Ryan Hunter is an Orthodox Christian writer, blogger and graduate student from Setauket, New York. After growing up in Virginia and on Long Island, Ryan spent four years living and working in Washington, D.C., from 2009-2013 and holds a BA in European History (2016) from Stony Brook University. The author of over 60 published articles and a forthcoming book about his journey to the Orthodox faith, Why Orthodoxy (Pokrov Publications), Ryan was received into the Orthodox Church in 2011 in Washington, D.C. He has written widely on Church history, political philosophy and theory, Classical and Late Antiquity Roman and Byzantine political and religious history and early modern Britain, France and Russia. Ryan’s hobbies include freelance journalistic work, running, hiking and what he calls “very amateur” photography.
Blogger Ryan Hunter sits down with Monsignor Paul McPartlan, Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism, The Catholic University of America. Photo courtesy of The Catholic University of America.
Ryan Hunter (RH): This is Ryan Hunter reporting with the Orthodox Christian Network. My guest is Monsignor Paul McPartlan, the Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church and also of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation. Msgr. Paul is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster in the United Kingdom. He took his undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Cambridge in 1978, and his DPhil from Oxford in 1990, having previously studied philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In 1984 he was ordained a priest by His Eminence Cardinal Basil Hume, and held a post-doctoral research fellowship at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, from 1993 to 1995, following which he taught at the University of London. In 2008, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI appointed Father Paul as a papal chaplain. Fr. Paul is the author most recently of A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist, and Church Unity published by Catholic University Press. Father, thank you for being here.
Msgr. Paul McPartlan (MPM): It’s a great pleasure.
RH: There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about what it would mean to realize a restoration of sacramental communion between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. Given your work on the Joint International Theological Commission as well as your training in systematic theology, what does it really mean to you for us to have a restoration of communion on a practical level? How would that impact people in their personal faith lives?
MPM: The quote from Jesus Himself that people involved in ecumenism always remember is in John’s Gospel—John 17:21—where Jesus prays at the Last Supper “Father, may they all be one so that the world may believe” and the fact is that, if you like to put it in very simple terms, sin separates us and grace gathers us. The work of God is always to gather us together—we’re made in the image of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the most sublime unity. Therefore, the human race and the whole of creation is made for unity. Sin fragments us and fractures us, and if we’re going to bear witness to Christ and to the Gospel of God’s grace and of God’s unity, it’s imperative that Christians should be united.
Various divisions have tragically come into the Christian Church over the years, and one of the most serious of those is the breach between West and East, between Catholics and Orthodox. What leaders of our Churches have recognized increasingly in recent times is that if Catholics and Orthodox are really going to bear a convincing witness to Christ in the world, we will do that far better if we repair the breach between us and stand united to preach the Gospel of reconciliation. How can we preach the Gospel of reconciliation when we ourselves are not reconciled?
RH: Continuing on the theme of what you just said—that the separation serves as a liability, hindrance to, and a major compromising of the Christian witness—from a technical, legal perspective within canon law, the Schism itself now has no legal bearing because of the mutual rescinding in 1965 of the anathemas of excommunication by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. Historically, in 1054—the date by which historians usually view the Schism as having gone into effect—Pope Leo IX never authorized the bull of excommunication [against Patriarch Michael Keroularios of Constantinople] and in any event had died by the time that Cardinal Humbert laid the bull on the altar of Hagia Sophia, nominally excommunicating Patriarch Michael.
Given this historical reality, the question becomes not one of legal or juridical separation, but in reality, a sense of a different mentality or ethos, of a perceived reality of there now being two distinct, separate faiths, the Catholic faith and the Orthodox faith. How do you believe this sense of spiritual division—of de facto rather than de jure separateness—can or should be overcome?
MPM: Some years ago, one of the leading pioneers of the whole ecumenical effort in recent times, Fr. Yves Congar (1904-1995), a very distinguished French Dominican priest, said that one of the most serious obstacles we face today as we try to work for Christian unity is that we have simply got used to division. We have grown accustomed to it, and we tend to think that it’s normal. We have to realize, once again, that it’s not normal, that while you may go into a supermarket and have multiple choices for all sorts of different goods, it’s not meant to be the same in Christianity with lots of separate, individual choices of churches. There is a vast variety of God’s gifts which all belong together in one family, so, while there are manifold gifts and varying characteristics in Christianity east and west, these distinctions and differences do not justify division.
