Increasing number of Orthodox and Catholic marriages raises problems of intercommunion
Marianna and Solon Patterson’s marriage is a mirror of modern ecumenical relations.
Married in 1960, the couple has been united in the faith but has suffered the pain of not being able to receive Communion from a common chalice.
Solon is Greek Orthodox, and Marianna is Roman Catholic.
In an interview with Aleteia and in brief remarks at the 17th Orientale Lumen Conference in Washington, D.C., the Pattersons described their journey over the past 53 years: discovering the obstacles that Catholic and Orthodox couples face, following the progress the ecumenical movement has been making, and discerning a late-in-life vocation to work for healing of the divorce that took place between Eastern and Western Christianity so many centuries ago.
Through their Patterson Family Foundation, the Atlanta couple supports several efforts to work toward greater Christian Unity, including the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in New York and the Orientale Lumen Conferences, an annual event bringing Catholics and Orthodox together to grow in understanding of one another’s traditions and issues in ecumenical dialogue.
This year’s Orientale Lumen Conference featured a panel of theological and historical experts who serve on the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation. They discussed their 2010 “vision statement” “Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future.”
The Pattersons were in attendance, and during a panel discussion about “mixed marriages,” one of the panelists invited the couple to share their story. Solon, a mutual fund pioneer who is now retired, explained that when he and his wife married in 1960, they were unaware of the growing ecumenical movement that would really take off in the wake of Vatican II. “It was before Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI got together and the anathemas were removed,” he said. “We didn’t know anything about that. We were married at a time when we had to sign a contract that since it was a mixed marriage I would have to agree to our children being raised as Catholics, if we were being married in the Catholic Church. In fact it delayed our getting married…. Religious differences almost prevented our marriage, and that would have been a shame because we have two fine sons, two daughters-in-law and five grandchildren, who are all Catholic now.”
But that happy outcome was yet to be seen when the newly-married Patterson went to an Orthodox church in New York. The priest noticed his wedding band and asked if he was married in an Orthodox church. When he said no, the priest told him that he could not give him Communion.
“That was the first time I realized I was out of communion with the Orthodox Church,” Patterson said. “Later, we found out we needed to get the marriage blessed in the Orthodox Church. It took about three months going back and forth between the local priest and the bishop, and eventually Cardinal [Francis] Spellman [archbishop of New York, 1939-1967] gave us his approval to be remarried in the Orthodox Church, in the cathedral in New York.”
Left in the Pew
But that was not the end of their difficulties. Year after year, Sunday after Sunday, the Pattersons have lived a divided ecclesial life. Solon would attend Orthodox Divine Liturgy, while Marianna would take the children to Catholic Mass. If on occasion Solon would accompany his wife to Mass, he would have to remain in the pew while his family received Communion.
“I considered [becoming Catholic to solve the problem], but I felt I should follow my conscience about pursuing the course that I felt most committed to, most comfortable with, which was to stay as an Orthodox,” Solon said in an interview, “even though it’s often difficult and painful to watch my family take Communion when I can’t participate.”
“I think we both share the feeling that you don’t change your faith to make life easier. You need to really believe in the change you’re making, that it’s what you should be doing,” Marianna added. “I don’t think either one of us has been called to make the change, so we’ve remained in our own denominations and have tried to pursue to the best of our ability a full communion and contribution and so forth in the Church…but it’s not simple. Unless we go to two services or unless we go back and forth, which we do on occasion, then we both go to church separately.”
The Pattersons were not the only ones at the conference to share such stories. Protopresbyter James Dutko, pastor of St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Binghamton, N.Y., and Dean of the Southern Tier Deanery of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A., said that “years ago” a young couple approached him for marriage. “He was Orthodox, she was Catholic. Her family’s priest warned them they would all go to hell if they attended the wedding,” Father Dutko said. “The girl became Orthodox. The family shared in the joy of the celebration.”
The Catholic priest who had initially been opposed eventually became Father Dutko’s friend, largely because of their common outreach to a girl with cerebral palsy. “Her illness helped tear down our walls,” Father Dutko said.
The ecumenical situation had changed so much by the 1990s that when a mixed-marriage couple in town was celebrating their 50th anniversary, they easily had liturgies in both the Orthodox church where Father Dutko is pastor and the local Catholic church. Not only that, the couple’s ethnic background represented a conflict that was then taking place in Europe.
“He was a Croatian Catholic, she was a Serbian Orthodox, and they asked me to celebrate a liturgy for them,” Father Dutko said. “The next day, the Catholic pastor invited me to attend the Mass and offer them a blessing. And I thought, ‘What a blessing, with the war going on in Bosnia we’ve got this couple who love each other, in spite of their differences.’”
But, Father Dutko lamented, “Our lack of intercommunion makes it impossible for husband and wife to come in good conscience to the chalice of the very Lord who blessed their marriage and made them one. This is a division of one. This creates tensions, to say the least. Think about it: every Sunday morning, where are we going to attend liturgy? Who’s going to receive Communion and who’s not? How long is this going to last? Forever? … Somebody comes to the chalice, somebody’s back in the pew. I don’t know about this.”
Promise from an Orthodox Leader
The North American Dialogue’s vision statement notes that Catholic-Orthodox marriages are increasingly common, “creating serious problems in Christian education and practice for the families involved.”
“A lot of the pain of Christian division is felt at the parish level,” said 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. “We have a number of mixed marriages—a couple 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.”
“Maybe it’s a blessing in its own way because it’s a catalyst to say that there has to be a way to solve this,” Father Dutko said.
