In an increasingly post-Christian world where Christian faith and life are under pressure as never before, or even under literal attack, the need for unity has never been greater.
Despite its historic wariness of the Vatican, the roughly 150 million member Russian Orthodox Church has extended a hand of cooperation to Rome in recent years, sending its young Metropolitan Hilarion to explore practical ways of working together — in Europe, in the Holy Land and beyond.
The worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East only adds to the timeliness of this undertaking.
However, to date only a relatively few enthusiasts on both sides have taken much notice or interest.
The Greek word Kairos comes to mind: this may finally be the right or opportune hour for Catholics and Orthodox to join forces in new and practical ways.
A return to Communion is beyond our earthly means
Symbolic gestures and theological dialogue have their place, but can only take us so far.
We should regard our aspiration not so much as reunion, but as a return to communion — and we must acknowledge that this is a task beyond human means, given the better part of a thousand years of separation and divergence.
No committee can engineer it. Both sides must pray for God to intervene or inspire us in some new way, and for the help and intercession of Our Lady and all the saints. In the meantime, Catholics and Orthodox can begin cooperating much more closely to push back against the tide of a post-Christian future.
So near, yet still so far
Facing the hard facts of separation is a good starting point. The points of doctrine which keep us apart may be few, but they remain immovable despite recent decades of dialogue that have improved mutual understanding.
To over-simplify the details, the Orthodox do not accept the Filioque in the Creed and the Catholic understanding of the Petrine office; they also regard Rome as having been too influenced, for too many centuries, by a dry Roman legalism and neo-Scholasticism.
For our part, we find some Orthodox doctrine and practice as being rather vague on one level, while being too willing to operate as a national department of state on another level — for example, in Russia where the dividing line between authoritarian government policy and Church policy is often hard to see, and where hardball tactics are not unknown.
Given Our Lord’s seemingly rather clear words about the indissolubility of marriage, we also have difficulty understanding how Orthodoxy can permit divorce and second (or even third) Church-sanctioned “non-sacramental” remarriages (though some Catholic theologians wish to explore this to see if any Eastern insight can help the plight of those whose marriages seemingly have failed).
Taking stock of the baggage of history
The Second Vatican Council, with its theme of episcopal collegiality, appeared to provide a new opening for a warming of relations. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople symbolically lifted the mutual anathemas of 1054 AD.
While formal dialogue was initiated, one cannot point to any breakthroughs.
The first Slav Pope, Blessed John Paul II, brought new energy and interest to the matter, given his greater insight into (and appreciation for) the riches of Orthodox mysticism, patristics, liturgy, sacred music and iconography. He felt that both sides were impoverished by the separation, and had much to learn from one another.
Blessed John Paul’s powerful metaphor of a Church “breathing with two lungs again” resonated with many Catholics, but with fewer Orthodox.
Russians in particular doubted that a Polish patriot firmly rooted in Western culture and Latin Europe could gain the confidence of Eastern Orthodoxy.
When the Pope wished to travel to Russia to return a holy icon of Our Lady of Kazan, lost in the Bolshevik Revolution, he was rebuffed. In 2004, it was sent back to Russia generously and unconditionally.
Admittedly, the 1990s were not a good time for Catholic-Orthodox relations, given how tensions (and even violence and war) erupted after the crack-up of the Soviet bloc. Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs fought each other in the former Yugoslavia, and in Ukraine there was much sparring over Church property between Eastern-rite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.
There remains some difficulty with the Russian Orthodox over the rebuilding of Latin-rite churches and structures to serve the several hundred thousand Catholics (mainly ethnic Poles, Germans and Lithuanians) who remain in the Russian Federation and in Kazakhstan.
However, the biggest sore point continues to be the existence of Eastern-rite Catholicism, which many Orthodox regard with hostility.
The late 16th century “Union of Brest” allowed Orthodox in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to accept the primacy of Rome while retaining their Byzantine Rite liturgy, married parish priesthood and other Eastern practices. (If Byzantine-rite Catholicism among the Slavs has been a lightning-rod, the existence of other Oriental Churches in communion with Rome — for example the Maronites of Lebanon — has been less contentious.)
