Dialogue With the Orthodox Churches

Author: Mons. Eleuterio F. Fortino


Mons. Eleuterio F. Fortino, 
Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Ongoing search for full communion

During the past year, many contacts have been made at various levels between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. As a significant symbol we can recall the Holy Father's visit to Romania, the first country with an Orthodox majority to have organized such a meeting, as well as the equally important, although more complicated, visit to Georgia. International and local relations at different levels are becoming more widespread. Cooperation through various forms of twinning between Catholic and Orthodox Dioceses and parishes has been created, enabling individual members of the faithful to experience an ever more effective solidarity

Theological dialogue

1. However, theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church as a whole through the Joint International Commission was again unable to hold its planned general assembly scheduled for June of last year, as has been the case since 1993. This time the meeting was postponed "by joint agreement" to the summer of the Great Jubilee year, because of the war in the Balkans. This important dialogue, which began in 1979 with Pope John Paul II's visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate (30 November), has already published four documents in which it was possible to declare together their common faith in the Church's mystery and sacramental structure.

In the Encyclical Ut unum sint, the Holy Father said that the Joint Commission had made "substantial progress". From 1990, with the tall of the communist regimes and the normalization of the Greek Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe, particularly in Romania and Ukraine, which had been violently declared non-existent by the Stalinist regimes (1946-48) and so forced underground and persecuted, these Churches emerged once again and justifiably claimed their rights. As a result, difficulties surfaced and bad negative influences on the dialogue. There were also verbal excesses and rash actions. The question of the ownership and use of worship sites, which in Stalinist times had been confiscated from Catholics and given to the Orthodox, stirred conflicts which have not been completely resolved. Furthermore, there have been complex internal tensions in various Orthodox Churchesin the post-Marxist period.

Nevertheless, in 1993 the Joint Commission published its fourth document precisely on this difficult theme: Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion. This common document excluded so-called "uniatism" as a "method" to be used in contemporary ecclesial relations, but affirmed that the Eastern Catholic Churches have the right to exist, and to act, and must participate, as part of theCatholic Church, in the ecumenical dialogue at both the local and international levels.

A theological perspective, even if it is precise and positive, always needs time to be translated into practice, especially in those questions and contexts marked by a strong historical legacy that has become a psychological substratum. Thus tensions and misunderstandings continued. Fortunately, at the local level a dialogue has now begun which should find an agreed solution and encourage the resumption of a true and proper theological dialogue. In Romania an official conversation is being conducted through a joint commission between the Orthodox Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church at the hierarchical level. This situation, which is improving, should enable the theological dialogue to gain momentum at the General Assembly to be held in Baltimore, USA, from 9 to 19 July this year.

After the postponement of the plenary session became known in May of last year, the Holy Father wrote a Letter to Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, saying that not only should the dialogue not be interrupted, but it must continue with renewed intensity. The Pope wrote: "if, on the one hand, the postponement of the Joint Commission's plenary session has emphasized that historical events can also have an impact on the theological dialogue, on the other, this is an incentive to strengthen our determination to continue the journey in obedience to the Lord's will and relying on the constant help of the Holy Spirit". The Pope furthermore hoped that "this effort will gradually lead to overcoming the existing difficulties and will help Christ's disciples advance resolutely towards full communion" (L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 23 June 1999, p. 15). This Letter shows the Holy Father's pastoral interest in the theological dialogue, and at the same time is meant to recall the need for perseverance in the work for unity. In this regard, at the beginning of his Letter the Pope cites St Paul: "Love never ends" (1 Cor 13:8).

Fraternal relations

2. The theme of the dialogue was also present in the contacts of ecclesial brotherhood that took place during the year. Particularly in the exchange of delegations between the Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for their respective patronal feasts, the feast of Sts Peter and Paul in Rome (29 June) and the feast of St Andrew at the Phanar (30 November). This year the Ecumenical Patriarchate sent a delegation led by the most senior official of the Patriarchate, the Dean of the Holy Synod, Metropolitan Chrysostomos Konstantink dis of Ephesus. In his address to the Holy Father he expressed a historical and prophetic idea that looked to the fruits of dialogue. He recalled a symbolic date of the schism and referred to a vision of unity. "Your Predecessor, Pope Leo IX, experienced the bitterness ofthe schism, which was then definitive. In the coming years of the third millennium, may the Lord grant you the blessing of experiencing the great and unique joy of the definitive restoration of unity between our Churches". And he added: "We are all convinced that it is love which will ultimately overcome the evil of division that makes our Churches unhappy" (L'Osservatore Romano, 29 June 1999, daily edition).

