Sparks Fly Between East and West

WASHINGTON — It was a dramatic moment at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: two Eastern Orthodox leaders — an archbishop and a metropolitan — holding aloft the hands of an Eastern Catholic patriarch and proclaiming to a crowd that he had spoken as a true Orthodox Christian.

What Melkite Patriarch Gregory III had declared was that he was in fact an Orthodox, but an Orthodox “with a plus” — one in communion with Rome. But he also declared that Rome has not fulfilled its obligations to the Eastern Churches.

“We are defending our own tradition in the framework of our communion with Rome,” Patriarch Gregory said. “We can do a lot because of our Eastern character, our communion with Rome, and our deep sensibility to the Eastern tradition. We have to open a dialogue with Rome.”

This year's Orientale Lumen (Eastern Light) Conference in late June focused on the situation of the Eastern Catholic Churches, which have been the most serious stumbling block so far in the dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The conference, held each year on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., brings together clergy and laity from the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

The Orthodox have long complained about the existence of Eastern Catholic Churches, viewing them as an effort by Rome to poach Orthodoxy. The Eastern Catholics use the Orthodox liturgy and practices but are in communion with Rome. A recurring complaint during the five-day conference was that Rome's “second-class” treatment of the Eastern Catholic Churches is a major barrier to any Orthodox consideration of unity with the Catholic Church.

This was a theme highlighted by Archbishop Vsevolod of Scopelos of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States — one of the Orthodox bishops who embraced the Catholic Melkite patriarch. (The other was Metropolitan Nicholas of Amissos, leader of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church.) Archbishop Vsevolod in his paper described the attitude of those who believe the Eastern rites are of lesser worth than the Roman:

“I truly have met such Catholics, both Roman Catholics and Eastern Catholics, who firmly believe that the Roman liturgy, Roman theology, Roman discipline, Roman everything represent the pinnacle of Christianity, that the Eastern rites can be no more than a temporary concession, and that the sooner these people become full-scale Roman Catholics the better,” Archbishop Vsevolod said. “I have also met Orthodox Christians who are convinced that this is what the Catholic Church has in mind for them.”

Archbishop Vsevolod frequently quoted Pope John Paul II and other popes in defense of the idea that the Eastern Churches are equally valuable with the West and that their patrimony should be respected by all.

Yet the practice has not matched the pronouncements, Archbishop Vsevolod said. In particular, Eastern Catholic churches are not fully empowered to name their own bishops; Rome typically appoints an Eastern Catholic bishop from a list of candidates proposed by a particular Eastern Church. Eastern Catholic priests have too often found themselves at odds with their bishops when they try to be authentically Eastern, Archbishop Vsevolod said.

“It is Rome that appoints these bishops,” Archbishop Vsevolod said. “If Rome consistently appoints bishops who ignore these directives with impunity, Rome cannot absolve herself of the responsibility. Rather, it would be well for everyone to take to heart the exhortation of Pope John Paul II in his 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen on the importance of ‘eliminating all duplicity and ambiguity.’”

Committed to the East

Bishop John Michael Botean said that Eastern Catholic bishops today are committed to the Eastern practices. Bishop Botean heads the Romanian Catholic Eparchy of St. George's in Canton, Ohio.

“I don't know of any priest who wants to be authentic running into trouble,” Bishop Botean said. “I think that may have been the case more in the past. I don't see that happening in the future. Rome has been naming bishops [who are] more traditional.”

At the same time, Bishop Botean does see the Roman naming of Eastern Catholic bishops as problematic if Eastern Catholic churches are to be seen as truly self-governing.

Archbishop Vsevolod said Eastern Catholics also chafe over their continued inability to have a married priesthood outside of their native lands.

“So long as Rome continues to try to impose sacerdotal celibacy on the Eastern Catholics, Orthodox will find Roman assurances of complete respect for our tradition less than fully credible,” he said.

In the United States, clerical celibacy was imposed on the Eastern Catholic Churches in 1929 in a document that has never been formally revoked. However, some married men have been ordained as priests in Eastern Catholic churches in America in recent years, so far with no apparent objection from the Latin Church.

More Recognition

Cardinal William Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore and a speaker at the conference, said a worldwide synod of bishops in Rome last October included a call for a “fuller, more appropriate recognition of the structures of the Eastern Catholic Churches,” and a “better appreciation of the rights and responsibilities of the Churches of the East and those who lead them.” Now the bishops are waiting to see what language on this topic will be included in the apostolic exhortation based on the synod discussion and signed by the Pope.

The speakers at the conference also included Metropolitan Nicholas of Amissos, the head of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church; Father Boris Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and rector of the Lviv Theological Academy; and Chorbishop Seely Beggiani, a professor of Eastern Christian studies at Catholic University.

Cardinal Keeler outlined the history of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, including the impasse the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue reached in July 2000, at a meeting in Baltimore and Emmitsburg, Md. The dialogue broke down, Cardinal Keeler said, because Orthodox participants could not agree among themselves on the issue of Eastern Catholic churches.

