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There are many reasons to be hopeful about the direction of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue but it is threatened by tensions emerging within the Orthodox Church. As the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity gets under way today, a leading ecumenist gives his assessment
In 1923, a schoolteacher priest of Lyons started devoting his spare time to helping the 10,000 refugees from Bolshevism camped and lodged around the city and its suburbs. It was his first encounter with a Christianity that was not Roman Catholic. Thus he learned the friendship of receiving as well as giving, finding great respect for the Orthodox clergy and people in their moment of destitution, as his heart opened to their faith and the beauty of their worship. He was astonished to find Catholics from the old Russian Empire who were not Latins, but Eastern Christians who maintained their unity with the Bishop of Rome with roots to before the Great Schism. Over the next decade, Paul Couturier became convinced of the need for Christian unity, and in 1935 he took hold of the Catholic Church Unity Octave, founded in 1908, and developed it into a “Universal Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians in the charity and truth of Christ”. Inspired by the holiness of the Orthodox, beyond this world he imagined an “invisible monastery”, in which all could unite in prayer to God in Heaven, in the hope of seeing the same union realised in the Church here. He took for his motto the saying of Metropolitan Platon Gorodetsky of Kiev: “The walls of separation do not rise as far as Heaven.”
In answer to 105 Weeks of Prayer so far, considerable grace has been bestowed. All along, the 1,000-year separation between Christians of East and West has spurred us to overcome sinful division, and yet seek unity with integrity, respecting the faith that each professes. Thus the World Council of Churches, partly founded to promote reconciliation for all humanity after the degradation of the Second World War, enjoys the full membership of the Orthodox Church alongside the Churches that developed after the Western Reformation. The World Council and the Catholic Church are joint members of the even older Commission on Faith and Order, one of whose tasks is the organisation of each year’s Week of Prayer. For 50 years, the great families of Churches have undertaken searching theological dialogues, even if new challenges have been emerging. These have gone far towards profound mutual awareness of our belief and teaching, repeatedly consigning estrangement and rivalry to the past.
The same desire for unity, something more than ecumenism, is replicated in thousands of concrete examples of our Churches’ shared projects and resources in the service of the Kingdom in wider society, spiritual life in common through prayer, pilgrimage and study, and proclamation alongside each other of the same Christ before the world. Over the last year, it has been remarkable to see Christians of all kinds take Pope Francis to their hearts and sustain him with their prayers. It has been especially striking to hear Orthodox clergy and people observe how in contemporary society, with its secularising pressures and the globalisation that has sent the West east and the East west, our various Catholic and Orthodox Churches live beside each other, and how we need to rely on each other more and more. In this country, for instance, the steady development of English-speaking Orthodox Churches, together with the considerable influx of Eastern Christians from Russia, Ukraine and Romania, means that local Orthodox and Catholic priests are getting to know each other better, share similar concerns on family life, teach Christian discipleship in the Church from a similar outlook on the world, and seek to work more closely together, for instance, on the education of children, church schools, chaplaincy in hospitals and prison, and the education and formation of adults and priests. Only last week, Pope Francis gave his blessing to the Catholic Committee for Cultural Collaboration between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, which supports Orthodox laypeople and clergy studying in Catholic academic institutions. In its fourth year, the Centre for Eastern Christianity at Heythrop is a significant means for just such encounters for mutual learning here in England.
During Pope Benedict’s pontificate, the Moscow patriarchate picked up on his call for a New Evangelisation and pledged itself to an alliance with the Roman Catholic Church in what it called the struggle for the soul of Old Europe. The installation of Pope Francis was attended by many Orthodox representatives, led for the first time by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, whom he addressed as “my brother Andrew”. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the department for external affairs of the Moscow patriarchate, has since returned to Rome to speak at a conference jointly arranged with the Pontifical Council for the Family. In the last few weeks, when asked about the prospects for a papal visit to Russia, he confirmed that the problems first to be resolved are not dogmatic, but rather ones which, he says, need clarification through dialogue.
But the way ahead is not all clear. Patriarch Bartholomew has just convoked the heads of the Orthodox Churches to discuss plans for the next preparatory commission ahead of the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Synod scheduled for 2015. Bartholomew is concerned that in the present world the Orthodox Church as a whole needs to work more closely together and discuss how, beyond their respective homelands, the different Orthodox Churches relate to the other in the diaspora, as well as to the other Christian Churches. The invitation came at the same time as Moscow released its long-awaited position statement on the Ravenna document from the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 2006. This examined the role of primacy in the universal Church and thus the role of the Roman papacy. It looked behind the theories developed over 1,000 years of separate development, in search of how it functioned historically in the first 1,000 years of communion. Yet the modern Russian Church’s memory post-dates this shared experience and its own perspective is of “home rule” from Moscow. Thus the statement sees the universal Church as a communion of self-governing Churches, in which the Bishop of Rome possesses no overall jurisdiction but simply a primacy of honour. The statement has won strongly worded ripostes from the ecumenical patriarchate, identifying an exclusive nationalism and self-marginalisation on Moscow’s part that has no place in Orthodoxy. As one senior Orthodox ecumenist has observed, “Before we can talk to you Catholics about union again, we Orthodox need to come to agreement among ourselves.”
But the Russian Orthodox Church – by far the largest – sees itself as the natural leader in Orthodoxy and thus, for all practical purposes, the crucial interlocutor with the Catholic Church as its peer. It sees a contrast between successive Popes’ call for “communion, not jurisdiction” and how the Eastern Catholic Churches are perceived to be managed by a department of the Latin Roman pontiff’s Curia. Like many Orthodox, it is looking to see if Pope Francis’ curial reform will alter the role of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in those Churches’ governance and relationship with the Bishop of Rome. Will they be self-ruling like Moscow? Could there be synodality between pope and patriarchs?
At the same time, Moscow’s self-understanding as the leader of all the Eastern Christians in its region – including the Belarussians and the Ukrainians – makes for an uneasy relationship with the reality of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Persecuted by Stalin and forced to conform to the Russian Church or go underground for four decades, it is once more threatened with legal deregistration, amid the Ukrainian Government’s difficulties with a substantial yet peaceful pro-Western protest movement that it falsely links to the Greek-Catholic bishops. At the same time, the Moscow Patriarchate stresses that the alliance it desires with the papacy is with a firmly Roman Catholic Church.
With so many considerations and principles for all sides at play, the unity we pray for is not going to come easily. But the desire for Catholic-Orthodox communion is perhaps stronger than ever and in May it will take Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew to pray for it with all their heart and strength in Jerusalem.