Orthodox and Catholics Find Common Ground in Boston

BOSTON—When the new Romanian Orthodox Church opens in Boston, the Orthodox won't be the only believers worshipping there.

The church has invited local Romanian Eastern Catholics to celebrate their liturgy in the same building. Actually, they're returning a favor: The Eastern-rite Catholics had earlier invited the Orthodox to share the chapel they use on the grounds of a Melkite seminary.

What is happening in the Boston area illustrates the increasing contact between Orthodoxy and Catholicism — even while East and West still disagree over many matters.

These range from liturgical issues — April 11 is Orthodox Easter Sunday, calculated on the Julian calendar long out of use in the West — to fundamental issues such as papal primacy. The Boston churches experience a kind of cooperation rarely seen in Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where Catholics and the Orthodox have been battling for the possession of church properties.

But in Boston, “The two communities got along very well, and they always wanted our experience to serve as an example for the communities in Romania,” said Father Michael Moisin, pastor of the Romanian Eastern-rite Catholic community.

Eastern-rite Catholics share the liturgy and religious traditions of the Orthodox, while remaining in communion with Rome. But the hard feelings between Eastern-rite Catholics and the Orthodox in Europe during the 1990s caused a setback in dialogue aimed at reuniting the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Nevertheless, an ecumenical optimist could point to some recent developments:

• Pope John Paul II will make a historic first trip to a predominantly Orthodox country May 7-9 when he visits Bucharest, the capital of Romania. The government of Ukraine has also invited the Pope to visit that country.

• After a long hiatus, the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church is scheduled to meet this summer.

• In America, bishops from both churches have stepped up undertakings such as joint pilgrimages to Rome and Constantinople, in an effort to help Christians on both sides of the divide appreciate their common spiritual patrimony.

• In the Middle East, Orthodox and Catholic believers continue to seek closer relations, unhampered by the sort of disputes that have plagued relations in Eastern Europe.

• Talks are even under way to seek a common date for the celebration of Easter. The two Easter celebrations happen to fall on the same day in the year 2001, and that is spurring an effort to celebrate Easter together in following years.

The difficulties have by no means been swept aside. The papal visit to Romania is marred by disputes over the Pope's itinerary, and the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue will have to once more take up the issue of Eastern Catholic churches within Orthodox countries.

These developments, however, can easily overshadow the progress that the two churches have made over the past decades, according to Father Ronald G. Roberson. Father Roberson has responsibility for relations with the Orthodox within the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Starting in 1980, the Joint International Commission produced important statements of common belief on subjects ranging from the sacraments to apostolic succession.

“These are really the first common theological statements that are sponsored by Catholics and Orthodox since the Council of Florence in the 15th century,” Father Roberson said. “So these are all extremely positive developments, and I think this should never be lost sight of when one looks at the current difficulties.”

The plan of the interreligious dialogue is to tackle the subjects first upon which agreement can be more readily reached, Roberson said. The thorniest issues, such as the role of the Pope in a reunited church, are being saved for last.

Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I suggested in 1997 that the two churches had become fundamentally different, and he seemed to throw cold water on reunion efforts. But during Bartholomew's more recent 1998 trip to Poland, Father Roberson said, the Ecumenical Patriarch was more conciliatory, speaking in favor of efforts to reunite the two churches.

“The liturgical traditions are different,” Roberson said, elaborating some of the distinctions. He said the Orthodox liturgy “is filled with chant and candles and icons, and an elaborate ritual. In the West, it is more simple, direct and brief.”

The Orthodox and Catholic churches — both tracing their succession of bishops to the apostles — formally split in 1054. While the Catholic Church is centralized, with the Pope as its head, Orthodoxy is a collection of churches, with the Ecumenical Patriarch as a first among equals, but with no authority comparable to the Pope.

“Basically, the Orthodox have a problem with the papal claim to direct jurisdiction in the Christian East,” said Timothy Ware. Ware, author of the classic work The Orthodox Church, is also the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia. “We are willing to extend to the papacy a primacy of loving service, if you like; that the Pope might have an apostolic concern for the whole Christian world; that if problems arise, he might take an initiative to set in motion consultations for a solution. But we wouldn't believe the Pope alone would decide the question.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses the need for unity to fulfill the prayer of Christ “that they may all be one.”

“But we must realize that this holy objective, the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ, transcends human powers and gifts. That is why we place all our hope in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit” (No. 22). Later, it states, “The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (No. 882).

In his postsynodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, Pope John Paul II included Orthodox Christians in the Church's plans for the new evangelization. He wrote: “The Synod Fathers wished to express their special desire ‘to cooperate in the dialogue already under way with the Orthodox Church, with which we share many elements of faith, sacramental life and piety’” (No. 49).

The churches had been progressing steadily in their dialogue when the fall of communism suddenly changed the religious picture in Eastern Europe.

Eastern-rite Catholic Christians, whose churches had been forcibly suppressed and merged into the Orthodox Church, suddenly emerged from the catacombs and began demanding church properties back from the Orthodox in Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Sometimes they took legal action to reclaim churches. But sometimes they took them back by force.

The Pope's recently announced trip to Romania comes at a price for Eastern-rite Catholics in that country: They had to agreed to drop all their legal claims to church properties.

Moreover, the Orthodox “have insisted that the Pope not go to Transylvania, which is the area where most of the Catholics live,” said Father Robert Taft, vice rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. Father Taft called the conditions “an offense and a humiliation to the Catholics who have suffered for over 50 years because of their loyalty to the Pope.”

While tensions have been high in parts of Eastern Europe, the Catholic and Orthodox churches of the Middle East have been enjoying more harmonious relations. In fact, 1996 saw the unprecedented move by the Melkite Greek Catholic Church to restore communion with the Antiochian Orthodox Church, independently of overall relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Rome said that was going too fast. But the incident highlighted good relations between the churches. “In the Middle East the issues are completely different,” said Michael J. La Civita, editor of Catholic Near East magazine. “You have the Christian community as a minority that is struggling with economic issues, (and) being a minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim environment.”

The Boston Experience

The trouble in Romania didn't stop Father Moisin in Boston from offering Romanian Orthodox a place to worship.

The area's Romanian community is small, perhaps 2,000 people, and the two churches are smaller still. Father Moisin counts only 25 people or so in his mission church, and the Orthodox have perhaps 10 times that number. Father Moisin said the numbers more or less reflect the proportion in Romania.

A typical Sunday finds a joint matins prayer service beginning at 9:30 a.m., followed by the Eastern Catholic liturgy, then the Orthodox liturgy. Some stay all the way through the services, and everyone has a lunch-time meal afterward.

When one priest is away, both congregations have been given permission to attend the liturgy of the other priest.

The two church communities have bake sales together and other events, and they are working on putting together a Romanian festival.

“The relationship is wonderful,” Father Moisin said. “We do everything together. There are no hard feelings, nothing whatsoever. The only thing they have to say is that the people in Romania need to learn from us.”

—Wesley R. Young writes from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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