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Could the Catholic and Orthodox Churches Be Reconciled Soon?

Cath-Orth Vision Statement

CC Chris Eisenbahner

John Burger - published on 06/28/13

An ecumenical gathering discusses what would need to happen for full communion

A gathering in Washington, D.C., last week of some 60 Catholic and Orthodox lay people, priests and bishops had such a family reunion character to it that a couple of conference speakers pointed out how far ecumenical relations have come.

During the 1950s, said Paulist Father Ronald G. Roberson, when Catholic and Orthodox theologians met at Fordham University to lay the groundwork for the dialogue that would unfold the following decade, New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman insisted that the proceedings be carried out in secret.

“It was that sensitive,” said Father Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the “Orientale Lumen Conference” he moderated June 17-20 saw members of the two Churches come together for prayer, meals and frank discussion about the issues that stand in the way of full communion.

The annual meetings are an unofficial, grassroots dialogue but have attracted some major players in ecumenical relations. Usually held in Washington, the gatherings have also taken place in other parts of the country and three times in Istanbul—ancient Constantinople.

Beginning in 1997 with a look at Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Orientale Lumen (“Light of the East”), the conferences have alternated between ecumenical topics and education about the Eastern Churches, said Jack Figel, a Byzantine Catholic who organizes the get-togethers.

“We have three parts to this conference,” said Figel, who heads Eastern Christian Publications, publisher of Theosis magazine: “prayer together, for our souls; lectures, for the mind, and fellowship—a reception every evening with wine and cheese—which is an opportunity to meet, get to know one another and learn from each other.”

This year’s topic was a 2010 vision statement produced by the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, “Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future.” Several members of the North American Consultation spoke at the Orientale Lumen conference: Father Thomas FitzGerald, dean and professor of Church history and historical theology at Hellenic College-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass.; Father James Dutko, an Orthodox pastor from Binghamton, N.Y.; Sister of Charity Susan Wood, professor of theology at Marquette University and president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and Father Sidney Griffith, professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at the Institute of Christian Oriental Research of The Catholic University of America. Also speaking were Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., an expert on the history of the Byzantine liturgy who taught for many years at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

Also in attendance were Metropolitan Jonah, the retired primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and Bishop John Michael Botean of the Romanian Catholic Eparchy of St. George in Canton, Ohio.

Another member of the North American Consultation, Msgr. Paul McPartlan, professor of theology at The Catholic University of America, was to speak but was in England with his father who was gravely ill. Msgr. McPartlan, who also serves on the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, is about to publish A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist, and Church Unity, a proposal of how the papacy might be reformed to make it more acceptable to Orthodox and thus pave the way toward full communion between the Churches.

The conference took place at the Washington Retreat House, run by the Sisters of the Atonement, whose chapel was modified for the three days with a temporary icon screen. Sung morning liturgies were in the Byzantine or Armenian rite and included a Moleben to the Holy Spirit and Akathists to Christ and the Mother of God.

The Papacy

The universal jurisdiction of the papacy, which is perhaps the largest stumbling block for full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, was the subject of much discussion. The consultation’s vision statement acknowledged that the role of the bishop of Rome “would have to be carefully defined, both in continuity with the ancient structural principles of Christianity and in response to the need for a unified Christian message in the world of today.”

Likely characteristics of a renewed Roman primacy, the vision statement suggests, puts the bishop of Rome as “first” among the world’s bishops and regional patriarchs. He would have authority only within a synodal/collegial context. His worldwide ministry would be to promote the communion of all the local Churches and to call on them to remain anchored in the unity of the Apostolic faith.

Father Taft spoke of his hope that the Catholic Church would implement a collegial and “sister Churches” ecclesiology which he says was “affirmed at Vatican II and thereafter, but insufficiently implemented since then.” Early Christianity developed as a “federation of local Churches, Western and Eastern, each with its own independent governing polity, in communion with one another,” he said. “The papacy acted somewhat like the U.S. Supreme Court, adjudicating disputes brought to its attention and recalled to canonical and doctrinal order recalcitrant groups and individuals.” Later, however, it took on the character more of the U.S. presidency, he said.

He suggested that the Church “moderate its overly centralized government” to pave the way for full communion with the Orthodox.

In his talk, Father FitzGerald said the Orthodox see the Church as one Church and yet a communion of regional, autocephalous Churches, sharing the same faith and expressed in the Eucharist, while Catholics see the Church as a unified body sharing the same faith centered upon communion with the Bishop of Rome.

“The Orthodox see the Church as polycentric,” he said. “Today there are 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches, each with its own primate and its own synod. The one Church, for the Orthodox, is a Church of Churches. The Catholics tend to see the Church as monocentric…The Orthodox tend to emphasize the conciliarity of Church life while not denying the role of primatial bishops. The Catholics tend to emphasize the bishop of Rome while not denying the role of conciliarity. The theological challenge for us today is to integrate the reality of primacy with the reality of conciliarity in every aspect of Church life. And this goes from the local parish to the diocese to the province to the regional and autocephalous Churches…. The meeting of bishops in council and the exercise of leadership by designated primatial bishops have been present in a complementary manner in the Church since the time of the Apostles.”

