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Not if, but when: Catholic — Orthodox unity

By Rev. Damian MacPherson, SA


No other pope in history has advanced the cause of Christian unity more than Pope John Paul II. His 26 years as Bishop of Rome was characterized by a devoted hunger and unquenchable thirst for the unity of the Christian church. The spirit of his passion is captured in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That all may be one). The following text is representative of that passion. “. . . it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature (par. 20). He will be remembered like no other Bishop of Rome before him as one totally vested in the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church to bring about Christian unity.

One further benchmark of his initiatives should be shared, again from the above encyclical. In May 1995 John Paul II surprised the Catholic and Orthodox world and Christianity in general when he put forward a bold ecumenical invitation related to his own public ministry. He invited all church leaders and their theologians to seek together with him new forms in which his ministry of unity maybe exercised so as to be a ministry of love recognized by all (par. 95 & 96). Responses to this thorny and essentially new and important invitation remains unresolved. This and his many trips to predominately Orthodox countries had and continues to signal to the Orthodox world the sincerity with which John Paul II sought to make serious and concerted ecumenical gestures to his Orthodox brothers.

A further ecumenical breakthrough was yet to come. Readers perhaps know that on Nov. 3, 2014, on his visit to Turkey, Pope Francis made a statement of historical proportions, addressed particularly to the Orthodox Church. Following a reminder by the Bishop of Rome that full communion with the brotherhood of 300 million Orthodox was his goal, he offered the following, namely, that “the achievement of unity between the East and West does not on the part of the West require the submission of one to another or assimilation.” In the presence of the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I (first among equals in the Orthodox world), Francis gave the assurance that “to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of a shared profession of faith.” Without question, such a gesture has taken both East and West by surprise. The full import and responding consequences of such a gesture will take some time to achieve its mission.

In the meantime, such generous ecumenical gestures by these succeeding bishops of Rome, John Paul II and Francis, can only serve to further galvanize the continuing improved ecumenical relationship now underway. Present recognition must joyfully be given to the determination and public co-operation being witnessed today by Francis and Bartholomew. Precisely because of these leaders and in ways not known for more than 1,000 years, Catholics and Orthodox are now feeling a growing sense of common belonging to one another. We can only confess with our lips and believe in our hearts that the work of the Holy Spirit is alive and manifesting its presence and action.

Increasingly the whole ecumenical world is living in anticipation of the pan Orthodox synod scheduled for 2016. The results of this historic event will place a positive or negative benchmark by which we will truly be able to judge the real state of our ecumenical stewardship. The event will be the first time the East has held a synod of this type in 1,200 years. The hope is that this synod will break new ground, giving common praise and approval to our ecumenical success thus far, while driving us forward to believe that unity is possible in our time.

As Bishop of Rome, Francis has been a man of many surprises. Perhaps the synod in the person of Bartholomew will surprise the Christian world by inviting Francis to address the delegates assembled for the approaching Orthodox synod.

If the great achievement of unity is ever to come about, it cannot simply be left to theologians and church leaders. To be sure they must play their part. Of equal significance in achieving the cause of Christian unity is our common partnership and rededication to the wellsprings of spiritual ecumenism. What has succeeded more recently at the top echelon of both churches must now trickle down into the life and spirit of the laity. The unity we seek cannot happen without the full engagement of the pulpit and the pew. Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants have an equal responsibility in this endeavour. We are reminded that change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of the Christian church, is the soul of spiritual ecumenism (Decree on Ecumenism, n. 8a). It was the late Yves Conger, OP, who said that we must pass through the doors of ecumenism on our knees. Without the benefit and fruits of spiritual ecumenism, we are likely to lose our way, a risk we cannot afford to allow happen.

MacPherson, a Friar of the Atonement, is director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs in the Archdiocese of Toronto.