Seraphim Danckaert is Director of Mission Advancement at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds an M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Buried in an Associated Press article about Pope Francis’ recent visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a strong statement expressing doubt concerning reconciliation between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
“We’re on this path [to unity],” the Pope said, “but we must wait until the theologians agree among themselves. We’ll never get to that day, I assure you. I am skeptical.”
In context, Pope Francis’ point was that unity is too important to wait for theological agreement. While he meant to highlight the pressing need to work together, the Pope nonetheless provided an unintentionally frank admission that full unity in the truth is unlikely.
Similar statements are common in the Orthodox world, including from the Ecumenical Patriarch and other prominent church leaders.
Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, for example, who is the co-chair of the Catholic-Orthodox international dialogue, wrote in 2009 that
the ongoing theological Dialogue has yet to span an extremely long course, because the theological differences that have accumulated during the one thousand years of division are many; and … the Committee for the Dialogue is entirely unqualified for the “signing” of a union, given that this right belongs to the Synods of the Churches.
In other words, the theological dialogue itself is far from reaching full agreement; and, furthermore, it has no authority to even attempt to form an actual “union.”
Those who fret that some kind of premature union is imminent should take heed.
Yet the question presents itself: if such division is the case, why continue with the attempt to find full doctrinal agreement?
As I wrote yesterday, the purpose of the “dialogue of love,” which features the kind of symbolic gestures witnessed this weekend, is to create a spirit of Christian solidarity and charity in place of polemic and perpetual alienation. Even these basic goals have yet to be achieved, as many choose to emphasize medieval memories or present-day experiences of religious violence, proselytism, and political disputes between Eastern and Western Christians. Moving beyond these terrible injustices requires the cultivation of Christian virtues in public discourse as well as private life.
As challenging as the healing of such rancor can be, the ultimate goal of dialogue is greater still: to find unity in the truth. Everyone understands such a goal is difficult to reach. In fact, it is most likely impossible in history. Yet the process itself fosters mutual understanding, corrects misconceptions, alleviates certain prejudices, creates a spirit of cooperation in common cause, and provides opportunity for witness and agreement in the truth on specific points of doctrine and ecclesial life.
Even though doing so may seem to evince a hope against fact, reconciliation and full unity in the truth is something we Orthodox pray for in many liturgical contexts, including the Eucharistic anaphora of St. Basil the Great. Our liturgical tradition teaches us to hope for reconciliation in all cases. As St. Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306 – 373) prayed in verse:
O Physician, display
thy skill in my members,
and fasten and fix
those cut off from my body;
let them appear to all eyes
as though never cut off!
Since the Evil one exults in my fault
and mocks at my members,
enhance their beauty,
that he, embittered by his ugliness,
may repent of his efforts,
when he sees how fair I have become!
May (God) teach (us) by his testing
not to renew the suffering!
I am in pain from being cut
and from their being cut off.
May we learn by our healing at last,
that we may not perish!
And both I and they
will thank thee daily,
For thou hast remitted our suffering,
taught us by thy testing,
hast gathered us and granted
Love through our trials.*
That’s a prayer worth embodying.
* Carmina Nisibena 26 in Robert Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom = Razâ Smayyanâ Malkutâ: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 90-91.
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