The unity that we are looking for is a unity in diversity, a unity in differentiation, a unity in which, as in St. Paul’s image of the body, there are many different parts with many different gifts, but they all belong together in one body. They can’t all just become one part, as it were, the hand, and the arm, and the leg, and the feet—we need those differences—but they all must fit together in one body. The tragic thing is that between East and West, difference—which is legitimate and which is part of the richness of the Gospel—has become division, and we must repair the division but without wanting in any way to suppress all the variety, the diversity, of our different characteristics, our different cultures. All of these belong together, and we can rejoice in those differences when we understand them in the right way.
RH: Regarding rejoicing in differences, the theme of a unity in diversity and a diversity in unity, His Holiness Pope Francis has spoken in the presence of His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew and on a number of occasions separately about what he and his predecessors view as the essential requirement for a restoration of communion, that to welcome the Orthodox back into sacramental communion with Rome, he asks or hopes for nothing more than a simple recognition that Orthodox and Catholics profess the same faith and hold to the same truths.
Many Orthodox—even those who are aware of these statements by Pope Francis and similar ones by his recent predecessors—still have a sense that something more would be required for the restoration of communion. In terms of historical memory, some Orthodox Christians will remember the complicated series of sacramental unions by several Orthodox local churches with Rome, beginning in the Ukraine in the 1590s, the 1720s in Lebanon and Syria, et cetera. They will think on the topic of “union with Rome” or “entering communion with Rome” and have a sense of scepticism or wariness which goes into and reflects the attitude you just mentioned, that we’ve become used to being separated. What do you as a leading member of these commissions and as a systematic theologian say to any Orthodox who might have these concerns? How would you reassure them that there is nothing else that Rome would expect of them save for the profession of the common Symbol of Faith [Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed]?
MPM: Pope Francis said very clearly when he went to Constantinople/Istanbul at the end of 2014 for the Feast of St. Andrew that he wanted to reassure—he specifically said this, “I wish to reassure each of you listening to me”—that the Catholic Church requires nothing with regard to reconciliation with our Eastern brothers and sisters more than simply a unity of faith. He wasn’t implying that the Orthodox had somehow compromised the faith; he was simply wanting to say that that is the basis for our unity, that is the primary thing we must look for, and then he also said—and I think this comes directly to your question—that he is perfectly ready and willing to discuss with the Orthodox how our necessary unity might be manifested. That I think is precisely where the whole question of primacy comes in, where his own role comes in as a minister of unity in the Church.
The primary issue between Catholics and Orthodox has always been an understanding of the papacy. For a long time, especially during the second millennium, the Catholic Church viewed the ministry of the pope as a ministry of government, a juridical ministry, a view that’s often associated with a pyramidal view of the Church. This developed around the start of the second millennium in the West, and it’s no coincidence that around that time we have the beginning of the Schism between East and West. It’s quite clear that that kind of understanding of the pope as being the senior governor of the Church with a universal jurisdiction has been the problem for most of the Orthodox in the intervening time [since the Schism].
Now [during his visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate], Pope Francis deliberately did not use the term ‘universal jurisdiction’; he simply said “we must find the way to express the necessary unity of the Church”. That’s a wonderfully open phrase, and it makes it plain that what he is wanting to re-establish is communion—that vital ecumenical word ‘communion’—between East and West. He is not wanting jurisdiction over the East; he is wanting communion with the East, and that’s a very different concept. So much ecumenical effort of recent decades has been devoted to exploring that mystery of communion.
RH: Elaborating on this theme of communion, given the title of your book, A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist, and Church Unity, I would imagine it goes into exploring the sacramental reality of Christians receiving communion through partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, and the inextricable closeness between communion and the question of primacy in the Church on a local, regional, and a universal level.
Given the statements [by the hierachs and prelates of Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church at the fourteenth plenary session] at Chieti, Italy in September 2016, as well as the summer 2016 Council of Crete and the earlier 2007 Ravenna documents, what progress do you believe has been made in recent years, especially with these documents, regarding a shared, common understanding of the Eucharist between Catholics and Orthodox? Do you see clear movement toward realizing a sacramental life together, rather than the present separation and lack of communion?
