Sitting in a church in suburban Athens on a sweltering evening recently, I attended the Paraklesis service, a daily supplication to the Mother of God which takes place from August 1 until the Assumption. The hour-long service combines a strict liturgical format with fervently devotional content. The large congregation were largely passive, yet one sensed that the ancient chants in their archaic language satisfied their spiritual longing in a way which appears to elude us in the Catholic Church, where liturgy and devotion often seem like former spouses who have gone through an acrimonious divorce.
I fell to sporadic daydreaming, drifting back and forth from the dense theology, combined with deep affectivity, of the now familiar texts. For so long I have wanted to be part of this, able to participate fully in what I currently experience only as a tolerated stranger. I want to be in communion with my Orthodox brethren, but without renouncing communion with the Church of Rome, willed by Christ to be the centre of unity, to which my forebears remained faithful for so long at so much cost.
Can unity ever be re-established, in the face of theological disputes entrenched for more than a millennium and of equally longstanding distrust and mutual lack of understanding? And if reunion is more than a pipe dream, how would it occur?
The question of “how” is relatively easy to answer. The re-establishment of union must of necessity involve an ecumenical council, where all the re-uniting churches participate as full members of equal dignity and authority. Before this could happen, there would need to be a consensus established within both churches that the major bones of theological contention had been resolved. First, the Orthodox would need to be convinced that the Catholic doctrine of the Filioque, that the existence of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity derives eternally from the Son as well as the Father, is not heretical.
There is these days a general conviction among Catholic theologians that the Filioque controversy is not at bottom an irreconcilable difference, and that Orthodox reservations may rest on a misunderstanding based on slight variation in meaning between Greek and Latin technical terms. However, although this has received some support on the Orthodox side, it has failed so far to gain general assent there.
Unquestionably, more theological work needs to be done. A reunion Council could only succeed as the end point of a process of convergence. That is the lesson of past failures. After the Councils of Lyons in 1274 and Florence in 1434, lack of reception by the Eastern clergy and faithful revealed the shortcomings of the preparations and the one-sidedness of the deliberations. Next time there must be no stitch-up among prelates and theologians, but a true meeting of minds involving each church as a body.
The readiness of many Orthodox leaders to engage in dialogue means that there is real hope of progress despite the reluctance of many and the outright resistance of some. If that progress looks painfully slow and hesitant, we need to remind ourselves that the wounds of a thousand years will not be healed in a matter of decades.
But the most difficult issue facing reunion remains that of authority. Issues which are vital to theologians might seem abstruse to the more practical; the question of who calls the shots has an immediately practical relevance to all. Orthodox have long feared that behind apparent ecumenical goodwill there remains on the Roman side a ruthless will to power. Historically, after all, the papacy has form on this.
Basically, the only exercise of universal authority on the part of Rome which the Orthodox might conceivably accept is the form it took in the first millennium: right of appeal. In other words, Eastern Churches would continue to govern themselves according to their own canons and traditions, but would agree that the papacy could be called upon to resolve disputes among them. If Rome is to be a convincing ecumenical partner, it must show that it is serious both in preserving apostolic faith and order, while fostering diversity in local traditions sanctioned by antiquity.
A first step would be allowing the Eastern Churches already in union with Rome real self-government, without excessive interference from Rome, while encouraging them to prune the “latinisations” whereby Western practices have crept into their liturgy and discipline. There has been real, though inadequate, progress in these respects in recent decades. Only in this way can the so called “Uniates” cease to be seen by the Orthodox as a Trojan Horse, and fulfil their vocation to be bridge-builders.
Above all, progress can only occur when the Orthodox can look at Catholicism and be reassured and attracted by what they see. This means that we must learn to treasure those things in our own tradition which are profoundly in harmony with theirs. Wholesale abandonment by Catholics of the ascetical tradition (fasting in particular) we once held in common, for example, and the secularisation and trivialisation of our liturgical celebrations, have convinced many Orthodox that we are not serious about our identity as an apostolic Church.
I sometimes think that little in Catholic life today can exert even on well-disposed Orthodox observers the kind of attraction which Orthodoxy has for people like me. That is a problem on which Catholics committed to ecumenism would do well to ponder, if we want progress towards unity to go beyond polite official statements.
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