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The Dialogue Between East and West - Challenges and Hopes

Scranton University

In this year of the Great Jubilee of the Coming of the Redeemer, the dialogue between East and West has a special urgency for those who believe in Jesus Christ and see in the Church he founded an extension of himself in time and space.

I count it a genuine honor to be invited to reflect with you on the recent history of the dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, between the East with its memories of the splendor of Byzantium and the West with its recollections of the glory that was Rome. This reflection we make in the light of a history rooted in a thousand years and more of shared history and acknowledged unity in the One Church of Christ. It takes place at the University of Scranton, where the Center for Eastern Christian Studies and the periodical Diakonia render distinguished service to the faith, traditions, practices and art of the Christian East.

As I prepared for today, I reread the public statements and correspondence between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Holy See during the earlier years of our ecumenical pilgrimage. (Towards the Healing of Schism, E. J. Stormon, S.J., editor, Paulist Press, 1987)  The statements begin with the final illness and then death of Pope Pius XII and the expressions of sympathy on the part of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, offered to the world through press statements. 

With the election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII, the statements became both frequent and heartfelt. In his first Christmas message, the new Bishop of Rome recalled an Orthodox initiative for greater visible unity in the Christian family and regretted it could not be fully implemented. Almost immediately, Patriarch Athenagoras, who had been personally involved in the effort of the early 1920’s and who had worked for greater understanding among Christians during his many years in the United States, responded positively. With the election of Pope Paul VI in 1963, the relationship continued. When the first direct contacts between the new pope and Patriarch Athenagoras took place by letter, the official newspaper of the Ecumenical Patriarchate spoke of new relations between "sister churches," anticipating language to be adopted in due course by the Churches themselves. 

By January 1964 the statements could give way to deeds. On the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem Pope and Patriarch, Peter and Andrew, could embrace and begin what they called "the dialogue of charity." This was beautifully symbolized by the icon Patriarch Athenagoras later gave to the Pope as a remembrance of their meeting. It shows the two brother-apostles, Peter and Andrew, the patrons of Rome and Constantinople respectively, in fraternal embrace. That icon is now in the conference room of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome, a permanent reminder of the new relationship that was being forged between Catholics and Orthodox, and of the hope for full unity it continues to inspire. In the days following the Jerusalem meetings at the Catholic Apostolic Delegation and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Summer Palace the messages between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras grew in frequency, warmth and evident mutual respect. 

The Pope showed great interest in the Orthodox plans for a great and holy Synod and sent messages of good wishes when the preparatory committee met. The Patriarch, for his part, gave full official status to his representative to the Second Vatican Council and provided for a delegation of three observers to the Council. One of the three during the final phase of the Council is today Metropolitan Maximos, the Presiding Hierarch of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, who is co-chair of both the Theological Consultation between our Churches in North America and of the Bishops’ Committee. (Cf. Telegram from Patriarch Athenagoras to Cardinal Bea, October 24, 1964, Op. cit., p. 85) Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee is the co-chair on the Catholic side.

During the Third Period of the Council Cardinal Augustin Bea acted for Pope Paul VI in bringing back to Patras the great relic of St. Andrew that had been entrusted by that community to Pope Pius II in 1462. Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Ephesus (and formerly of Myra), the senior member of the Holy Synod today, told me that he rode in the car with Cardinal Bea bringing the relic to its resting place in Patras. The welcome and the acclamations of the people along the road from the airport to the church brought tears to the eyes of the Cardinal and an indelible memory for the young Orthodox bishop who rode with him.

Within the year the Patriarch sent a delegation to Rome with the results of the Third Pan-Orthodox Conference at Rhodes and the Pope in his turn dispatched Cardinal Bea with a delegation to convey officially the Council’s Decree Unitatis Redintegratio on the recomposition of Christian Unity. Pope Paul wrote on March 31, 1965, "Surely the happy harmony easily perceived between the decisions of the Conference of Rhodes and those of the Vatican Council is a fresh sign of the action of the Holy Spirit." (Op. cit., p. 91)

When the Second Vatican Council closed in December 1965, both Churches were ready for a next step forward. At the Cathedral of St. George at the Phanar and at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, the late morning of December 7 saw parallel ceremonies. In the presence of Patriarch and of Pope their deputies read decrees during which excommunications pronounced over nine centuries earlier, in 1054, were "erased from the memory and the midst of the Church" and consigned "to oblivion." (Op. cit., p. 127) The president of the pontifical delegation representing Pope Paul VI was my distinguished predecessor, Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan. Another member of the delegation is present with us today—Father John Long, S.J., who is also a member of the International Joint Commission between our Churches. Etched in my own memory is a recollection of the twin ceremony in Rome, when Metropolitan Meliton represented the Patriarch in ending a divisive chapter in our common history.

