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Light of the East: One Decade Later

by David M. Petras

After the Renaissance, a presumption of the superiority of the Latin (or Roman Catholic) Church to the Eastern churches prevailed in the West. This was perhaps natural: While the Christian West had prospered, expanding its reach and discovering new worlds, the Christian East was stifled by oppressive, at times even tyrannical, regimes.

Though the learned Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), for example, urged Eastern Catholics to remain faithful to their heritage, he nevertheless believed that the “Latin rite, because of its preeminence as the rite of the Holy Roman Church, which is the mother and teacher of all churches, prevails… over the Greek rite.” (“Etsi Pastoralis,” 1742)

This presumption was accepted, perhaps unconsciously, by Eastern Catholics and was an important factor in the “Latinization” of their churches, a process in which these churches adopted Latin liturgical usages in order to be accepted as authentically Catholic. Even the Orthodox churches were influenced, perhaps dominated, by Western scholasticism, particularly in the theological training and formation of their clergy.

Ten years ago, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter, “Orientale Lumen,” or Light of the East, on the centennial anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s historic apostolic letter, “Orientalium Dignitas Ecclesiarum,” or Dignity of the Eastern Churches. As its title implies, Leo XIII’s apostolic letter marks a sea change in the Holy See’s awareness and appreciation of the Eastern churches and rites.

In John Paul’s apostolic letter, the pope took an explicit step in pursuit of one of the primary goals of his Petrine ministry – the reunion of the Eastern and Western churches – asserting that, for the health of the entire church, the dignity, faith and traditions of the Eastern churches must be restored and its treasures made known to the West:

“The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition,” he wrote, “must also be fully acquainted with this treasure, and thus feel, with the pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of diversity of the church’s catholicity be restored to the church.”

The idea that the church can only be healthy if the integrity of both its Eastern and Western heritages is respected is not original to Pope John Paul II, but it became the thrust of his approach to heal the divisions among the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Divisions. Since its earliest days, the church has been divided. The first significant schism took place in the early fifth century between the churches of the Roman Empire and those in the lands of the Persians. The second occurred some 50 years later, though it gathered momentum nearly a century and a half later with the Muslim Arab invasion of Christian Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Until recently, the spiritual descendants of those early churches – Assyrian and Oriental Orthodox – considered these divisions as the consequences of heresy.

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Tags: Catholic Orthodox Church Eastern Churches Pope John Paul II