Catholic, Orthodox show signs of reconciliation

  • December 10, 2007

{mosimage}Advent invites us to cast aside our pessimism about the present age, and boldly imagine the great new beginnings that God has promised to His people.

Occasionally, events in the world make it easy to feel the excitement of tremendous, impending change. I remember the end of 1989 as one such season. Only three weeks before Advent Sunday, the Berlin Wall had been breached — something I had long believed was unthinkable and impossible.

Then suddenly it happened, confounding the Cold War sceptics and showing that European Communism was more vulnerable than anyone had believed. Day by day, throughout that Advent, the world witnessed the thrilling roll-forward of East Germany’s non-violent revolution. It was abruptly obvious to many Christians, as it had not been throughout the long decades of nuclear stand-off, that God can abruptly change the course of history, free the captives, inaugurate a new reign of freedom.

Advent 2007, of course, is not like Advent 1989. Scanning the horizon of contemporary history, we see few signs of an end to humanity’s suffering from war, disease and stubborn conflicts, and the beginning of new era of peace and harmony.

Yet there are some signs of hope, however tentative, and they should be regarded as precious by all people of good will.

In recent months, for example, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox communion of churches inched a little closer to overcoming the deep, ancient rift between them. The October meeting in Ravenna of the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission was not a peaceable gathering. The representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church walked out in protest against the presence of an Orthodox Church from Estonia the Moscow patriarchate does not recognize.

Despite this intra-Orthodox conflict, however, the meeting issued a final statement that all Catholic and Orthodox Christians should read and consider. It is a moving celebration of what we share — the gift of unity that Christ has bestowed on His people, the conviction that all authority comes from the living Word of God in our midst, the belief that our communion must be grounded in the Eucharist and the other sacraments ordained by Christ.

But as significant as anything the document says is what it does not say. The Orthodox participants did not insist, for instance, on the widespread (among the Orthodox) and divisive characterization of the Catholic Church as a breakaway organization radically separate from the “true” (Orthodox) church. Instead, both communions are depicted as holy and catholic, inasmuch as both embody the sacramental and ecclesial order given by Christ to the apostles. This depiction subtly shifts the ground of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue from a conversation between essentially different entities to an exchange between brothers who, for various historical reasons, have fallen out. The way has been opened for the dialogue to continue on a new footing that should encourage all those who hope to see the end of the 950-year-old split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

When the final statement of the commission was released in mid-November, some Italian newspapers declared that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches were “on the eve of reconciliation.” Church leaders were more cautious. “We must be clear this is only a first step, a modest step,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. However, the willingness of the Orthodox participants to discuss the way authority in the church is exercised on the universal level was a “real breakthrough,” the cardinal agreed.

The stage is now set for the discussion of more difficult matters, such as the historical role of the bishop of Rome and the teachings of the first and second Vatican councils. But given the outcome of the October session, we have reason to believe the next steps will be taken in Ravenna’s new spirit of charity and understanding.

While most of the world’s present conflicts show no signs of letting up during this Advent season, Catholics can take heart from the recent talks aimed at reconciling the most ancient communions in the universal church.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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