Worth recalling now are the words with which Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI concluded their common statement on this occasion: "In carrying out this symbolic action, however, they hope that it will be acceptable to God, who is quick to pardon us when we pardon one another, and that it will be appreciated by the whole Christian world, but above all by the general body both of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, as the expression of a sincere mutual desire for reconciliation, and as an invitation to follow up, in a spirit of trust, esteem, and mutual charity, the dialogue which will lead them with the help of God to live afresh, for the greater good of souls and the coming of God’s kingdom, in the full communion of faith, of brotherly harmony, and of sacramental life, which obtained between them throughout the first thousand years of the life of the Church." (Op. cit., p. 128)  

The Pope and the Patriarch continued to communicate among themselves and to plan and to carry out visits to each other, holding up always the call of Jesus to holiness and to a deeper unity in Christ. During the exchange of visits in 1967 Pope Paul VI issued in Istanbul a document in which he used the term "sister Churches" to describe the rediscovered relationship between East and West and the urgent need to surmount obstacles "to succeed in bringing to its fullness and perfection the already very rich communion which exists between us." (Op. cit., pp. 162-163)

Also, the two issued a common statement in Rome defining future efforts to avoid the complaint of proselytism. They said together: "They recognize that the true dialogue of charity . . . must be rooted in total fidelity to the one Lord Jesus Christ and in mutual respect for each one’s traditions. . . . (They) are convinced that the dialogue of charity between their churches should bring forth fruit in an unselfish collaboration and common action upon the pastoral, social and intellectual levels, with a mutual respect for the fidelity of members on either side to their own Church." They continued, "The Roman Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate are ready to study practical measures for solving pastoral problems, particularly as regards marriages between Catholics and Orthodox. They would hope for a better collaboration in works of charity, to help refugees and those who suffer, and to promote justice and peace in the world." They went on to commit themselves to ask the professors of both Churches to be sensitive to the ecumenical dimension in the study of history, Church traditions, and patristic and liturgical matters. They said, "The spirit which should inspire these efforts is a spirit of loyalty to the truth and of mutual comprehension, with a real desire to avoid the rancors of the past and every kind of spiritual or intellectual domination." (Op. cit., p. 183)

A new phase in the relationship began with the death of the Ecumenical Patriarch on July 7, 1972.  The event so moved Pope Paul VI that he said publicly two days later: "His stately and hieratic bearing was an expression of his inner dignity; his grave and simple words bore the accents of the pure goodness of the Gospel. He inspired high regard and feelings corresponding to his own. We are among those who most admired and loved him. The friendship and trust he showed us never failed to move us. As his memory comes back to mind, our sense of loss grows greater, but so does our hope of having him still close to us in the Communion of Saints."

The exchanges of delegations and messages between Constantinople and Rome continued in intensity and purpose with the election of Patriarch Dimitrios, and subsequently, as the new Patriarch pursued the policy of his predecessor and made relationships with the Sister Church of Rome a high priority.

Especially charged with emotions of joy and hope were the visits of December 1975, marking the tenth anniversary of the revocation of the mutual excommunications. Metropolitan Meliton brought formal word to Rome, and announced in the Sistine Chapel, that a Pan-Orthodox Commission had been set up to prepare the theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church and that the Patriarchate itself had established a special synodal commission for this dialogue. When he heard this announcement and had greeted formally the Orthodox delegation, Pope Paul VI astonished all present, and eventually the world, by going to Metropolitan Meliton, kneeling before him, and kissing his feet. The date was December 16; two days later in Istanbul the Patriarch hailed the "spontaneous symbolic act" of the Pope, which he described as "an act without precedent in the history of the Church." He went on to say, "By this expressive sign our beloved brother the most venerable Pope of Rome . . . has shown to the Church and the world what a bishop, and above all the first Bishop of Christendom, can be, namely a force for reconciliation and for the unification of the Church and the world." (Op. cit., pp. 295-296)

