Thursday, August 09, 2007

Pope & Patriarch to Meet?

Reuters recently reported (August 7) that a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexii II looks likely in the not too distant future. In the article of Cardinal Roger Etchegary, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals, is quoted as saying to the Russian news agencies that: “We [Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians] are moving towards” a meeting between Pope and Patriarch. Cardinal Etchegary points out however that though steps toward such a meeting “are speeding “no one can say “exactly when it will happen.” The article concludes by pointing out that according to a comment made this past June by “another [unnamed] high-ranking cardinal” the hoped for “meeting between the heads of the two churches would happen within a year.”

When I first became interested in Orthodoxy, I was told (and received with great enthusiasm) that the problems facing the Orthodox Church were of an administrative, but not dogmatic, nature. Recent events, and my own experiences, would suggest that our “administrative” difficulties are rather more severe then poor filing or uncompleted paper work. As I look at what is going on around me in the Orthodox world, I come to the conclusion that we need, as a Church, to take a rather hard, critical look at ourselves and our shortcoming. And I think our attention needs to be focused especially on issues of anthropology, as well as the catechetical and spiritual formation of the laity and the clergy. In a meeting after meeting, in one conversation after another, I have heard clergy and laity alike ask how can recent events happen and we not respond. We fail to respond, I think, because we fail to believe.

We have concluded, and Fr Schmemann pointed this out decades ago, that a formal adherence to the dogmatic and liturgical tradition of the Church is sufficient. Clearly it isn’t, and in the absence of any systematic catechetical and spiritual formation especially for the laity, such a purely formal adherence is not only insufficient, it serves to dull our spiritual senses to the difficulties that we face as a Church.

So, what has this to do with the report from Reuters?

God, and man, willing any future meeting between Rome and Moscow will at least bear fruit in a closer working relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches both in Russia, and across the globe. Over and above what is the will of God for His People, I think that even a partial, working, reconciliation that falls short of full Eucharistic communion is in the best interest of both Churches.

Especially for the Orthodox Church, such a closer working relationship offers us a need point of comparison for the health of our own Church. Granted not everything is as it ought to be in the Catholic Church, but still a conversation with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters might very well help us see with new eyes our own strengths and weaknesses. It might also offer us new practical insights that get out of the mess we’re in before we do ourselves, and those entrusted to our care, even more harm.

It is worth noting as we think about that the current crop of scandals and relatively low moral and spiritual level of the Orthodox Church here in America, that this is the social context out of which arose the “uniate” Churches over which the Orthodox make such an issue. It seems to me that we need to be careful and make sure that our own house is in order and that we have done away with those conditions that have in the past made the departure of some Orthodox for Rome an inviting option. Ironically it is spiritual apathy among the Orthodox that plays a central role in undermining the very relationship with Rome that the Orthodox call for.

Let us all pray for Pope Benedict and Patriarch Alexii, and for all Orthodox and Catholic bishops, clergy and laity, that we find away to do together what each of us seems incapable, or dare I say, unwilling, to do on our own.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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