Eastern Orthodox leaders told Pope Benedict XVI this week that they are ready to resume talks with the Vatican, the latest indication that both sides appear eager to mend a 950-year rift between the two churches.
Five years after dialogue degenerated into acrimony at a summit outside Baltimore, Orthodox leaders said Thursday that they are willing to engage the new pope's call to restore unity, even tackling the thorny issue of the primacy of the pope.
Combined with warming relations with Orthodox leaders in Moscow, a series of recent events signals that renewed ties between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity may be a hallmark of Benedict's young papacy, even though observers caution that a significant breakthrough is unlikely.
Indeed, in receiving the Orthodox delegation, Benedict said the renewed talks are not likely to end in "absorption [or] fusion" on either side.
Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas of Pergamon, who represented the spiritual leader of world Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Istanbul, told the pope that each of the 14 independent Orthodox churches has "responded positively" to naming new members to a stalled Catholic-Orthodox panel.
The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Catholic Church, established in 1980, has been on hiatus since talks broke down in 2000 at a meeting in Emmitsburg.
"This will allow us to resume our theological dialogue in the near future, concentrating now on crucial ecclesiological issues concerning, in particular, on the subject of primacy, the Petrine ministry in the church," Ioannis said.
Bartholomew and the late Pope John Paul II agreed last year to reactivate the talks, but Bartholomew had to gauge interest from the separate Orthodox churches.
The Rev. Archimandrite Robert Taft, professor emeritus at the Pontifical Institute for Oriental Studies and a longtime observer of Catholic-Orthodox relations, welcomed the resumption of dialogue but said it did not mark a "big breakthrough."
"This is very good, very positive. They've been doing a minuet ever since dialogue kind of hit the skids at Emmitsburg," he said. "Is it some great big breakthrough? Absolutely not, but it's better to talk than not to talk."
The American prelate said the problem at the last meeting "was not the Catholics fighting the Orthodox but the Orthodox fighting among themselves. I just hope the next meeting doesn't degenerate into the cat and dog fight of Emmitsburg."
The primacy of the Roman Catholic pope is a major issue in dialogue between the churches, which have been split since the so-called Great Schism of 1054.
More recently, relations have been strained by Catholic attempts to regain confiscated property and reestablish a Catholic presence in predominantly Orthodox Russia and Ukraine in the years since the fall of Soviet communism.
Benedict recently dispatched Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenical officer, for three days of talks in Moscow. The visit might lay the groundwork for an eventual papal trip to the heart of Orthodoxy, a dream never realized by John Paul.
Despite the frosty relations, however, both churches have maintained a tradition of exchanging delegations on the feasts of their patron saints. Ioannis led an Orthodox delegation to Wednesday's celebration of St. Peter and St. Paul at the Vatican; a Catholic delegation visited Istanbul in November for the Feast of St. Andrew.
Ioannis praised Benedict for his "profound knowledge" of and "deep respect" for the Orthodox tradition. He said the Orthodox churches share the pope's "irreversible" commitment to the search for Christian unity.
But both Ioannis and Benedict acknowledged that the path to unity would be long and difficult.
"The unity that we seek is neither absorption nor fusion but respect for the multiform fullness of the church," the pope said. "We want to continue together on the road to communion and to carry out together new steps and gestures that lead to overcoming remaining incomprehensions and divisions."