WASHINGTON—The unexpected story of Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics moving closer to unity has so far taken place in the Eastern nations of Europe, as Pope John Paul II has reached out to the East in bold ways.

But Roman Catholics and Eastern Christians meeting in Washington, D.C., June 15–18 showed that the effort to unite the two forms of sacramental Christianity are bearing fruit around the world.

“I detected a very positive spirit among everyone, which tells me there is a very intense desire for our different traditions to come together,” Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver said about the third Orientale Lumen conference.

The meeting came on the heels of a papal visit to Romania in May, the Pope's first trip to a primarily Orthodox county.

Bishop John Michael Botean, the American leader of Eastern-rite Romanian Catholics, told how Orthodox and Catholics gave the Pope an enthusiastic reception in Bucharest, the capital.

Eastern-rite Catholics and the Orthodox have squabbled over church properties the communists took away from the Catholics and gave to the Orthodox after World War II.

But “from the moment the Pope touched down until he left, the feeling was positive and remains that way,” Bishop Botean said. By the end of the trip, Bishop Botean said, Eastern Catholics were not shouting “Give our churches back,” but “Unity” and “Love.”

The Washington conference emphasized the unifying power of devotion to Mary — even while outlining differences of interpretation.

The conference took place on the campus of The Catholic University of America. One evening, conferees traveled across town to St. Nicholas Cathedral to take part in an Orthodox vespers.

Metropolitan Isaiah spoke before a huge icon of the Virgin Mary in the apse of the Russian Orthodox-style cathedral, whose interior is covered with icons.

It was no typical Orthodox service. Many in the audience wore Roman collars. A Coptic nun was swathed in black. Prelates in attendance included Eastern Catholic bishops and a bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Metropolitan Isaiah spoke on the meaning of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, for Christians of the Eastern tradition.

“The Orthodox Church today adorns the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, the Panagia (All-Holy) with almost unending titles, lists of titles … and exalted names, which are all beautiful and appropriate jewelry which decorate her person,” Metropolitan Isaiah told conference-goers and others who filled the compact church.

The four-day conference was sponsored by the Eastern Churches Journal , the Society of St. John Chrysostom and the School of Religious Studies at Catholic University. It brought together lay people and religious to explore “the Light from the East,” Orientale Lumen. The title was inspired by the 1995 papal apostolic letter of the same name that encouraged all believers to acquaint themselves with the treasures of the Eastern churches.

That desire was expressed most strongly during the Orthodox Divine Liturgy on the last morning of the conference, held in the crypt chapel of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception beside the university. In a dramatic moment, Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia emerged from behind the icon-screen and turned to kneel facing the altar, just before the distribution of Communion. Everyone knelt and joined Bishop Kallistos in a special prayer he had inserted into the service. It included the following lines:

“Thou dost call all Christians to draw near and partake of thy Body and Blood. But our sin has divided us, and we have no power to partake of thy holy Eucharist together. We confess this our sin and we pray thee, forgive us and help us to serve the ways of reconciliation according to thy will.”

Bishop Kallistos, the conference moderator, is known to many as Timothy Ware, the author of The Orthodox Church.

Most Successful Yet

Conference chairman Jack Figel said the conference was the most successful yet in terms of attendance and representation. Those attending included Roman Catholics and people from many churches in communion with Rome, including the Ukrainian, Romanian, Ruthenian, Melkite, SyroMalankara and Russian Catholic churches.

Orthodox attending the conference included those from the Greek, Russian, Carpatho-Russian, Ukrainian churches, the eastern and western rites of the Antiochian church, and those from the Orthodox Church in America, a church of Russian Orthodox ancestry that has become self-governing.

The archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal William Keeler, greeted the opening of the conference with a promise that the international theological dialogue, postponed this year because of the war in Kosovo, would go forward next year. He said there would be many events arranged for the laity taking part alongside the theological discussions. The Pope's new ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, also greeted the conference during its proceedings.

Mar Bawai Soro, the first speaker to address the conference, explained that his church, the Assyrian Church of the East, rejected the Council of Ephesus in 431. This council defined Mary as the Theotokos, “Mother of God,” emphasizing that Christ is one person, though both God and man. The Church of the East — in communion with neither the Catholic nor Orthodox churches — refers to Mary as Christotokos, “Mother of Christ.”

In 1994, Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, signed a common declaration that both churches agree that Christ is one person with a divine and human nature, thus putting an end to centuries of dispute.

Father John Berchmans, attending from India, found himself answering lots of questions as he mixed with other people in the lobby or during meal breaks. “They don't know much about Indian Catholic and Orthodox churches,” Father Berchmans said. “When I say I belong to the Catholic Malankara Church, people are perplexed.” His church, in communion with Rome, has believers who live mostly in southwest India.

It is important for Christians of different background to meet each other at such conferences as Orientale Lumen, Father Berchmans asserted.

“They all ask for our sacrifices for making the church one,” he said. The unity of the church is not simply a pious wish, nor is it a philanthropic attitude. It is a New Testament requirement.

“Jesus has prayed for it, as he expressly wished that those who follow him become one body.”

Wesley Young writes from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.