Within days the membership of Catholic and Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commissions was announced. Formation of the actual Joint International Commission took four more years, with the death of Pope Paul VI and the election of Pope John Paul II intervening. On November 30, 1979, in the course of a papal visit to the Patriarchate, Pope John Paul and Patriarch Dimitrios announced the establishment of the Dialogue and the lists of the members of the respective delegations. From the outset Archbishop Stylianos of Australia has led the Orthodox representatives. On the Catholic side Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, President of the Secretariat, later Council, for the Promoting of Christian Unity, served as chair initially. In 1989 Archbishop, later (in 1991) Cardinal, Edward I. Cassidy, succeeded him in the two positions.

The work of the International Commission and the fruitful responses on the part of the Theological Consultation in the North America are faithfully and helpfully recorded in a volume entitled, The Quest for Unity, edited by John Borelli and John Erickson. In the international arena we may rejoice at the impressive statements published in common on the Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist, in the light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity (Munich, 1982); then, on Faith, Sacraments and the Unity of the Church (Bari, 1987). More recently came the statement on the Sacrament of Order and the Sacramental Structure of the Church with Particular Reference to the importance of the Apostolic Succession for the Sanctification and Unity of the People of God (New Valamo, 1988). 

In 1990 at Freising, Germany, and three years later at Balamand, Lebanon, the International Commission dealt with issues which emerged with the collapse of Communism and the emergence of new freedoms in Eastern Europe. This changed situation made possible the resurrection and reestablishment of the Eastern Catholic Churches that had been forcibly suppressed following the Second World War. Because six of the now sixteen Churches of the Orthodox family were not able to participate at the Balamand meeting, and because some Orthodox had reservations about the document it produced, the issue is again on the agenda this summer, when the Commission is to meet for the first time in this hemisphere.

I now offer some observations relating in one way or another to this new step in the growing relationship between East and West.

In 1988 at New Valamo, Finland, an Orthodox delegate suggested to me that it was time for a meeting of the Commission to take place in the United States. I responded that Catholic delegates had already advised me that this was not possible. But I listened. And two months later, I was able to extend the invitation to which the Commission is now responding, namely, to meet at Mt. St. Mary’s College and Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland, situated in the first Catholic diocese of the nation.

When Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios visited the United States so memorably in the summer of 1990, I was invited to take two meals with him in Washington. On both occasions protocol had me sit next to Metropolitan Bartholomew, who was the senior member of the Holy Synod accompanying the Patriarch on his Pastoral Visitation. I spoke to him of the dialogue, and also of the warm relations among the Orthodox Churches here and between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. In this context there was a clear advantage of having a meeting here between the delegations of our two Churches, far from the abrasive confrontations and the inherited differences of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The next meeting was to be held on Orthodox turf and the Lebanese setting of Balamand was selected for the meeting.

Then came the impasse, as both Orthodox and Catholics sought to absorb the Balamand statement. Even anticipating this agreement, the Holy See on its own initiative issued a document to govern the activities of Catholics in the former Soviet Union and other Orthodox countries. It is worthwhile to recall here that the Catholic Church wished in every possible way, while offering pastoral care to the millions of Catholics caught in Siberia and throughout the former Soviet Union as a result of the great wartime movement of peoples, to honor and respect the status of the Orthodox Church in its own Eastern lands. 

On June 1, 1992, the Pontifical Commission for Russia published principles and norms to be observed by Catholics in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. The directives urge a "good understanding with the local authorities of the Orthodox Church," including respect for the difficulties that the Orthodox Church itself has faced and a willingness to make authorities of that Church aware of all important pastoral initiatives on the part of the Catholic Church. In addition, Catholic authorities are urged to support the Orthodox Church when possible in its pastoral and charitable works. (Cf. Origins, 1992, p. 301) They are to do what they can to avoid setting up "parallel structures of evangelization" in competition with the Orthodox. On the contrary, they are encouraged to "endeavor to cooperate with the Orthodox bishops in developing pastoral initiatives of the Orthodox Church. They should be pleased if by their contribution they can help to train good Christians." (p. 304) Thus it is clear that, far from encouraging Catholic expansion at the expense of the Orthodox, the Holy See encourages Catholics to promote the well being of their Orthodox brothers and sisters in the faith.