MPM: Enormous progress has been made, and the Eucharist is the key to that progress. The first part of the title of my book, A Service of Love, is taken from Pope St. John Paul’s 1995 encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint [“That They May Be One”], in which he acknowledged that the papal ministry is an ongoing source of difficulty for our Christian brothers and sisters. He called for a dialogue with the bishops and theologians of other Churches, especially with the bishops and theologians of the Orthodox Church, as to how this ministry—which the Catholic Church believes is one of the precious gifts of the Lord to His Church—should be lived in order that it might be understood as a service of love. In mind, we have also the phrase of St. Ignatius of Antioch who said that the Church of Rome “presides in love”, presides in charity. Now the Greek word here is ‘agape,’ and ‘agape’ was one of the words used in the early Church for the Eucharist. So it does seem as if a service of love, presiding in charity, is something to do with the Eucharist, and this takes us back to the very early Church in which the Eucharist was understood to be the focal point of the whole life of the Church.
The bishop in each local Church presided at the Eucharist, and all the bishops were united with one another and the local Churches were united with one another because they celebrated the same Eucharist. So the Eucharist itself brings to the Church the life of communion—we say that we receive Holy Communion—that is the life of God Himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here we have the very core of the life of the Church, the life of communion—it’s a participation in God’s own life, and that is what the Eucharist gives to us. The Eucharist is the very heart of the Church’s life and the Church’s unity.
Now of course, since we live in this world and are still sinners, that unity which is the most precious gift of God to us is always liable to be fractured, to be compromised, to be broken by human beings who don’t live up fully to the mystery that’s given to us, the gift of communion that’s given to us. Therefore, Eucharistic unity has to be safeguarded, and, being realistic, the ministry of safeguarding our Eucharistic unity would seem to be a most necessary and a most important one in the Church. Now you might very well say that bishops safeguard the Eucharistic unity of their local [diocesan] churches, that’s the very heart of what they do, to unite their people in this Holy Mystery, and that’s quite correct. However, given that there are many Local Churches around the world, we are led to think also of further levels of Eucharistic ministry, and of the unity of the whole people, which is structured around the bishops.
How are the bishops themselves united, and who takes care of the unity of the bishops? That’s how we come to a Eucharistic understanding of metropolitans and patriarchs at a regional level, and then ultimately, of course, we must ask who looks after the worldwide communion of the Church? That’s a vital ministry, and recent developments in Catholic theology have very much encouraged a Eucharistic approach in the ministry of the Pope. He is, if you like, the universal minister of Eucharistic unity in the Church, tasked with safeguarding that unity, watch over it and guarding it.
The Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, ever since it officially began in 1980, has been very much focused on a Eucharistic understanding of the Church; that’s how the Church has been understood. And so, coming up to the present, we might say that given that Eucharistic framework for all of our understanding of the Church, it does seem to be potentially very, very promising to approach the ministry of the Pope himself—that most difficult and controversial topic between Catholics and Orthodox—in a Eucharistic way. That is, in fact, an approach which the Catholic Church itself has been developing in recent years, and I think there are indications—I don’t want to say any more than that, or to overstate it—but there are indications that that approach to the ministry of universal primacy is one that might be very congenial to our dialogue.
RH: Most Orthodox would call to mind the language of the Second Vatican Council, but you mentioned that the texts of Vatican I already have the beginnings of a Eucharistic focus in terms of the emphasis on ultimately how to bring about a restoration of communion between Catholics and Orthodox.
This brings me to the issue, on the Orthodox side—regarding a desire for unity and the reestablishment of a full, common sacramental life—of the reality that today in the Orthodox Church a schism of sorts exists between two of our patriarchates. The Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem have ceased liturgical commemoration of each other’s patriarchs, resulting in a state of impaired communion, due to their dispute surrounding which of them has rightful jurisdiction over a small Orthodox parish in Qatar. Previously, during the 1990s the Churches of Constantinople and Moscow were also in a state of impaired communion for some time.
