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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Taking Steps Toward Unity

History was made on an island in Greece, where a 900-year-old schism was tackled.

A new page was written in the long history of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox relations on May 29,1980, on the tiny Greek island of Patmos. Seventy representatives of these two great Christian traditions prayed together for unity in a ceremony inaugurating a new era of dialogue. They asked that God would help them to overcome divisions which began nine hundred years ago, when Rome and Constantinople hurled anathemas at one another in 1054. Although this date is generally given as the beginning of the schism between East and West, the definitive rupture came in 1204 with the sack of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders.

The seventy prelates and theologians who prayed on Patmos last year are members of the newly-established international Roman Catholic/Orthodox theological commission. Following the prayer service, they moved to the nearby Greek island of Rhodes, in the Aegean Sea off the west coast of Turkey. There they met for four days to begin discussions that will have great ecumenical significance for the entire Christian world. The gathering on Rhodes was the first formal meeting of the commission that was set up by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Dimitrios I during the papal visit to Turkey in November, 1979.

The goal of the commission is unity. Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon expressed the hope of all the participants when he stated that their purpose was to achieve the reconciliation of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and to carry the message of healing to the entire world.

“It must be a testimony of Jesus within and without Christendom,” he said, “to all nations, to the whole world, to the whole creation. This is not only the will of Our Lord, and the need of the Church, but also the requirement of the present times and the expectation of Christians and non-Christians.”

Dutch Cardinal Jan Willebrands, leader of the Roman Catholic delegation, added that unity must carefully preserve the authentic diversities among the Churches. The Cardinal, who is also President of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, remarked that the split between the two Churches was the result of sins and errors on both sides.

“If we eliminate some of the major differences and achieve complete unity,” he said, “this would increase the credibility and effectiveness of Christian preaching the world over.”

The members of the theological commission represent two ancient traditions of Christianity, and despite the centuries of separation, they share a rich heritage of doctrine and devotion. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism reminds Roman Catholics that basic dogmas of the Christian Faith were defined in Ecumenical Councils held in the East. The Decree also points out that the Churches of the East, in remaining faithful to the teachings of the apostles, have suffered much and continue to suffer.

One of the strongest bonds uniting Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians is the apostolic succession. Both Churches trace their hierarchy back to the apostles and recognize each other’s bishops. They admit the validity of each other’s priestly ordination, and both Churches celebrate seven sacraments. Each Church organizes its hierarchy into bishops, priests, and deacons. Orthodox parish priests, unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, are almost always married men, but Orthodox bishops must be celibate. They are chosen from the ranks of the monks.

Orthodox and Roman Catholics also share a sacramental view of the Church. Both traditions are very closely linked to the central act of divine worship, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the West, it is known as the Mass; in the East it is the Divine Liturgy. For both, it is the heartbeat of Christian life. Through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, united with its bishops, the Church is brought to its full stature as the visible Body of Christ.

Both Orthodox and Roman Catholics also foster devotion to the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Decree on Ecumenism notes that “Christians of the East pay high tribute, in very beautiful hymns, to Mary ever Virgin, whom the Ecumenical Synod of Ephesus solemnly proclaimed to be God’s most holy Mother so that, in accord with the Scriptures, Christ may be truly and properly acknowledged as Son of God and Son of Man. They also give homage to the saints, including Fathers of the Universal Church.”

One of the most visible differences between Eastern and Western Christians is their religious art. Eastern churches are adorned with many colorful icons, but never with statues, which are commonly seen in the West. These different art forms represent two distinct approaches to sanctification.

Statues show the saints in the same external condition as the viewer: the earthly state. There is a direct relationship between this outward realism and the practical social orientation that is characteristic of Western Christianity.

Icons, on the other hand, are not intended to be lifelike portraits. By showing the saints as citizens of another world, icons express the Orthodox doctrine of inner transformation, or “deification.” They reveal not only the external vision of man, but also the internal sacramental qualities that transfigure man and truly recreate him in the image of God. For this reason, the icon is described as a “window” into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The distinct styles of Eastern and Western religious art illustrate two different ways of living the Christian life. Christianity in the East is mystical and contemplative; Western Christianity is more analytic and practical, especially in matters of doctrine. This helps to explain why the Roman Church has produced more joint theological statements with Lutherans, Anglicans, and other Christian bodies than with the Orthodox.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty that remains to be overcome is the question of papal primacy and infallibility. Orthodox believe firmly in the infallibility of the Church, but they do not agree that the Bishop of Rome can exercise it alone without the assent of the other bishops. To the Orthodox, Rome is “first among equals,” and its authority is no greater than that of Alexandria, Antioch, or any of the other ancient patriarchates.

Another source of misunderstanding between Rome and Constantinople is the presence of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, often called “Uniate” by the Orthodox. Since Eastern Rite liturgy and custom are virtually identical in some cases to Orthodox practice, the problem might seem puzzling to Roman Catholics. It has a long and complicated history.

Many of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church were Orthodox at one time. Periodically, various groups would seek reunion with Rome. When reunion was established, the bond with the Orthodox Church was inevitably broken, often to the sorrow of all concerned. While Eastern Rite Catholics retained their Eastern liturgy, Western customs and practices began to creep in. The Divine Liturgy in some rites became an amalgam of Latin and Eastern forms.

As the West grew in power and influence, some Eastern Rite Catholics looked upon the Latinizations as improvements over the old ways. The Orthodox, with their deep respect for tradition, vehemently disagreed. They resented the notion that anything Western was to be preferred. As a result, bitterness and ill-feeling increased.

The Second Vatican Council decreed that the Eastern Catholic Churches must return to their ancestral traditions. If this goal is achieved, it will help to restore the ancient Eastern heritage to its rightful place in the life of the universal Church. It will also allay fears that unity must result in uniformity.

Different attitudes toward tradition have often caused misunderstanding between East and West. The Orthodox emphasize the importance of the first seven ecumenical councils, which were held in the East, and sometimes disagree with the Western notion of the development of doctrine. Orthodox Christians, for example, reject the words “and from the Son” (Filioque), which Roman Catholics added to the Nicene Creed’s statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Orthodox Church considers the Filioque an unacceptable alteration of the ancient Creed, and an erroneous description of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. Theologians are now looking for ways to resolve the Filioque issue, which has divided Roman Catholics and Orthodox for centuries.

When the seventy members of the International Commission met last year, they did not launch their discussions with controversial issues such as papal primacy and infallibility. Instead, they began with issues upon which there is substantial agreement; in fact, one of the subcommittees has already drafted a joint document on the Eucharist. The hope of theologians, church authorities, and lay Christians is that in time, mutual trust and love will ripen and make it possible to deal with the more divisive issues.

For the first eleven centuries of Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox lived in full sacramental communion. A serious breach of charity between Rome and Constantinople put an end to that original fellowship. Today, efforts toward reunion mark the growth of forgiveness, understanding, and respect. When love and trust are restored, the two great and ancient Churches will be well on the way to the full and complete communion they enjoyed for the first millenium of Christian history.

Father Gouthro, an Atonement friar, is presently on the staff of St. John the Evangelist Church in Mahopac, New York.

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