Father FitzGerald said the reality of mixed marriage “has not been thoroughly faced by the Orthodox Church. The solutions we came up with in this dialogue in 1970 at that point in time were very helpful but now with the sense that people are taking very seriously the importance of receiving Holy Communion on a more frequent basis, which people were not doing, especially in the Orthodox world 25, 30, 40 years ago, is again raising the question of whether it’s somehow possible to relax the regulations with regard to Communion for families who are in these interchurch marriage situations. I think that’s an issue that really should be pushed by both Churches as an issue that’s affecting people at a very deep and pastoral family level. We tend to ignore this, to think it’s not all that important, to think that one solution is going to fit everybody’s situation, and that’s simply not the case. So I would say that’s one of the pressing pastoral concerns that the Orthodox Church has, and a pressing ecumenical concern as well.”
Metropolitan Tikhon, who was elected primate of the Orthodox Church in America last November, also spoke at the Orientale Lumen Conference. Following his talk, during a question-and-answer period in which the focus was on how to make the North American Consultation’s vision statement better known among Orthodox hierarchy and lay people in America, he indicated a willingness to help.
“I can make sure it gets addressed, certainly on my own synod level,” Metropolitan Tykhon said. “I call the brothers together so I set the agenda. So I can very easily put this on the agenda and I will.”
His comments were greeted with applause from the 60 or 70 people in attendance, a crowd made up of Catholic and Orthodox lay people, religious, priests and bishops.
Many people attending the conference, especially Catholics, spoke privately about receiving Communion in either Church. But Father FitzGerald explained in a talk that there is no intercommunion because the Churches are divided. “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,” he said. “Could we respond locally or regionally to this question? Most Orthodox would say, ‘Unfortunately, no.’ All the Orthodox Churches in this country are related to mother Churches and these mother Churches might not agree with the practice that we would choose to follow here. The Orthodox see themselves as part of a universal Church.”
Another panelist, Sister Susan Wood, president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America, said, “Regular sacramental sharing is not possible at the present time because it signifies a communion of Churches. … The Catholic Church does permit sacramental sharing with the Orthodox in certain limited circumstances. The problem is the sacramental sharing is not symmetrical between our communions. There are circumstances where Catholics permit Orthodox to receive. There are instances where Catholics say Catholics can receive Orthodox sacraments, but the Orthodox do not say Catholics can receive the sacraments. What do we have to do to bring this into symmetry? … A Catholic…must respect the Eastern discipline as much as possible and refrain from communicating if that Church restricts sacramental communion to its own members, which is the present case, so we don’t have even limited sharing.”
Sister Wood, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth who teaches theology at Marquette University, suggested that the two Churches need more theological reflection on marriage.
“Both of our traditions consider marriage a sacrament. We consider it a sign, an ecclesial reality,” she said. “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.”
“A Guide for Catholics Considering Marriage with an Orthodox Christian,” a 1998 pamphlet published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, speaks in similar tones: “When spouses are active participants in separate Churches, their marriage easily becomes a reflection of the relationship between their Churches,” it says. “These married couples are living examples of the ecumenical relationship between two Churches that are both seeking to overcome the obstacles that prevent complete unity and celebrating all that they have in common in faith and practice…. Good interchurch marriages will inevitably contribute to greater understanding between the two Churches and, ultimately, to the deepening of unity between them.”
The pamphlet also states that a Roman Catholic is “expected to obtain the permission of his or her local bishop to marry an Orthodox and a dispensation if the wedding is to take place in an Orthodox service. The Catholic partner will be asked to state that he or she intends to remain a Catholic. Obtaining permission for an Eastern Catholic is more complicated, and one’s pastor should be consulted about this. An Orthodox also needs the permission of the Orthodox Church to marry a Catholic. Here it must be kept in mind that as a general rule, the Orthodox Church does not allow its faithful to be married in a non-Orthodox ceremony….”
“The views of your churches on the question of the spiritual upbringing of your children may appear to clash as well,” the pamphlet advises. “In all likelihood, each of you will be asked to promise in some way to baptize and raise your children in your own Church…. As a Catholic entering into a marriage with a non-Catholic, you will be asked to affirm that you will do everything possible to ensure that any children will be baptized and raised in the Catholic Church.”
But in spite of regulations, some pastors apparently are allowing intercommunion in such cases.
“A friend of mine who is an Orthodox priest has a lot of mixed marriages in his parish,” said a conference attendee who is an Eastern Catholic. “He doesn’t worry about it. Some Orthodox get very concerned about him. He doesn’t care. … How do you divide a family?”
As for the Pattersons, it may be more than coincidence that the same year they married, Pope John XXIII founded the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.
“We feel at this point that we were called to pursue this issue of ecumenism and that we were chosen to marry as Orthodox and Catholic together and chosen to be part of the effort to bring about reunification among Catholic and Orthodox Churches and we think that’s a cause we were invited to join and we’re actively involved in,” Solon said in an interview.
“Our coming together was somewhat unusual. We were the second mixed marriage in the Orthodox communion in Atlanta in 1960,” added Marianna. “So we were definitely trailblazers and had to do a lot of thinking about it. I don’t think we felt that way in the beginning because we were so concerned with solidifying our marriage and starting our family and so forth… but as time wore on we came to feel this is a mission, that this should happen for the sake of Christianity. And that we should make the effort to make whatever contribution we can make. At first we thought, ‘Gosh, if we can accomplish this before we die,’ but I don’t think we feel like that now, but that movement is taking place and this is something that is going to happen because Christ said he wanted it. It’s the will of God. And I feel privileged to be used in this effort.”