On a broader level, given the very complicated geopolitical relations between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow and the latter’s non-attendance at the Council of Crete, many Orthodox are concerned about an evident and visible lack of unity on an administrative level with sacramental implications in the life of the Orthodox Church today. Considering that most of the autocephalous or Local Churches were represented at the Council, but with the absence of the Russian Church and three others, meaning that, demographically, about 85-90% of the Orthodox Christians in the world were not represented—there’s a very complicated procedural, administrative, and political history as to why that is—from your perspective as a Catholic priest who has been involved in these dialogues for so long, do you believe that the Catholic Church has anything to be concerned about?
We so often hear the Orthodox side of people in the Orthodox Church expressing concerns about certain aspects of Catholic teaching and practice, whether it’s the interpretation of the papacy or certain aspects of liturgical life since the Second Vatican Council. Do you believe there is anything that Rome and the Catholic communion should be concerned about regarding the Orthodox ecclesiastical structure?
MPM: I mentioned the speech given at the Second Vatican Council by Bishop Elias Zogby, a Melkite Greek Catholic bishop. He identified problems both in the West and in the East ever since the tragic schism between us, the break of communion. He said that the West has become far too centralized and the East has become far too decentralized, and that’s problematic on both counts. He said that the West, when that breach occurred, lost communion with the most collegial part of the Church, the most synodal part of the Church if you like, which is the East, and he also said that the East similarly lost communion with the center of unity [in the whole Church], which is the Bishop of Rome. We have both suffered in our respective ways since that breach.
Now the circumstances that you mentioned within the Orthodox Church—of various tensions and even at times breaks of communion—are obviously very troubling and very painful. It’s not for me as a Catholic to presume to speak too much about them, but they’re obviously troubling, and they are surely not what we would want to be the case. However, we know that in this world, because of our own weakness and sin, all sorts of problems arise in the Christian life. This is a universal reality, West and East; tensions, divisions, and disputes are part of being human, part of the reality of this world with our weaknesses and our failings, but if the Lord Himself established His Church in this world, surely He knew the problems that His Church was likely to face. The very fact that He prayed at the Last Supper that His followers would be one implicitly shows that He knew that there would be all sorts of difficulties in maintaining that unity.
So I think we can rightly expect that the Lord has made provision for His Church to deal with such problems, and has given the Church ministers of unity whose very task it is to safeguard the unity of the Church, that precious gift of God, which is always under threat in this world, even with the very best of intentions. That’s why, as I was suggesting, we can rightly think of the Church’s pastors as ministers of unity who have the responsibility and the necessary authority—which doesn’t have to be seen in a juridical way—but the necessary authority of their office in order to encourage, to bring about, and to restore unity when it’s threatened or lost.
The most recent Catholic-Orthodox document from Chieti recalls a very specific ministry of unity that was exercised by the Bishop of Rome in the first millennium, namely, dealing with appeals. When a bishop felt he had been unjustly deposed from his diocesan see, and this matter proved unable to be resolved locally, we can well imagine the crisis facing the Church. People would surely wonder “What can we do? Is there no way out?” Well, there is way out—the early Church identified that, if necessary, the deposed bishop could ultimately appeal to the bishop of Rome himself.
RH: As St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407) did to Pope Innocent I and two Italian bishops following his deposition in 403 by Emperor Arcadius, whose wife Empress Aelia Eudoxia he had sparred with?
MPM: Yes, and St. Athanasius. These were very serious issues facing the Church in different localities, and the question was: Is the Church just stuck with those problems with no way to resolve them? Well, surely we have a basic conviction that the Lord is with us, that the Lord is looking after us, so surely the Lord has provided means by which any disputes that occur can be resolved. It seems that the early Church itself came to the realization that, as the final court of appeal, a bishop who thought he had been deposed unjustly could take his cause to Rome. Importantly, the Pope himself would not judge the case himself and give the final judgment; he would simply indicate whether he thought a retrial was necessary, and, if so, then that would take place in the bishop’s own territory or in the province neighboring the bishop’s own territory. But that would be the end of the matter, that is the point.
RH: It’s to be understood as an ultimate mediatory or conciliatory position, with the Pope operating essentially as a final appellate authority…
RH: Speaking from an Orthodox perspective, given the current Antioch-Jerusalem split over jurisdiction in Qatar, and given past impairments of communion between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and that of Moscow, one of the things which Metropolitan Kallistos and others have suggested is that this universal mediatory and appellate role would be one of the most essential in a restored communion between Catholics and Orthodox.
