Victor Gaetan is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Register, focusing on international issues. He also writes for Foreign Affairs magazine, The American Spectator and the Washington Examiner. He contributed to Catholic News Service for several years. The Catholic Press Association of North America has given his articles four first place awards, including Individual Excellence, over the last five years. Gaetan received a license (B.A.) in Ottoman and Byzantine Studies from Sorbonne University in Paris, an M.A. from the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, and a Ph.D. in Ideology in Literature from Tufts University.
At the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church gathered in Kolymbari, Crete, family metaphors are common. Sister churches. Brother bishops.
Explaining why the concept of conciliarity means that each church is equal—i.e., that Russia isn’t more important than smaller churches—Dr. Ionut Mavrichi, spokesman for the Romanian Orthodox patriarchate, told the Register, “There’s no difference between a younger and an older brother.”
Think of this pan-Orthodox council as a family meeting postponed for over 1,100 years. No wonder it hasn’t been an easy start.
And despite the distracting presence of four empty chairs, it’s the breadth of Christianity here present that is most encouraging, including youthful churches with soulful responses to modernity.
In an article on challenges facing the Holy and Great Council posted on one of the best Arab Christian blogs, Carol Saba, spokesman for the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops of France, highlighted the Russian and Romanian Churches as tackling contemporary reality more successfully than others.
Like the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church (the second largest, with 21 million faithful) emerged out of the Communist period bruised by associations with power, but trusted by the people.
Both used this capital of trust—and the believers’ deep need for guidance amidst radical social dislocation—to revive, rebuild, and renew the faith.
Both plunged into new forms of catechism and charity—two areas of engagement forbidden under Communism.
Where the two churches diverge is in how they operationalize power. The huge Russian Orthodox Church seems tempted to read all external relationships in political terms—to see power, not salvation, as the main issue.
Romania is mainly concerned with the spiritual health of its nation and flock.
It’s aligned with neither the controlling Greek Orthodox pole nor the more disgruntled Slavic pole, three of which were on the “no show” list. The Romanian Orthodox Church is perceived as an independent voice at the Holy and Great Council.
Metropolitan Nifon, Archbishop of Târgovişte, is a member of the Romanian Orthodox Church’s 24-person delegation, who participated in drafting the Council’s documents.
He spoke to the Register on the sideline of Council sessions, which were closed to media, and even to observers from the Vatican.
Archbishop Nifon said his church considers this pan-Orthodox meeting essential.
“Synodality is the central characteristic of Orthodoxy, coming from the depths of Christianity, from the beginning, yet our contact with other autocephalous [self-governing] churches has been sporadic,” the bishop confirmed.
Two major benefits to convening more frequently—as advocated by Romanian Patriarch Daniel in the council’s first session—is strengthening the faith’s mission in the world, especially opposing contemporary evil, and maintaining pastoral care for the Orthodox diaspora—both subjects of Council documents.
Mission Against Evil
Archbishop Nifon recalled that the Romanian Church survived militant atheism “imposed crudely.” Christians knew exactly who the enemy was during the Communist period, and managed to “ingeniously secure the vitality” of the Church.
Today, people confront “diffuse evils—atheism, materialism, cultural Marxism, consumerism, and harmful economic development,” and “the Church must walk ahead, morally.”
Together with other Christian churches and groups, the Romanian Orthodox Church supports a national referendum to protect traditional marriage by amending the constitution. The effort has collected over three million signatures and is being hailed by conservative groups across Europe.
“An army” of students, PhDs and professors of theology are being prepared in 11 theological institutes to evangelize and counter secular excess, according to Bishop Nifon. But to be successful, the mission must be global, especially since close to 25% of Romania’s faithful live abroad.
On opening day, Patriarch Daniel (the only primate speaking French rather than Greek, the Council’s main language) described the council as both “a rare event, and the beginning of normality.”
The Romanian Church also considers ecumenical dialog to be normal.
As Archbishop Nifon pointed out, his church has an excellent relationship with the Catholic Church; Romania was the first Orthodox country visited by Pope St. John Paul II in 1999.
“Some accuse us of being ‘traitors of Orthodoxy’ for having a dialog with the Roman Catholic Church, which I consider a huge stupidity,” he said. “Engaging in dialog is not a question of abandoning our values but, on the contrary, of affirming them.”
A Council document on ecumenism is controversial for being ambivalent about its value.
As a church rooting for more frequent councils, how do the Romanians respond to the Russian decision to boycott?
Archbishop Nifon did not want to speculate about the Russians’ “last minute” decision because “every autocephalous church is responsible for its vision and concept.”
But he did want to defend, strongly, the Russian Orthodox Church from those trying to demonize it: “It is not possible to consider the Russian Church a danger” to Christian unity, the Romanian cleric said.
“The Russian people live their faith with much mysticism, with much sincerity and faith. Every church that serves the Bible is part of Christ’s plan of salvation,” he said—demonstrating a spirit of unity, at a not-very-united Holy and Great Council.