The Pope and the Orthodox

 — Nov. 15, 200015 nov. 2000
by Andrew Britz, OSB (Editor, Prairie Messenger)

Pope John Paul II has never made it a secret: As the first Slavic pope, as a church leader from eastern Europe, he dreamed of being God’s instrument to bridge the millennium-old schism between East and West.

Over the years, out of sensitivity to the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow, he has declined repeated invitations from the eastern Catholics in Ukraine and from the Ukrainian government to visit them.

The pope is aging quickly and the rhetoric between the Orthodox and Rome is heating up rather than calming down — the Orthodox have moved beyond complaints of proselytizing; they now speak of outright “persecution” of their people by the Latin Church. All this has led the pope to change his mind and visit the millions of Eastern-rite Christians who have paid a martyr’s price for their loyalty to the Chair of Peter.

John Paul recognizes that this is a dangerous move in terms of his long-term dream of reuniting Constantinople/Moscow and Rome. To offset, as much as possible, any ecumenically negative consequences, the Vatican is continually talking about this visit as a reaching out to full brothers and sisters (see page 4).

The Slavic pope has even made a substantial donation ($150,000) toward the building of a new Orthodox cathedral in Bucharest. His generosity, however, is not limited to this sensitive trip to the East. Back in January 1995, the pope helped build the Orthodox cathedral in Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin.

The people of Ulyanovsk, who were sorely strapped for funds, could not have been more gracious in accepting the gift: they named the pope “an honorary member of their communion in Christ.”

So the little city of Ulyanovsk will go down in history not only as the birthplace of Lenin but also as the first Orthodox communion that welcomed a Latin pope into its very community.

That was five years ago. Today it’s more difficult for the pope to relate to the Russian Orthodox. They have told him whom he may visit while in Ukraine. (The Orthodox in this country are divided into three distinct communities; the pope has been instructed to ignore all those not in full union with the patriarch of Moscow.)

The Prairie Messenger, however, carries a second story this week on Catholic/Orthodox relations; our front-page story talks about returning the relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator to the Armenian church as it prepares to celebrate 1,700 years of Christianity.

For almost all of this time (since the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451) the Armenians have been separated from both Constantinople (and Moscow) and Rome. They were accused of monophysitism, the belief that Jesus had but one nature, while the orthodox view held that he had two, one human and one divine.

The best thing the Armenians had going for them was that they lived in the Christian hinterland, far removed from the squabbles (and hatred) between the main Christian sees. Because of this good fortune, theologians in the Roman and Armenian churches have been able to address the theological difficulties concerning the full meaning of Jesus Christ in the church.

It is interesting to note that not only the classical stumbling block to unity, monophysitism, has been cleared. Its companion “heresy,” Nestorianism, has also been denuded of its church-dividing character. Six years ago this month, Rome and the Assyrian Church officially acknowledged that they had been speaking past one another for 1,500 years. But once they listened to one another, they realized that both sides held views that the other, on truly understanding the different language used, could accept as fully orthodox.

The Assyrian Church is beginning to take its place again as a living source of Christian faith. Indeed, at a recent Catholic/Orthodox meeting, an Assyrian bishop, Mar Bawai Soro, called upon both churches to move beyond their self-serving ecclesiological positions on intercommunion and follow the example of Christ who sought to symbolize the messianic banquet by eating with prostitutes and sinners (see PM, June 28). He called both communions to make decisions of Christian unity based not on rigidly held ecclesiological positions but on their common apostolic faith in the person of Jesus.

It is indeed a great blessing that the blemishes surrounding the Monophysite and Nestorian controversies can be largely healed. The problem with the divisions between Constantinople/Moscow and Rome is that they were not primarily theological. They were political and personal — but in no time hatred (in the name of Jesus) produced all sorts of theological difficulties between the churches.

Thus the challenge facing John Paul. The problem has moved beyond filioque and the meaning and place of the Chair of Peter in the universal church. It is ultimately not something theologians can heal. It takes a pontifex maximus like John Paul who, in his outreach to the people of Ulyanovsk, touched human hearts.

Unity likely will not be achieved during the pontificate of this pope, but we are certain that, when it is finally celebrated in one grand eucharist, the story of Lenin’s birthplace will be retold — in full mythical style. — AMB

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