2001) p. 145.