An historical event of enormous import to our Church is unfolding slowly before our eyes. After a thousand years of estrangement and mistrust, East and West, the two major branches of Christianity, are finally engaged in a process of reconciliation.
As members of the one Church, we should be overjoyed at the prospect, reaching out to our Catholic neighbors with expressions of support for the unfolding process, and prayerful for its successful conclusion.
However we don’t seem to be. We are reacting to the event with uncertainty, perhaps even suspicion, wondering how its final outcome might impact on our Church.
The reasons are clearly historical. For nearly a millennium, though sharing the same faith, we and the Roman Catholics have led separate religious lives, refrained from visiting each other’s houses of worship, and abstained from discussions between us on the issues that separate us. We blamed Rome of course for the parting of our ways, and they blamed us.
It is time to put all that behind us. Our religious leaders have begun the process of reconciliation and we, the laity of the Church, should join the process of healing. We share after all the same faith, and what little separates us, can be settled given the good will and resolve from both sides.
Ever since Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras met His Holiness Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964, successive patriarchs and popes have been seeking the reconciliation of our two Churches.
These efforts have intensified under the auspices of Patriarch Bartholomew and his counterparts in the Vatican John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis.
The momentum is evident in the annual visits to Rome by Patriarch Bartholomew, or his delegates, on the occasion of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and of comparable visits to Constantinople by the Pope for the feast of Saint Andrew on November 30th.
It is indisputable that the leaders of Orthodoxy and of Roman Catholicism are sincere in their desire to eliminate the doctrinal and other issues that divide the two Churches, and bring them once again in full sacramental union. Serious problems, both organizational and doctrinal, stand in the way, of course.
The Church structure in the West, for instance, is highly centralized, with the Vatican exercising absolute control over the entire realm of Catholicism.
Our own Church in the East is decentralized and composed of a variety of ethnic Churches, some under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, others much less so.
A means needs to be found that reunites the two segments of the Church, while also allows each to pursue its current administrative practices, customs and traditions.
The issues of Papal supremacy and of filioque, the two major doctrinal disputes that have kept the two Churches apart, similarly will have to be resolved before true reunion can be realized.
Of the two, the primacy of the Pope remains the chief obstacle; filioque does not. Increasingly, the Roman Church appears to be willing to abide by the Nicene Creed, as expanded by the Council of Constantinople; not the version that it is currently using.
On the issue of Papal supremacy, the East may eventually have to yield, as long as the authority of the Pope over the Eastern Patriarchates remains minimal.
Under such an arrangement, the Pope would be recognized as “the first among equals” over the entire Church, similar to the role of our own Patriarch today, who is regarded “the first among equals” in the Orthodox East.
The time has come for the Orthodox faithful to take note of the evolving reconciliation process with Rome and to rise to the occasion by reaching out to their Catholic brethren. Our own Metropolitan Methodios of Boston recently set the example when he joined some of his Catholic brothers of the Boston area for Vesper services on the occasion of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, a tradition that was repeated later that year when Boston Catholics joined a Greek Orthodox congregation for the celebration of Vespers on the occasion of the feast of Saint Andrew.
As the laity of the Church, it is encumbered upon us to be more than simple spectators to the evolving reconciliation process. We must free ourselves of the suspicions of the past, and openly declare our support for the efforts of our leaders.
The need for uniting Christianity’s two largest segments is great, in light especially of the persistent attacks that the Orthodox Church is being subjected to in the Middle East from a variety of sources.
A start could be made by Orthodox parishes in the United States developing relationships with their neighboring Roman Catholic churches, the way that many of our parishes presently maintain a close friendship with Antiochian, Russian, or Serbian Orthodox churches in their immediate vicinity.
Ample opportunities exist to enhance the reconciliation process – attending Vesper services together, social events, religious lectures by noted speakers – to mention a few.
On all such occasions, emphasizing the oneness of our Churches should be the order of the day, leaving the resolution of the admittedly difficult theological issues that divide East and West to the theologians at the Vatican and the Phanar.
The time for action is now. Remaining aloof to the reconciliation effort and allowing the status quo to endure, and divide the Church, should no longer be an option.