The revitalization of this role would ideally help to avoid or, when necessary, to resolve future cases of disputes over jurisdictional issues or conflicts between local bishops and synods. When considering this scenario, I can’t help but think of the fallout within the Orthodox communion in the wake of the recent summer 2016 Council on Crete, primarily given the underlying tensions between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. The ongoing controversy within the Orthodox Church on the subject of this Council suggests that there is perhaps a need for a universally accessible mediatory role or position, an office beyond the national, patriarchal level of the different jurisdictions that could intervene when asked to do so to attempt to resolve certain disputes.
Theoretically, in the wake of a restoration of communion between Catholics and Orthodox, what would a restoration of this first millennium universal mediatory role on the part of the papacy look like, operating within but, in turn, effecting the structure of ecclesiastical administration? On an administrative note, what do you envision in terms of a practical application of this universal mediatory office, for instance, were there to be a severance of communion between two Local Churches—how would you envision them perhaps going about appealing the case to the bishop of Rome in his role as the protos and presiding bishop in charity and love?
MPM: It’s not for me to comment about internal Orthodox difficulties, and, of course, the precise way in which such a resolution might happen is still very much to be determined. I would, however, just look to what is well-established on the world stage when there are occasional intractable disputes, and two parties agree to some sort of mediating agency, a third party, and they ask this mediator to come and to listen to them both. They make an act of trust in the mediator; often they resolve that whatever the mediator says, they will abide by, that’s part of the deal. It’s all done with a view to resolving the dispute because that’s what everybody wants, because the dispute is just too painful and not acceptable. We could imagine some sort of mechanism along those lines.
Sometimes, for instance, even within a given country, there are mediating agencies at the service of parties in dispute in various ways, and this is an established part of good human affairs. Surely the Church has a great human wisdom in it, and is well aware of what is good human practice.
RH: Right, the Church is a theandric body, human and divine…
MPM: Yes, exactly.
RH: And in this case, the human, anthropic aspect is a key part of that…
MPM: Yes, and I would say from a Catholic point of view—and this is perhaps worth highlighting—that Catholics understand that since the definitions of the First Vatican Council, which very much emphasized the authority of the Pope, and did so arguably in a very narrow language, we have developed a much more subtle and nuanced language to try and express exactly the same reality of how the Pope is the center of the Church’s unity. Vatican I already used the idea that the Pope is the center of the Church’s unity, tasked with preserving the Church’s unity in faith and communion—those two words stand out, faith and communion—and that’s a very precious legacy of Vatican I.
RH: Which Vatican II reaffirmed, of course…
MPM: Which Vatican II reaffirmed, but then unpacked and elaborated in a much more rich and expansive way, using biblical, patristic, and liturgical terminology and not simply juridical terminology which can be rather off-putting and certainly is off-putting to our Orthodox brothers and sisters. However, Catholics understand that Vatican I faced a major issue: how to prevent the Church in the West from falling under civil powers in many different countries.
RH: Right, the new French Third Republic, the newly unified Kingdom of Italy, and the newly created federal German Empire…
MPM: Yes, and the link between each local bishop and the Pope was envisioned as a guarantee against those Local Churches being left, as it were, unsupported and liable to fall under the sway of civil governments. So the link with the Pope protected the liberty of the Church, and I say that purely and simply to highlight the Catholic understanding of what was achieved by Vatican I. I’m not presuming to reading that situation across into the Orthodox world. I’m simply noting, in case it may be of interest to our Orthodox brothers and sisters, that Catholics regard the link between each bishop—and each Local Church—and the Pope as being a most precious means of protecting the liberty of those bishops and Local Churches, preventing them from falling under the civil power or from being somehow intimidated by the civil power locally. The link with the Pope protects the liberty and the unity of the Church.
RH: Certainly in recent Orthodox history, especially in the past century, we have seen, for instance, in the communist Soviet Union the liberty of the Orthodox Church significantly curtailed, and both Greek Catholics and Orthodox suffered terribly under the intermittent Soviet persecutions. The idea you just spoke of—that the papal office protects the liberty of the entire Church—is one which many Orthodox might be interested in discussing given the power of historical memory, the centuries of history of the Church being persecuted under hostile or dominant civil powers, and last century’s complete deprivation of liberty of so many of the Local Churches through subjection or significant interference by the communist civil powers.
