On Nov. 30, 2004, an extraordinary liturgical event took place in St. George’s Church in Istanbul, the cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. As Patriarch Bartholomew presided nearby, glass cases containing the remains of two of his predecessors were placed on the patriarchal throne: St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407) and St. Gregory Nazianzen (c. 329-90), known among the Orthodox as Gregory the Theologian. A special service of reception that had been drafted for the occasion was celebrated, and the event was attended by representatives of several other Orthodox churches and a Vatican delegation headed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The relics were then transferred to a permanent site.
Three days earlier, on Nov. 27, the same relics had been formally handed over to the patriarch by Pope John Paul II in a special service in St. Peter’s Basilica. John Paul II’s action was in response to a request the patriarch had made during his visit to Rome in June 2004. Both John Paul II and the patriarch knew that the return of relics that had been removed from Constantinople during the Latin occupation of the city in the 13th century would help ease a longstanding grievance among the Orthodox. Even though the Vatican issued a statement saying that the relics of Gregory had actually been brought to Rome for safekeeping during the iconoclastic persecutions in the eighth century, in the eyes of the Orthodox the return of the relics of the two saints repaired, as the patriarch put it in his speech in St. Peter’s Basilica, “an ecclesiastical anomaly and injustice.” In an interview with Vatican Radio, Bartholomew said that this had been “the most important event” of his 13 years as patriarch.
Signs of Renewed Respect
Pope John Paul II’s decision to return the relics to Constantinople was one of several gestures he made in recent years in an effort to foster good will between Catholics and Orthodox. Only last August he returned to the Russian Orthodox Church an 18th-century copy of the Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, which had hung in his personal study for more than 10 years. This image, an object of great devotion in Russia, had been spirited out of the country under mysterious circumstances after the 1917 Communist revolution and had been given to John Paul II in 1993.
When Patriarch Bartholomew led a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to Rome for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul last June, John Paul II formally handed over the church of St. Theodore on Rome’s Palatine Hill for the use of the local Greek Orthodox community. In a similar way, in 2003 he designated the church of St. Vincent and St. Athanasius at the Trevi Fountain for the liturgical use of the Bulgarian Orthodox in Rome.
Such actions have become especially important, because the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has been virtually at a standstill for more than 10 years now. Ever since Orthodox and long-suppressed Eastern Catholic communities in Eastern Europe began clashing after the collapse of Communism, the Orthodox have insisted that the dialogue deal exclusively with this problem and resolve it before returning to the theological agenda. Meeting in Balamand, Lebanon, in 1993, the dialogue group released an agreed text on the present status of the Eastern Catholic churches and the outdated Catholic policy of uniatism that led to the creation of some of them, but many found the document unsatisfactory. The dialogue met again in Baltimore and Emmitsburg, Md., in 2000, but no progress was made. Despite repeated appeals for a resumption of the dialogue by John Paul II and some Orthodox church leaders, there has been no perceptible movement. By all accounts the international dialogue is at an impasse.
This is why the energy in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue has shifted to the local level and to relations between the Holy See and individual Orthodox churches. This new approach corresponds more accurately to the realities of the Orthodox Church, since the Ecumenical Patriarchate has no real authority over the other churches, which can effectively obstruct common Orthodox action if they wish to do so.
The fruit of this new approach can be seen in several recent developments. John Paul II visited a country with an Orthodox majority for the first time when he arrived in Romania in May 1999, and Patriarch Teoctist returned the visit in October 2002. After John Paul II’s visit to Bulgaria in May 2002, Cardinal Kasper traveled to Sofia in October of the same year, and a delegation from the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church visited Rome in May 2003. Cardinal Kasper visited Belgrade in May 2002, and the Serbian Orthodox Church sent a high-level delegation to Rome in February 2003. As a result of these new contacts, Catholic and Serbian Orthodox bishops in the former Yugoslavia have begun to meet regularly, a practice that would have been almost unimaginable a short time ago.
But perhaps the most dramatic shift in relations has been with the Orthodox Church of Greece, which had been notably unenthusiastic about the dialogue with Rome. Following John Paul II’s groundbreaking visit to Athens in May 2001, the Church of Greece sent an official delegation to Rome in March 2002, and Cardinal Kasper headed a Vatican delegation to Athens in February 2003. In this case relations improved so much that plans were laid for Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens to pay an official visit to Rome in late 2004, at which time he was to be received by Pope John Paul II and be given an honorary degree by the Pontifical Lateran University. But in October the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece vetoed the proposal, voting 45 to 15 against it, which showed clearly that more conservative elements in the church are still very powerful.
Against the background of these encouraging new developments looms the much more complex and bitter relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. By far the largest Orthodox church in the world, the Moscow Patriarchate is slowly re-emerging, after 70 years of savage persecution, as a major player not only in the Orthodox world but in ecumenical circles worldwide. It is well known that Pope John Paul II hoped for years to pay a visit to Moscow, but the Russian Orthodox Church was never prepared to invite him.
