underlying the quest for unity

A Century of Catholic-Orthodox Relations

by John Long, S.J.

In the spring of 1962, while a graduate student, I visited Mount Athos, the famous monastic mountain in Greece. Though kindly received by the Orthodox monks, I was shown a painting depicting the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologus and a Roman pontiff presiding over the execution of a group of Orthodox monks who had refused to accept the “union” of the Greek and Roman churches proclaimed at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274.

That incident never occurred. But it was a sign of the historical memory of real or fanciful grievances that have colored Catholic and Orthodox relations for centuries.

In 1956, a priest from Fordham University took a group of undergraduate students to an Orthodox church. The Orthodox priest welcomed the group graciously and explained the arrangement and appearance of the church. Pointing to the iconostasis (a screen of icons dividing the sanctuary from the nave of a church) he told them that the eucharistic sacrament for the sick was kept behind it. After leaving the church a student asked the Catholic priest whether the Orthodox had the Eucharist as did Catholics. When the priest said yes, the student rejoined, “I didn’t notice you making any sign of reverence. Is Christ really present?” “Yes,” said the Catholic priest, “but he doesn’t want to be.”

Since the earliest days of the church, followers of Jesus Christ have been divided as to how to interpret and practice his teachings.

Long before the Protestant Reformation divided the Christian West in the 16th century, no less than six movements – described often as economic, linguistic, philosophical, political or theological – divided the early church, principally the Christian East. In just four decades, we have traveled far from when these stories were the norm. Little divides us today, however, except for the custom of being divided.

But lately there have been a fair number of statements about an “ecumenical winter” and the “faltering dialogue” between the churches of the Christian East and the Christian West. As we move into this new millennium, we need to reflect on our past and trace the considerable advances made thus far in our search for reconciliation and the restoration of full communion.

The first half of the 20th century. The lack of ecclesial communion between the various Catholic and Orthodox traditions is the result of a centuries-old growth of estrangement tempered, and at times exacerbated, by efforts to re-establish full communion.

For centuries, Eastern and Western Christians had been able to maintain fundamental ecclesial communion despite diversities. But estrangement moved into separation as each tradition insisted more and more on its vision of God’s revelation in his Son and the Church as the only correct vision. Re-establishing full communion, therefore, meant a “return” of one community to the other. Attempts at global union were a failure as clergy and laity in both communities did not recognize the legitimacy of diversity in unity or the possibility that, fundamentally, communion among churches already existed.

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Tags: Christianity Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church