Here we come back to Bishop Zogby’s idea that East and West have tremendous need of each other. I think that many Orthodox may be inclined to look with interest upon the idea of a mechanism for preserving the integrity of the Church from undue state or civil interference, and guaranteeing the sovereignty and self-government of the Local or national Churches. Given the shifting complexities of geopolitical realities today, and especially the recent experience of many Orthodox Christians in the last century enduring communistic, totalitarian political regimes, perhaps this could be one of the Western ‘gifts’ to the East in a restoration of communion which Orthodox might make use of. What are some of the gifts on the Orthodox side which the Catholic Church would very much be hoping to share in were that restoration to occur?
MPM: Well, the topic of our ecumenical dialogue at the moment is synodality and primacy. In a very basic way we can say that the Catholic Church has tended to develop its understanding of primacy to a great extent without, until recent times, a commensurate development of synodality, and I think we might say that on the Orthodox side there is an immense wealth of understanding of synodality but perhaps without a corresponding development of primacy at all levels. I don’t want to be simplistic, but I think that basically Catholics can share their understanding of primacy and Orthodox can share their understanding of synodality. We both have both synodality and primacy, but there is, if you like, a tendency for Catholics to specialize in primacy…
RH: There’s a different kind of emphasis, right!
MPM: Yes! And the Orthodox have specialized in synodality. Pope Francis, from a Catholic point of view, has emphasized very clearly that he wants Catholics to learn from the Christian East, especially from our Orthodox brothers and sisters, with regard to synodality. That’s a very honest and very open admission that the synodality aspect of the pairing of primacy and synodality is where Catholics are weaker.
That’s not to say we Catholics have no awareness of synodality. It would be quite wrong to imply we have no awareness of it—the Second Vatican Council gives us enormous resources and emphasizes the dignity of all the people of God, and the responsibility of every baptized person for spreading the Good News, caring for the unity of the Church, and bearing witness to Christ. The apostolate of the laity is one of the major themes of Vatican II, as also is the collegiality of the bishops, so we have a very strong expression from the Council of synodality among the bishops and also among all the people of God.
But there had been, prior to that, a very long tradition of a pyramidal understanding of the Church in the second millennium in the West, and it’s going to take a long time for us fully to integrate synodality with our very strong understanding of primacy. We can learn and gain a lot from the Orthodox as we try to find that balance, and perhaps—again, I don’t want to presume to speak of Orthodox needs too closely, that’s for the Orthodox themselves to discern—but perhaps it might be said from an Orthodox point of view that there are definite gifts in an understanding of primacy, and indeed of universal primacy, which the West has developed which might be of benefit to the Christian East.
RH: Many Orthodox observers have been struck by H.H. Pope Francis’ statements from the very inception of his papacy—from the fact that he referred to himself in his initial public statement on the balcony as ‘the Bishop of Rome’, to the fact that he invited H.A.H. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to attend his inaugural Mass as Pope and that they have met so many times in Rome, Istanbul, and Jerusalem—as positive indicators that he seeks to reimagine the papal office more in line with the pre-Schism approach of the first millennium.
One symbolic aspect of the reimagination of papal primacy that comes to mind from a historical perspective is the Urbi et Orbi blessing, which embodies that twofold care of the bishops of Rome for both the city of Rome and the whole world, applied pastorally to that universal care which the pope would employ for his own flock, his own Roman see and communion, but also for all Christendom and the rest of the world.
There seems to me a divergence between the consensus of all the theological commissions with all the complicated, rich, and fruitful work that both sides have done in the last half century, and the received, on-the-ground attitudes held by many Catholics and Orthodox toward these issues. From my own perspective, in talking with so many fellow Orthodox, there doesn’t appear to be a monolithic Orthodox approach or consensus of perspective on this issue of ecumenical dialogue. Given the visible lack of unity on a number of issues in the Orthodox communion, what is it that the Bishop of Rome would, in the event of a restoration of communion following the terms of the theological dialogues that have taken place thus far, hope to be able to accomplish in line with these agreed-upon visions? What would he hope or expect, as Metropolitan Kallistos said, his universal mediating role would look like on the more localized levels in terms of this envisioned Eucharistic ministry?