The Russian Orthodox Church cites three reasons why relations with Rome remain tense. The first has to do with the Orthodox understanding of canonical territory. The Russians remain deeply offended by the fact that the Catholic Church established four dioceses in Russia, with a metropolitan archbishop in Moscow, in February 2002. The Moscow Patriarchate described this move as an “unfriendly act” that was carried out without any consultation with them beforehand. Cardinal Kasper rejected this protest, saying that overlapping jurisdictions by various churches will naturally exist all over the world as long as they remain divided. But the Russians remain convinced that when Rome set up ecclesial structures of its own in Russia, it acted in a way that contradicted its claim that it considers the Orthodox a sister church.
Second, the Russians have consistently accused Catholics of proselytism in their country. Catholics in Russia have just as consistently denied this. The problem appears to be that the two sides have different understandings of what constitutes proselytism. The official position of the Catholic Church is that Catholics are not to proselytize among Orthodox Christians. But the Russians accuse Catholics of proselytizing not so much the Orthodox, but the Russian people. It is here that the fundamental disconnect takes place. Many Catholics in Russia feel it is legitimate to evangelize unbaptized Russians. But since the Orthodox consider themselves to be the church of the Russian people, with the right and duty to re-evangelize their own nation, such activity by Catholics is seen as unjustified, if not unfair, especially if Rome really considers the Orthodox to be a sister church with valid sacraments. So there is a great need to arrive at a common understanding of proselytism that would define what types of evangelizing activity might be appropriate for Catholics in Russia today. In any case, there is no evidence of any significant increase in the number of Catholics in Russia. In fact, their numbers may be shrinking.
And finally, a potential source of even more misunderstanding has arisen from the prospect that the Holy See may decide to raise the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to the rank of patriarchate, with its headquarters in Kiev. Ukrainian Greek Catholics have long sought this highest ranking of Eastern Catholic churches, and Pope John Paul II made it clear that he was in favor of such a decision. It would recognize the heroic suffering of Ukrainian Greek Catholics during the Communist persecutions and the fact that this is now the largest Eastern Catholic church, with vital new educational institutions that are training a bright new generation of theologians and church leaders. But the depth of Orthodox opposition to such a move has become painfully evident. On Feb. 17, 2004, the Moscow patriarchate announced that it had received a memorandum from Cardinal Kasper discussing the matter and that the document had been forwarded to the heads of all the other Orthodox churches for their comments. The press release said that the heads of all the other Orthodox churches without exception had expressed their strong opposition to a Ukrainian Greek Catholic patriarchate as an unwarranted “expansion of uniatism” onto Orthodox territory. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who also sent a very pointed personal letter to the pope, had written to the Russians that the establishment of a patriarchate would “be regarded as an utterly hostile act against the whole of Orthodoxy.”
Dialogue in the West
Fortunately, in Western Europe and North America Catholics and Orthodox can engage each other largely free of the ethnic and political tensions that mar relations in Europe and the Middle East, and the memories of past injustices are less vivid. In France last year, the official Catholic-Orthodox dialogue completed a lengthy and detailed study of uniatism and issued a common statement on the ethics of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue that all those involved in such discussions would do well to heed.
In North America, the work of the Orthodox-Catholic Consultation has continued apace. Most recently, in October 2003 it finalized a major study of the ancient filioque controversy, one of the main dogmatic disagreements between the two churches. The word filioque, “and the Son,” was added to the Nicene Creed’s article on the Holy Spirit beginning in 6th-century Spain and over the centuries spread throughout western Europe, but it was not used in the liturgy in Rome until 1014.
Entitled “The Filioque: A Church-Dividing Issue?” the 2003 text surveys the Holy Spirit in Scripture, the historical development of the Christian understanding of the procession of the Spirit and the divergent traditions that arose in the East and the West, offers theological reflections on the issue and concludes with seven recommendations. Perhaps the most important of these is that the Catholic Church revert to the original use of the Creed without filioque, as was the practice of the Western church in the first millennium, and is the practice of the Orthodox to this day. The recommendation argues that the Catholic Church make this change not simply in order to respond to Orthodox objections, but also as a way for the Catholic Church to be consistent with its own recent official statements that affirm the conciliar, ecumenical, normative and irrevocable value of the Creed in its original form. The consultation has now embarked on a full-scale study of primacies and conciliarity in the churches, thus facing the most intractable of the issues that divide them.
In his speech in the Cathedral of St. George in Istanbul on Nov. 30, Cardinal Kasper said that the relics of John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, which were resting on the patriarchal throne, should not be understood merely as a gift or a sign of human friendship. “These are the relics,” he said, “of two deeply venerated witnesses and two doctors of our common faith of the first millennium a faith that the East and West remained faithful to during the second millennium, and that we are called by our common Lord Jesus Christ to give witness to together in the third millennium.” Catholics and Orthodox still have a long way to go to achieve this, to overcome the historical baggage and wounds that built up during a thousand years of separation. But it is gestures such as these that will slowly build up trust and good will and pave the way for the eventual reconciliation of these two ancient churches, long divided but never quite alien to each other.