We have to admit that the Union of Brest was not a great success, at least insofar as it sought to restore communion between East and West, and it only turned most Orthodox further against Rome. Disliked by the Orthodox, misunderstood by Latin-rite Catholics and often persecuted by Orthodox (and later Communist) states, these “Uniates” (historically a term of abuse) often showed immense courage and perseverance.
But many Eastern-rite Catholics who emigrated to the United States found themselves adrift and cold-shouldered by their fellow Roman Catholics, and not a few of their descendants today belong instead to the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Curiously, despite Orthodoxy’s official disapproval of Eastern-rite Catholicism, they themselves have sponsored something analogous: a modest-sized “Western-rite Orthodox” movement, where Orthodox may practice their faith according to Western, Latin traditions.
While there must be give-and-take in the Catholic-Orthodox relationship, we obviously cannot sacrifice the rights of Eastern Catholics — and increasingly, the Orthodox grasp this. It would be wrong to pursue broader aims at their expense.
A series of visible, practical steps to cooperate and form a common front for Christian life in a hostile world
Despite the dashed hopes and points of friction, there is new impetus for Catholic and Orthodox collaboration. Pope Benedict worked very hard to make relations warmer, and today the freshness and humility of Pope Francis’ pontificate provides a new opening for still greater things. In my opinion, the following might be a suitable “wish list” of action steps:
1. Launch a new joint standing committee of Catholic and Orthodox bishops in Europe: This would not be for theological discussion, but for the pursuit of specific, tangible common aims. Its first objective would be to have a positive, Christian influence on the public policy environment in a not-altogether-friendly European Union. A second, and no less important, objective would be to work together to help the suffering and beleaguered Christians of the Middle East and Near East. Helsinki, Finland might provide an appropriately neutral meeting place (and permanent secretariat location) for such a joint standing committee, with the symbolism of being at an important historic border of East and West. The Monastery of St. Catherine of Sinai might also be a suitable and inspiring occasional meeting site, as would the shrine of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy. Should this model prove useful, similar committees could be formed in some other parts of the world, with bishops delegated to serve by their respective Churches.
2. Develop new monastic and grassroots exchanges: Among the Orthodox, monastic life remains central, and bishops are generally drawn from the ranks of monks. Why not arrange for formal exchanges of monks from Greece, Russia, Serbia, the Holy Land and elsewhere with their Catholic counterparts, and vice versa? And why not create exchanges of young people where Orthodox may be invited to pilgrimages on foot to Santiago de Compostela and Chartres?
3. Create a series of major concerts highlighting the glories of Catholic and Orthodox sacred music — in major cities of the world.
4. Let the bells toll for Catholic-Orthodox cooperation: The Western (Gregorian) and Julian calendars coincide some years at Easter, and this will happen again next year on April 20, 2014 (in the Western calendar). What better way to signal cooperation than to have all Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals and churches throughout the world pray for unity and ring their bells at noon local time wherever they may be as a sign of their common hopes? If 2014 is too soon to organize this, the next opportunities will be in 2017 and, much later, in 2034.
5. Leverage bonds of interest and affection where they exist: The Sovereign Order of Malta is one of the few Catholic institutions for which the Russians (and the Russian Orthodox Church) have a real affection, and the Order can provide a unique bridge between Catholics and Orthodox. The Knights of Malta today have diplomatic relations with some nine majority Orthodox population countries, including Russia and Serbia. In 2012, the Moscow Kremlin Museums hosted a successful major exhibition on artistic and culture treasures from the Order of Malta’s 900 year history, which also intertwines with Russian history. (After Napoleon’s capture of Malta, Tsar Paul I of Russia irregularly assumed the headship of this Catholic order in order to save it from extinction — and Russians have been fascinated ever since.)
I realize these are the mere musings of a Catholic layman, though I grew up with a strong awareness of my paternal-line Orthodox ancestors. There is much to do, starting with prayer and confidence-building steps both large and small.
Last year I donated a painting to St. Juliana of Lazarevo Russian Orthodox Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a very traditional parish with a unique Southwestern adobe structure capped with a blue onion dome. The parish priest graciously accepted my gift, which now hangs in the parish hall. It was a small gesture. We must now do much more.
Stephen Klimczuk is a corporate strategist, foundation director, author, trustee of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, and sometime Oxford fellow. His Polish parents grew up in the Kresy (Poland’s historic Eastern borderlands), and his father’s family was deported to Siberia in 1940.