The Pope's visit to Romania (7-9 May 1999)drew positive attention to relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, and to the current dialogue itself. The Holy Father was received in Romania with warmth and friendliness, but also with an explicit ecumenical commitment to dialogue. The idea expressed by H.B. Patriarch Teoctist when he received the Pope at the Synod sums up these attitudes. "Let us give thanks to God", the elderly Patriarch proclaimed, "because a positive tradition of relations between our Churches exists. The theological dialogue begun in the early '80s—despite the period of crisis in recent years which we would like to overcome as soon as possible—succeeded in achieving a common vision of a theology of communion, recovering what was lost in the second millennium. The Balamand document (Lebanon, June 1993)sanctions a new ecumenical vocabulary.... The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, says this document, discover each other once again as Sister Churches. Making use of this positive viewpoint, the two Sister Churches agree that certain forms of 'missionary apostolate' ... can no longer be accepted either as a method to be followed or as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking". Patriarch Teoctist added: "On the way to 'full communion' there are certainly past wounds that have not been completely healed, but our decision to preserve the elements of unity and to bear witness together to our faith is firm and constant".

3. A network of contacts are regularly maintained during the year at other levels, but in general they all are important for strengthening the growing communion and for clarifying unresolved problems. The relations between Churches living in the same place are especially crucial for the concrete growth of communion. They are the testing ground for ecumenism. They also help to overcome the ill feelings of the past and to initiate active cooperation.

For several years there have been cultural contacts between the Pontifical Athenaeum "Antonianum" in Rome and the theological faculty of Aristotle University in Thessalonika, with a symposium every two years. The meeting was held in Greece from the end of last August to the beginning of September. The President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was also invited and met the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. It should be pointed out that in recent months the Church of Greece has sent delegates to various meetings in Rome: to the Second Special Assembly for Europe of the Synod of Bishops, to the Interreligious Assembly organized last October by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and to the opening of the Holy Door at St Paul-Outside-the-Walls.

The Patriarchate of Moscow, along with the Catholic Church in Russia and Protestant representatives, organized a large conference (22-25 November 1999)in preparation for the Jubilee, on the theme "Jesus Christ, the Same Yesterday, Today and For Ever" (Heb 13:8). The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was invited and attended. The delegation, also led by Cardinal Cassidy, had a lengthy audience with His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II.

The movement for unity is also reaching the smallest and poorest Churches like that in Albania, where the most ruthless communist persecution occurred and both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are now being spiritually and materially rebuilt. From 16 to 19 November the Catholic Church organized a symposium on "Christianity among Albanians". The Orthodox Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, H.B. Anastas, also took part in the final session. For the feast of Christmas the Synod of the Orthodox Church of Albania and the Albanian Episcopal Conference addressed a "joint message" to the country's Christians. Among other things it says: "We Bishops of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church of Albania feel a strong and deep desire to proclaim the joyful news with one voice: the Saviour is among us. Despite the great difficulties our people are suffering, we invite them all, without distinction, not to lose confidence and hope. Therefore we never tire of proclaiming that the Lord is with us and that he alone has the power to dispel every form of despair, uncertainty and fear, and to give our hearts light and hope". The Orthodox Church of Albania was represented by H.E. Metropolitan Joan of Korca at the opening of the Holy Door at St Paul-Outside-the-Walls.

Common kerygma

4. This network of relations, which according to circumstances is maintained throughout the year and every year, made possible the broad participation of the Orthodox Churches in the ecumenical celebration for the opening of the Holy Door at St Paul-Outside-the-Walls. Taking part at the episcopal level were delegations from the ancient Patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem), the Patriarchate of Moscow, the Patriarchates of Romania and Serbia; the Autocephalous Churches of Greece, Poland and Albania, and the Autonomous Church of Finland.

Their unanimous participation in the opening of the Holy Door, a symbol of Jesus Christ, the one true door to salvation, expressed our common faith in our Lord and Saviour and our common will to proclaim him to the new generationsof the third millennium.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 February 2000, page 11

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