On May 25, 1995, Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, expressing his commitment to ecumenism.

He recalled, in the document, words that he had spoken in the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I on the occasion of the latter’s visit to Rome on December 6, 1987: "I acknowledge my awareness that ‘for a great variety of reasons, and against the will of all concerned, what should have been a service sometimes manifested itself in a very different light. But . . . it is out of a desire to obey the will of Christ truly that I recognize that as Bishop of Rome I am called to exercise that ministry . . . I insistently pray to the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek—together, of course, the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.’ " Pope John Paul has invited the observations of others concerning how the Petrine ministry might best be exercised in the service of the unity of the Christian family. We can expect further steps in this area, which is one of legitimate interest for all Christians. A very significant step would take place if the International Commission is able to move forward the agenda proposed for discussion in 1990: "The Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Structure of the Church: Conciliarity and Authority in the Church." A profound and serious consideration of this topic could help resolve some of the issues that are outstanding at this moment.

Within a month of the issuance of Ut Unum Sint, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visited Pope John Paul II in Rome and was invited, on the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, to take a place next to Pope John Paul at the high altar and, with him, to preach a homily on the feast. In the course of this Roman stay of the Patriarch, I extended to him an invitation, when he would come to the United States, to visit Baltimore and to preach at the Basilica of the Assumption, the historic first cathedral of our Church in this country. He took note of the invitation and asked me to renew it in writing when plans for such a trip to the United States would be published.

He did in fact come in 1997. There were two particular ecumenical moments in his visit. First, at Georgetown University, he spoke about the dialogue and raised some concerns when he said, in reference to Catholics and Orthodox, that "the manner in which we exist has become ontologically different." (Eastern Churches Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3, Autumn 1997, pp. 77-84.)

Subsequently, in Baltimore he spoke to the members of both the Theological Consultation and the Catholic-Orthodox Bishops’ Committee for Dialogue. His words to us were encouraging and, privately, he told me that he had telephoned Archbishop Stylianos of Australia to ask that the Orthodox members of the International Commission be convened by the end of the year at Istanbul to prepare to resume the dialogue.

The following month the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America met in Rome. On that occasion an Eastern Catholic prelate, quoting from the Patriarch’s Georgetown address, voiced grave concern about the future of the dialogue. I in turn cited what the Patriarch said to our dialogue committees as offering a source of hope for the future. Metropolitan Nicholas, present as a fraternal delegate appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarch, spoke very positively about the Patriarch’s visit to the United States and his own hopes for the future of the dialogue.

In Pope John Paul’s exhortation summing up the Synod’s work, he devotes an entire section to the Eastern Catholic Churches, including recommendations that reflect our own practice in the United States regarding the participation of Eastern Catholic Churches in the bishops’ conferences. In addition, he asks that "catechesis and theological formation for lay people and seminarians of the Latin Church include knowledge of the living tradition of the Christian East." Here in the United States an awareness of the Eastern Church was part of my own seminary formation four decades ago. At least annually the Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the seminaries I attended.

The Holy Father observes that fraternal cooperation with and practical assistance to the Eastern Churches in America "will certainly also enrich the particular Churches of the Latin rite with the spiritual heritage of the Eastern Christian tradition."

Now, as we look forward to the resumption of the International Dialogue this year, I call attention to a letter which Pope John Paul II wrote to Cardinal Edward Cassidy following the postponement of the Dialogue last year because of the war in Kosovo. Wrote Pope John Paul II: 

"At the threshold of the third millennium of the Christian era, the ecumenical commitment has to be enlivened by a renewed and ardent vigour. He who puts his hand to the work is called to aim with decision towards its fulfillment, and no difficulty should stop him.

"In the past few years, the dialogue among the Members of the Joint Commission has focused on a difficult problem, which has its origin in historical circumstances and in the divisions which came about during the second Christian millennium.

