Last night some friends and I were discussing beloved Archbishop Timothy Dolan's elevation to the college of cardinals. His Eminence was Archbishop of Milwaukee for several years and was very much loved and admired here. During our conversation I wondered out loud whether himself might become the first American Pope. I quickly added my own political opinion, namely, that the Bishop of Rome should be an Italian. To my chagrin a friend remarked that after all, Rome is universal - my friend is Eastern Orthodox, and one of the difficulties between the Catholics and the Orthodox is precisely Rome's claim to universal jurisdiction!
In the early Church there were four chief bishops: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Rome had the first place, and its bishop did exercise some measure of universal jurisdiction now and then, here and there.
When Constantine moved East, to Byzantium (re-named Constantinople or New Rome), the bishop of Constantinople gained an eminent status. In the first Council of Constantinople, the bishop of that city was accorded the second place - after Old Rome and before Alexandria. Rome and Alexandria disputed this "canon" for various reasons. However, by the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), Constantinople's status was secure. Under Emperor Justinian (541 AD), the Roman Empire had been more or less neatly divided into five ecclesial regions and the bishops in charge of each region were first called "patriarchs." Before that time, and ever since, the bishops of Rome and of Alexandria were called "pope." Outside the empire, the regional Churches were headed by bishops called "catholicos."
Once upon a time, someone called the Pope of Rome "ecumenical" and that particular pope renounced the title and said that it was inappropriate to call a bishop "ecumenical." Once upon another time, the patriarch of Constantinople began to be called the "Ecumenical patriarch." Rome also thought that was silly and inappropriate.
The status of the Patriarch of Constantinople is an interesting study. It was given the status of #2 because it was the seat of the Emperor and of the Senate. Currently it is a small and besieged jurisdiction in modern Istanbul. Yet it retains its dignity among the Patriarchs. Like Old Rome, New Rome has suffered the temptation of exercising extra-territorial jurisdiction. There have been occasional disputes between the Churches of Constantinople and Moscow, when Orthodox communities have sought "autocephalous" (self-governing) status. At times Moscow would grant autocephaly to a Church formerly under its jurisdiction, e.g. the Church of Poland and the Orthodox Church in America, and Constantinople would not recognize it. At other times the Ecumenical Patriarch would receive groups under its wing and Moscow would protest.
The whole situation is very confusing and has caused a lot of division. Never mind groups of Orthodox who have united with Rome and thus cut themselves off from their Orthodox mother-Churches.
It occurs to me that the situation in America might provide a "way" to resolve these jurisdictional issues. Here in the USA there are Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox and Albanian Orthodox bishops. Most are in communion with one another. There are also Roman Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Melkite-Greek Catholics, Ruthenian Catholics, Romanian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Maronite Catholics, and several others - all in communion with one another. In fact in one neighborhood of Yonkers, NY back in the 1970's (around Ash Street) there were: Ukrainian Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox, Carpatho-Russian Orthodox, Ruthenian Catholics, and Russian Orthodox churches - all of which had members who were of the same family and from the same villages back in the Soviet Union. An elderly member of St. Nicholas parish told me that back in the 30's there were fights in the local bakery many a Sunday morning between the various "faithful."
Those days are now over. And whether the above-mentioned churches still exist I do not know. BUT we are in an ecumenical age.
There's that word again "Ecumenical."
It occurs to me that, due to the situation in the US, as a result of decades of immigration, EVERY Orthodox Patriarch is "ecumenical" - exercising jurisdiction over his flock. It is problematic because according to very ancient and universally accepted canons, only one bishop can exercise jurisdiction in one place. I'm not one to recommend over-throwing the canons, but it IS obvious that the Serbian Patriarch, the Russian Patriarch, the Melkite Catholic Patriarch, the Coptic Pope and the Armenian Catholicos are all acting as Ecumenical patriarchs.
We cannot go back to the days of the Pentarchy (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) and the Empire that held them together. Constantinople no longer has political prestige. Antioch is a much-reduced city populated mostly by Muslims. Moscow's jurisdiction over Poland ended with the last tsar - and her jurisdiction over Ukraine has been in dispute since the fall of the USSR.
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York could become Pope of Rome, not because he's Italian, but because he, descendant of Irish immigrants, belongs to the Church of Rome. All the ancient Churches, like the Church of Rome, are now universal. And with the "cat's-cradle" of overlapping bishoprics and jurisdictions, and the ever-diminishing ethnic loyalties, a solution may emerge "that all may be one."