MPM: A very concrete example occurs precisely in the Eucharist itself. In the Catholic Church, whenever Mass is celebrated, the priest who is presiding names the local bishop and the Pope as nodal points of the network of unity within which that celebration is taking place. No Eucharist is ever just a private affair; it’s always the one Eucharist of the whole Church, and so, in the Mass, we name the diocesan bishop to symbolize the unity of the Church locally, and then the Pope himself to symbolize the unity of all those local churches. We are conscious there and then of praying with the whole Church.
The Orthodox Church, in a somewhat similar way, has the diptychs, the listing of all those primates and local Churches with whom a particular community recognizes itself as being in communion. Now one of the results—please God—of our reconciliation would simply be that the Pope would be restored to those diptychs, so that the Christian communities in the East would hear his name among the names that are commemorated in the Eucharist, as a sign of the family within which that particular community is celebrating the one Eucharist of the Church, and would, I hope, have a sense that with the addition of that name, the family is wider and fuller.
I would hope that they would have a sense that the Pope, as the bishop of Rome, which occupies the first place in the taxis, as the Chieti document says, is, if you like, the ultimate symbol of unity. Therefore, to name him as well in the diptychs would be a sign that this particular church is celebrating the Eucharist together with the whole Church, East and West, and thanks be to God for that! Of course, something similar would likewise happen on the Catholic side. There would be some liturgical expression of the wider communion within which each Mass was now being celebrated, and what a joy that would be! Hopefully that perception on both sides would then ripple outwards into the wider life of the Church.
I think it’s better to think in those terms than of some dramatic and shattering change happening. We might recall the Scriptural parallel that God’s voice is often heard just on the quiet breeze. There would be a sense of peacefulness, a sense of big-heartedness, as once again we celebrate as one united family, East and West, and truly feel that we are together, because there is so much strength and support that we need to give to one another, in a multitude of circumstances and facing all sorts of different challenges. We must avoid being simplistic about “what the Church in the West needs”, “what the Church in the East needs”; every local Church is different, but the one need that we all have is unity, and we need also to know that our unity is being guarded and cared for, because we know how easily threatened it is.
It seems sensible and logical to imagine that the Lord Himself, knowing how easily unity is threatened in this world, must have provided His Church with some sort of ministry to protect its unity. I think that’s an important idea for our dialogue at the moment, and Metropolitan Kallistos has reflected in this context on that lovely phrase from Saint Paul about the solicitude he felt for all of the churches. He wasn’t claiming some kind of universal jurisdiction, but simply expressing his heartfelt desire for unity. Any division in the Church afflicted him as a minister of the Lord. That’s the kind of ministry of the heart that we’re trying to express here. Ultimately it’s about love, it’s about communion, and it’s about primacy as a service of love.
RH: Father, do you have any last wishes or remarks that you’d wish to convey to any Orthodox listening here?
MPM: I would just say what a joy it is for me as a Catholic priest and Catholic theologian to meet my Orthodox brothers and sisters, to work with Orthodox hierarchs, theologians and laypeople, and to engage in dialogue at meetings such as the one we’re having at this moment. It’s a joy for me, it’s an enrichment for me, and we all have riches to share with one another. Let us hope and pray for the day when Christians East and West can share all of their treasures with one another as brothers and sisters in one family.
RH: Thank you very much.
Note from the Interviewer, Ryan Hunter: The fourteenth meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church was held from 16 to 21 September 2016 in Villa Maria, Francavilla al Mare outside of Rome in Chieti, Italy. This Commission was established in 1980 by the mutual agreement of Pope John Paul II of Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I of Constantinople.
At the Chieti conference, the Commission worked under the direction of its two co-presidents, Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Archbishop Job of Telmessos, of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, assisted by the co-secretaries, Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima (Ecumenical Patriarchate) and Msgr. Andrea Palmieri (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity). Since the previous plenary meeting, Archbishop Job had replaced Metropolitan John Zizioulas who had retired for health reasons. The Commission expressed its profound gratitude to Metropolitan John Zizioulas for his long and dedicated leadership of the Commission as co-president.
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