The pan-Orthodox synod is meeting in Crete June 19 - 26. This meeting will be watched closely by both Catholic and Orthodox faithful.
It was St. John Paul II who emphasized that the church breathes with two lungs — the East and the West. Roman Catholics have long been content to think of themselves as the main, or only, body of the church. We forget that Jesus was not born in the West. We forget that the first Christian communities were located in a dozen or more centres in the East. Rome became the centre of the western church.
Historical circumstances have made the Latin Church centred in Rome the dominant church body and over time we became more and more centralized under the pope and curia in Rome.
St. John Paul II made great efforts to reunite the eastern and western lungs of the church. A breach was made a thousand years ago for theological, historical and cultural reasons.
Part of this breach was healed by the Union of Brest in 1596 when some Orthodox churches (including the Ukrainian Catholic Church) united with Rome. But this process has been rejected by many Orthodox churches. And this remains a sticking point for the Orthodox church to this day.
The fact that some Orthodox churches don’t recognize the Roman Catholic Church as a true apostolic church is another historical and theological barrier. They consider us heretics.
The pan-Orthodox synod is of interest to Catholics because, led by recent popes, the efforts to give a united Christian witness in the world is seen as a major goal. Certainly some barriers have been overcome in the last half-century, but more obstacles remain. A sign of the growing harmony is the friendship between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, traditionally the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, and recent popes. It was Bartholomew who invited Pope Francis to send observers to the meeting in Crete.
One of the obstacles the Orthodox face is the lack of unity among the independent (autocephalous) churches themselves. “In a sense, the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, conceived as a gathering of all the heads of the 14 independent Orthodox churches around the world . . . has been at least a millennium in the making,” says Vatican commentator John Allen, Jr. “More proximately, planning has been underway since 1961, meaning more than a half-century.”
Some of the objections to this year’s meeting seem rather petty. “Recently, two of the 14 Orthodox churches have floated boycotting (the meeting) — the Bulgarians, because they’re upset over some of the documents up for discussion and also the seating arrangements, and the patriarchate of Antioch, over a jurisdictional dispute involving Qatar.”
John Chryssavgis, an archdeacon and theological adviser to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, said he hopes the council will have an impact on Orthodoxy similar to that of the Second Vatican Council on Catholicism — especially in the press for unity, within Orthodoxy and also with other churches and the wider world.
Commenting on a possible boycott by some churches, Orthodox theologian Chryssavgis said the meeting will go ahead and will be binding: “If one or more churches doesn’t attend, or withdraws during the council, or is not present and doesn’t vote, all the decisions made will still hold and be binding for all Orthodox churches. A Great Council is above and beyond any individual church council or synod . . . and it remains such even without the participation of one or more church.”
Orthodox leaders have fences to mend not only with the Roman Catholic Church and with the Eastern churches in union with Rome, they also have fences to mend between themselves. Many of their faithful are more conservative than their leaders. Not all, for example, were happy that Patriarch Bartholomew was present at Pope Francis’ inaugural mass at the Vatican.
That’s why the meeting will open June 19, which is Pentecost on the Julian calendar.