I’ve been watching from the corner of my eye the life videocast from the Church of St. George today. The Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope celebrated the Holy Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. I was hoping for a miraculous restoration of full communion — for the Patriarch to beckon the pope with the chalice, or something like that.
That was too much to hope for — of course. And if it had happened it would have rent Orthodoxy in two. But it was a hope-giving celebration nonetheless. With the Pope reading the Lord’s Prayer in Greek during the Liturgy, with the mutual speeches in which the Pope time and again referred to Peter and Andrew being brothers, as should the successors of Peter and Andrew be. And during communion the pope was actually grinning, like he thought “wait and see — I’ll live to see communion between our churches!”
It was a beautiful liturgy and a beautiful ceremony concluded by the solemn exchange of gifts — a gospel for the Pope and a communion chalice for the Patriarch. As the commentator said “They’re almost like a couple, affianced but not yet married who almost cannot wait any longer to consummate their unity”. Now that’s a simile that’s worth remembering!
The problem is that while the heads of the churches know each other and want unity, they both have stubborn and contrary believers in their flocks that really don’t share their prime bishop’s desire.
One of the points of the joint declaration was that even on a local level, meeting between the churches is a Good Thing — I understand it a call on Roman Catholics to find their nearest Orthodox parish and visit, and on Orthodox Christians to find their nearest Roman Catholic parish and visit, too. Learning to know each other and to love each other. Fun trivia detail: the declaration was written in French but read out in English.
In a sense, the ceremony was striking in its simplicity, informality — a joint blessing, a look of understanding exchanged between Pope and Patriarch, the little kid running up to the pope before he receives communion, the men chatting in the back of the church, just like the Russian men do in our church, a choir no bigger than the choir of our own church. The Patriarch laying out the pen for the Pope to sign with with a friendly gesture. A friendly family atmosphere prevailed :-).
Both churches have serious problems in addition to discord: as the Pope said, the western Catholic church is declining through secularism. And the eastern Orthodox church is suffering from persecution by the Turkish government (which among other things seizes churches, has closed the theological school and is awfully keen to make sure Patriarch Bartholomew will be the last Ecumenical Patriarch). Sister churches in the Middle East are going through an even more difficult time. And the Church in Russia is once again being subverted and poisoned through a too close association with a state keen on abusing the church to tighten its hold on its people.
But let’s be optimistic: full communion between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy in our lifetimes! It’s possible — most of the old theological disputes like the filioque, yeast or not in the communion bread and so on — have been resolved. If the Churches are sister churches and the Patriarchs brothers like Andrew and Peter were brothers, then resolving the remaining problems is merely a matter of time and a little good will. And that the Pope and Patriarch have shown to possess in spades today.
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