The more “intransigent” ones, Cardinal Keeler said, refused to sign any agreement on the Eastern Catholic churches that did not label them as being in an “abnormal ecclesiological situation.” Other Orthodox representatives did not see the Eastern Catholics as obstacles. The Roman Catholics in the dialogue were not willing to sign any statement that belittled the Eastern Catholic Churches, Cardinal Keeler said.

Common Bonds

Cardinal Keeler and Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the papal nuncio to the United States, were both of the front row in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception when the Catholic Melkite Patriarch made the appeal that won the hearts of Orthodox prelates Archbishop Vsevolod and Metropolitan Nicholas.

Patriarch Gregory explained that the Melkite Church has “almost everything in common with the Orthodox,” including reciting the creed without the filioque, the liturgical books and prayers, liturgical uses and the calendar of feasts and saints.

“Rome is very aware that we keep this very important bond of the common liturgy, and so our communion with Orthodoxy never ceases to exist,” Patriarch Gregory said.

The filioque — the part of the Nicene Creed in which the Spirit is said to proceed from the Father “and the Son” (filioque in Latin) — has long been part of the theological dispute between East and West. The disputed words are not in the original creed, but were added by the Church in the West in the eighth and ninth centuries to safeguard the divinity of Christ. The East has never accepted the addition or the pope's authority to authorize the addition.

While staying in communion with Rome, Patriarch Gregory said, the Melkite patriarchs have emphasized the importance of Rome “not insisting on new things, but accepting what had been decided … according to the ancient canons of the ecumenical councils mutually held by both the East and the West.”

Melkite leaders cite the Second Vatican Council and papal pronouncements that say that Catholics, when looking to unity with the Orthodox East, should consider the relationship that existed between the Churches during the first millennium of Christianity. They see later developments in Catholic doctrine — such as the declaration of papal infallibility and the expansion of papal jurisdiction — as obstacles to unity.

Rome doesn't see things the same way. Responding to the Melkite initiative, Rome has pointed out that the doctrine of papal primacy as developed until the present time has to be retained in its entirety. But what Rome has also said is that the manner of exercising this primacy is something that can be discussed — in fact, should be discussed.

Property Disputes

Surprisingly, there was relatively little focus during the conference on the property disputes that have marred Orthodox and Eastern Catholic relations in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Nor were there all that many references to the so-called Balamand document of 1993 that failed to achieve unanimous agreement among Catholics and Orthodox about the role of Eastern Catholic Churches. Speakers seemed to be looking beyond those disputes of the 1990s to a time when the Orthodox and Catholic Churches move toward a dialogue about papal primacy that could in turn resolve the situation of the Eastern Catholics.

And many speakers said that the people are disappointed that Church leaders are not moving more quickly toward unity:

E Patriarch Gregory: “My conviction is also based upon the deep sense of unity we discover in our people. We need to change our minds! The problem of ecumenism, of unity, is still too much clerical. The separation, the schism, is mostly clerical. We have to free the ecumenical movement from its clerical sphere, which forms a sort of ghetto.”

E Father Gudziak: “Our churches are looking for more than what is happening on the level of hierarchy. We can't leave the issue only on that level. [The papal visit to Ukraine] was controversial on the part of hierarchs, but not for those who participated. It was a visit that brought the word of God to many people in Ukraine. Questions of primacy and canonical territory are important, but more important is getting closer to God.”

E Metropolitan Nicholas, on the difficulties a lack of intercommunion creates among married couples: “We do not concelebrate the sacraments, at least officially. We speak of valid ordinations and sacraments and traditions, but when it comes to meeting the needs of our own parishioners we are at a loss. We allow [intermarriage] … but then deny them the ability to actualize the home church that we encourage them to create because we don't know what to do. No wonder our people can't understand our position.”

The Orientale Lumen Conference wasn't limited to talk about unity between Catholics and the Orthodox. Besides the speeches and question-and-answer sessions, participants got the chance to take part in many liturgical experiences from the various traditions.

There were Melkite and Orthodox Divine Liturgies, and vespers in the Melkite, Byzantine Catholic and Maronite traditions.

Wesley Young writes from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Sister Scholastica Radel (left) and Mother Abbess Cecilia Snell of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, discuss the recent exhumation of the order's foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, in an interview with ‘EWTN News In Depth’ on May 30 at their abbey in Gower, Missouri.

‘Sister Wilhelmina Is Bringing Everyone Together’: Nuns Share Their Story in Exclusive TV Interview on EWTN

On ‘EWTN News In Depth,’ two sisters shared details of their remarkable discovery — revealing, among other things, that Sister Wilhelmina’s body doesn’t exhibit the muscular stiffness of rigor mortis and how the traditional habit of their African American foundress also is surprisingly well-preserved — and reflected on the deeper significance of the drama still unfolding.