Since immigrating to Canada in 2004, I have been impressed by the generosity of Catholics in sharing their churches with Orthodox Christian immigrants in need of worship space. This generosity creates wonderful relationships between Canadian Catholics and Orthodox immigrants and, at the same time, appreciation of the other’s traditions. In Catholic churches, there are Orthodox icons; and lay Catholics and religious practice the Jesus Prayer that is so dear to the Orthodox: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
While there are clergy and laity engaged in prayer and ministry for unity among Orthodox and Catholics, at the same time, I have been troubled to see Orthodox, especially those who have limited theological knowledge, identifying the other as heretics. They invoke some fourth-century canons to endorse their arguments. Unfortunately, they do not know the word “heretic” in the fourth century was used against Arius, a priest accused of denying the divinity of Christ and the same essence, or homoousios, of the Father and the Son.
There are also Catholics who regard Orthodox spirituality as only religious folklore, superstition or a tradition without any relationship to Scripture. It is painful to see so much ignorance among Christian brothers and sisters, especially for one who has the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue at heart and hopes we will all gather around the same eucharistic cup.
My thoughts on ecumenical relations between Catholics and Orthodox have been impacted by Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Serafim of Germany and Northern Europe. In one of his works, he concludes that God will not judge us because we have not succeeded in achieving the unity of Christians for whom the Savior prayed before his Passion — for it is the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Unity. God will judge us because we remained untouched by the Lord’s prayer, “that all should be one,” and we did not suffer from the terrible sin of the division, in which we indulge or deepen, willingly or unwillingly, to the great demise of the world.
We all know the drama of Christians: For more than a millennium, we have been divided more than any other religion in the world. Each church should acknowledge that the division of Christians is a sin and that it is the greatest obstacle to the conversion of the world to Christ.
True ecumenism, about which few know, is the sincere holy effort of Christians from different denominations seeking the unity that the church had in the first millennium. We are all invited to pray for Christian unity, if not in our daily prayer, at least during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which will conclude on Wednesday.
I believe that successful ecumenical relations between the Orthodox and Catholics could inspire Christians from other denominations to join in collaborative social action and theological dialogue. It is imperative to have theological dialogue, to see the roots of disagreements and to try to heal them because there are things in which the churches do not agree. However, as Pope Francis has said: This cannot be done in a laboratory.
We must do ecumenism by journeying together along the way. The journey together helps us discover the beauty of the “other” tradition and palpably manifest Christian love. For without love, there is no genuine knowledge.
And who must prove love more to one another and to the world than Christians, who know the incarnate Love of God in Christ the Savior? But how can we prove our love to the world if we do not first have love for one another? Our Savior Jesus Christ says, “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
After centuries of ignorance and often religious confrontation, Catholics and Orthodox have begun to come closer together, to know one another, to appreciate each other’s traditions and to meet to overcome dogmatic differences. The achievement of unity between Catholics and Orthodox would be a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit, who does not cease to move the world toward unity in Christ. Yet, there is still much work to do to achieve the synergy between God’s grace and human endeavor.
The fact that the steps taken so far in theological dialogue appear small does not have to discourage us. Rather, it should inspire us to enter into the dialogue of love. Neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church can have a discourse of self-sufficiency. The Catholic Church needs the Orthodox Church, and vice versa, to confess the fullness of truth. It is the duty of all and of each of us to do “our part” until the day when the Holy Spirit will unite Christians again in the same “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” church.
There is no need for more church diplomacy, but more asceticism, that is, fasting and prayer, before any conference, meeting or theological dialogue to enlighten our minds and soften our hearts. Fasting and prayer will lead us to the humility of acknowledging our own mistakes and not blaming others. Love, humility, prayer and fasting, which characterize the saints’ lives, unite Christians.
“True ecumenism,” says Metropolitan Serafim, “will begin on the day when the representatives of the churches will go to meetings and colloquia without their holy garments, without pride, but go to the meetings with the wounds they want to heal, with the problem of lack of commitment, with the crises to solve.”
Adriana Bara, Ph.D., is an ecumenist and the national director of CNEWA Canada.