Parochial Concerns

Much of the discussion over the three days, however, concerned issues more directly affecting people at the parish level.

“If our work doesn’t have an impact on local parish life we’re missing something very important,” said Father FitzGerald. “A lot of the pain of Christian division is felt at the parish level. We have a number of mixed marriages—couples trying to maintain the faith together and yet live divided lives as Catholic and Orthodox. That becomes a wider challenge to the Church. It forces us to think more clearly about the consequences of our division. We expect the family to be one, but technically a spouse and children cannot receive Communion in the same church.

Father FitzGerald explained that “most Orthodox would say that reception of Communion is an expression of unity, and to receive Communion in another Church would be a violation because you are doing something before there’s full communion.”

Some speakers, however, spoke of extreme circumstances where there is sacramental sharing. “When I go to a Catholic hospital and there’s a Catholic who’s dying, I’m going to anoint him because there’s no other priest,” said Father Dutko. “I’ll take care of you. When I was in the service, I sometimes thought, if I need to go to confession and there’s nobody but a Catholic priest, I’m going to talk to this guy. In Russia during the Soviet period there were all kinds of exceptions made.”

Father Dutko invited a couple in the audience to share their own story. Solon and Marianna Patterson were only the second Orthodox-Catholic couple in Atlanta when they married in 1960. Marianna signed papers agreeing to raise their children in her Roman Catholic faith. Since then, they are unable to receive communion together in their respective Churches, and the experience has spurred them on to work in the ecumenical movement. They support financially the Orientale Lumen project, as well as the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

“I think we need more theological reflection on marriage,” said Sister Susan Wood. “Both of our traditions consider marriage a sacrament. We consider it a sign, an ecclesial reality. I would like to propose that in a shared marriage of two traditions that ecclesial relationships are forged in that sacrament. We have not recognized what that reality is. I think a Catholic comes into a relationship with Orthodoxy through that marriage, and conversely, an Orthodox comes into some kind of relationship with the Catholic Church. We call marriage a domestic Church. We need to reflect more on that particular reality and then see what that has to do with broader human relationships. I don’t think we permitted those people to express that in their relationship with the larger institutional Church in a way that might be warranted by the sacrament they share.”

Holiness and Unity

Sister Susan’s talk focused on what she called “subsidiarity structures in the two Churches” that could lay the ground for eventual unity.

Though sacramental sharing is generally not now possible, there ought to be ways to signify the imperfect communion that exists, she suggested. “(Ecumenical Patriarch) Bartholomew participated in a limited way in a Mass celebrated by Benedict XVI,” she said. “Both delivered the homily, together they recited the Creed, without the filioque, and both gave a blessing. This may provide a model for limited liturgical sharing in other venues.” Similarly, Bartholomew took part, in a limited way, in Pope Francis’s Mass of inauguration.

Bishops might emulate such examples, she said. They also could invite ecumenical partners to participate in any diocesan synods they might hold. And Church organizations can engage in missionary activity and work together, particularly to address social needs.

Father Dutko said that the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul and St. Andrew, respectively the patron saints of Rome and Constantinople, are “opportunities to encounter each other.”
“Open houses, tours of our places of worship and receptions for guests would be good ways to break the ice,” he said. “Prayer services, educational forums, spirituality” are ways to forge bonds.

Those feast days in recent years have seen exchange visits between Rome and Constantinople, including, on occasion, recent Popes visiting Istanbul. There is now at least one example of similar friendly visits on a more local level. In Boston, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Methodius will join Cardinal Sean O’Malley for Vespers this Friday, the eve of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Needham.

Though many speakers focused on what Catholics and Orthodox can do together to foster unity, Metropolitan Tikhon offered a more personal approach: the individual building Church unity by striving for greater union with Christ and bringing God’s grace to a broken world. Though ecumenism can be difficult and progress slow, Catholics and Orthodox are working together to address the needs of the world, he said.

“And what are the needs of the world? It’s to find healing and unity in Christ,” said Tikhon, a former Episcopalian who spent 18 years in St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Waymart, Pa. “That in a sense is our deepest calling as Christians, as to not only achieve that outward unity through the Church…but to find that unity in our own hearts, to heal the brokenness that is there and to find our communion with the living God.”

Though theological discussion and historical investigation are important, Tikhon said, “it’s important to not forget that sacred task of each of us to find our unity with Christ, move from our state of brokenness, despair, fear, from being prey to all the various passions that divide us internally and break apart our communities and separate us from God and from one another. That work is the foundation of our quest for unity. We must actively engage in that path of self-examination and purification of heart, of growth in the virtues and our effort to follow the commandments of Christ which lead us as a sure path toward that glory of the kingdom.”

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