"I want to encourage You, venerable brother, and the Commission Members to reflect with deep sensitivity and understanding on the existing relationship between the Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Catholic Churches, with the awareness that before the Catholic Church the Oriental Catholic Churches have the same dignity as all other Churches that are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. They enjoy the same rights and are bound by the same obligations (cf. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 3)

"It will be necessary to reach the conclusion of this very delicate stage of the dialogue, by seeking through patient work carried out in a fraternal spirit and with love of truth, to arrive at a common understanding that would allow the Commission to resume its original theological programme. Not only must the dialogue not be interrupted, it must go forward with renewed intensity, so that the witness of Christ’s followers may shine more brightly in the contemporary world, at the threshold of the new millennium."

In the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation following the Synod for America he emphasized this dialogue and urged American cooperation in it for, he observed, with the Orthodox Church "we share many elements of faith, sacramental life and piety."

At the International Commission’s Balamand meeting in 1993, the role of the Eastern Catholic Churches figured prominently. In the document completed at Balamand, Catholics and Orthodox affirmed together the principle of religious freedom, and thus the right of Eastern Catholic Churches to exist and act in response to the spiritual needs of their faithful. The text also invites Eastern Catholic Churches to participate fully in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue at all levels.

On the feast of Saint Andrew, on November 30, 1998, I was honored to represent Pope John Paul II at the celebration of the patronal feast at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In the afternoon Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew delivered a significant address to those who gathered for a reception honoring Saint Andrew’s Day. In this address he said, "Even though the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the first See in the Orthodox world, it does not compete with the other Churches nor with any other religions, because it considers all people to be the beloved children of God. It respects the personal decisions of every individual and it offers its love to all equally, placing at their disposal its truth without pressuring anyone to accept it."  Thus, the Patriarch approaches the issue of religious freedom in a manner parallel to that set forth in the Balamand document. This gives us an additional measure of hope as we look to the future.

Another fresh measure of hope comes from Rome. 

Within the past year, indeed the past month, we have seen the Roman Primacy exercised in the service of Christian Unity. The extraordinary papal visit last year to Rumania confirmed the newly positive ties between the Rumanian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Church in that nation. Both Churches had adopted in practice the Balamand approach in their relationship. There both Pope and Patriarch also reinforced each other in calling for a Balkan peace.

In December, Pope John Paul II visited Orthodox Georgia and used every opportunity to show his respect for the Orthodox Church of that land. In January, he went on pilgrimage to Mount Sinai and honored the Orthodox presence at St. Catherine’s Monastery. Two weeks ago, he called on the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem in his residence, and there ensued an exchange that led Patriarch Diodoros I to exclaim, "May the Lord hear your prayers and our prayers and restore his peace to this land of peace!" (The Tablet, London, April 1, 2000, p. 441)

We have reviewed the progress of the dialogue through the years. Now comes a step closer to home.

The next meeting of the International Commission will be taking place here in the United States, where some may take for granted the enormous blessing of our religious freedom. The delegates will arrive on July 9, and remain for ten days at Mount Saint Mary’s College and Seminary, Emmitsburg. While the dialogue sessions, following precedent, will be private, the representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches will also have their public moments. During the meeting, on Wednesday, July 12, at the shrine where Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint, is buried and honored, there will be an evening ecumenical service open to the public. How wonderful it would be if many here present, both clergy and laity, could participate, praying that the Holy Spirit may heal old divisions and bring new life to the great numbers of Christians represented in the discussions. What a grace it would be if you could bring your own witness of fidelity and faith to an event in which laity, priests, bishops, cardinals from throughout the Catholic world participate with metropolitans, bishops and theologians from the 16 churches in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The Commission members will attend a Mass to be celebrated at the historic Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore and a Divine Liturgy at Saint Sophia Cathedral in Washington. In addition, the co-chairs of our dialogues, Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Metropolitan Maximos, will brief the International Commission on what has been taking place in North America these past three decades. Also, the members of the two dialogue groups will join the Commission for dinner and then all will proceed to the ecumenical service at the Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

I enlist now your prayers and interest, as together we ask the Holy Spirit to guide those who are coming from around the world to the deeper unity and the visible unity the Lord wills for his Church. Today dawned dreary, with snow in the air. Like the sun which now shines brightly, may the Holy Spirit help clear the air of any dark suspicions. May the Spirit warm hearts and enlighten minds to take mutually loving, creative and courageous steps as Sister Churches approach each other to embrace with the holy kiss of unity and peace.