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from the Secretary General

Unorthodox Orthodoxy

by Robert L. Stern

On 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, patron of the Church of Constantinople, I spent most of the day in a large, windowless room — the studio of the Eternal Word Television Network in Birmingham, Alabama.

I was honored to be invited to help the network’s viewers understand better the implications of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic apostolic journey to Turkey.

As supreme pastor of the Catholic Church, the pope came to visit his tiny Catholic flock, Roman, Chaldean, Armenian and Syrian.

As Successor of St. Peter, he came in the service of unity to nurture bonds with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and other Orthodox churches of the East.

As first in the Church of Christ, he came to this predominantly Muslim country to witness to the solidarity and brotherhood of all believers in the one God.

Before his arrival in the Turkish capital of Ankara, the mass media seemed to have a morbid fascination with the possibilities of disaster. With the cordial greetings of the Turkish authorities and the smooth progress of the pope’s journey, they seemed to lose all interest.

When the water level in the glass is midway, why is it so much more tempting to see it as half empty instead of half full?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the media that looked to the negative side of the visit. Many Orthodox and Catholic Christians seemed to focus more on sad events and hurts of the past than on the wonderful and positive reality of the trip itself.

Yes, in 1054 the heads of the sister churches of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other. Yes, the leaders of the Fourth Crusade seized and pillaged the great Christian city of Constantinople instead of going to the Holy Land.

But, this day, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople and New Rome, warmly welcomed Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome, to his cathedral church and patriarchate.

They prayed together in the Orthodox Church of St. George. They embraced in the kiss of peace. They jointly blessed the mixed congregation of Orthodox and Catholic Christians. They solemnly signed a common declaration celebrating the progress of the movement toward the reestablishment of full unity and expressing hopes for its attainment.

This was no encounter of two heads of separate churches seeking to find common ground — this was the embrace of two brothers in Christ reaffirming that they and their respective flocks belong to one great family, regrettably separated by culture, language and history over the years.

Even so, the glass is still not yet full — unity is still not yet complete. There are still painful hurts and memories to be overcome, complex theological issues to be explored and clarified, and diverse traditions and practices to be understood and respected.

In response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Benedict and Bartholomew, like Peter and John, are racing together to encounter the Risen Lord — but each leads and shepherds a flock.

If they speed too fast toward unity, they risk leaving behind too many of their grazing and wandering sheep. They can only go as far and fast as solidarity with their flocks allow.

Godspeed!

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