On numerous occasions St. John Paul II exhorted all Catholics, and indeed all Christians, to appreciate that the church had to breathe through both lungs — East and West. The message was so important to him that the pontiff issued the apostolic letter Orientale Lumen — the Light of the East. With a sense of the historic, the letter coincided with the 100th anniversary of Orientalium Dignitas — On the Churches of the East — issued by Pope Leo XIII in November 1894.
Both popes hoped that knowledge would lead to understanding, which, in turn, would lead to greater co-operation and even unity. They spoke not only about goodwill between Catholics of the Latin Church and the 23 Eastern churches, but also between all Catholics and members of those Eastern churches outside the Catholic fold. So passionate was St. John Paul II about this, he used the expression breathing through both lungs to show that the cause was vital. He saw the Christian church as one body that needed both lungs to be healthy and functioning. It was not a cold unfeeling metaphor, but one that evoked our own lives and the health we all cherish. Who cannot sympathize with the crisis, even panic, which ensues when breath does not come easily?
That same emotion is evident in Orientale Lumen. Far from being cold and dogmatic, the letter reveals St. John Paul II’s deep feelings. “Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters are very conscious of being the living bearers of this tradition, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must also be fully acquainted with this treasure and thus feel, with the pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the church’s catholicity be restored to the church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition, and still less by one community in opposition to the other; and that we too may be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal church which is preserved and grows in the life of the churches of the East as in those of the West.”
A century earlier, in perhaps a less understanding era, Pope Leo XIII expressed a vital need for respect and mutual understanding when he wrote Orientalium Dignitas. “The churches of the East are worthy of the glory and reverence that they hold throughout the whole of Christendom in virtue of those extremely ancient, singular memorials that they have bequeathed to us. For it was in that part of the world that the first actions for the redemption of the human race began, in accord with the all-kind plan of God.”
“We have begun to have hope, we are fostering it because its realization would be a great cause for joy, and, it is a fact, we are pursuing more strenuously this work so profitable for the salvation of many. Our goal is to discharge to the utmost degree whatever may be hoped for from the prudent direction of the Apostolic See. The reasons for rivalry and suspicion must be removed; then the fullest energies can be marshalled for reconciliation. We consider this of paramount importance to preserving the integrity proper to the discipline of the Eastern churches.”
At times, the tone of Orientale Lumen is almost one of desperation. Pope Leo XIII went so far as to include 13 protocols specifically designed to preserve the Eastern Catholic churches and protect them from Latinization or extinction.
So, after 125 years and two apostolic letters, have things changed?
Happily, the answer is yes.
There are numerous signs that we are learning from each other and realizing we all need to work at breathing through both lungs. Here are a few examples.
“Growing in Faith, Growing in Christ” is a new religious education program being prepared for Grade 5 students attending the Catholic school systems in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. The publishers have gone out of their way to ensure the catechism includes content explaining how Eastern theology and practice differs from that of the West.
In Winnipeg, the shrine that contains the relics of Blessed Martyr Vasyl Velychkovsky is visited by Christians from around the world, who come to pray and seek miraculous healing. Blessed Martyr Vasyl was a victim of Soviet torture for his faithfulness to the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Breathing with both lungs also means greater understanding and co-operation between the 23 Eastern Catholic churches. St Stephen Protomartyr Ukrainian Catholic Church in Calgary is also home to St. Basil the Great Melkite Catholic Church, which celebrates mass in Arabic.
The Edmonton Catholic School’s Ukrainian bilingual program welcomes not only children of Ukrainian descent, but those from a variety of religious backgrounds whose parents want their children to receive the benefit of learning about Byzantine spirituality.
St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a great symbol of the Anglican Church, displays Byzantine icons in its nave.
Finally, if you have read this article through, your interest in breathing through both lungs is proof that things are changing.
Kostyniuk, who lives in Edmonton, has a bachelor of theology from Newman and is a freelance writer. He and his wife Bev have been married for 39 years and have eight grandchildren.