An Orthodox Priest Reflects on Pope Francis and Orthodox/Catholic Relations
would happen if the Bishop changed it around?" I responded, "They would chase him out of town." At that point I was corrected by another Orthodox participant who quoted from one of the Fathers, "They should throw him into the river."
There are several important take-aways from the conference. The first is that Catholic and Orthodox apologetics assume a reality that simply does not exist. All institutions have problems and the both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have their share of them. I've spent my share of time with Catholic apologists and frankly, I just get tired of it. There is always an answer for everything. Catholics I am sure would express the same exasperation from the other direction.
This is not to say that substantial differences don't exist. Clearly they do. Nor is it to say that every ecumenical encounter must have as its goal some kind of unity. I'm not sure if unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is even possible given present circumstances but even if it were, I'll leave it to others to work it out. Nevertheless, a unity of sorts was evident and - the second take-away - strengthened.
The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran convert to Catholicism, wrote years back that the new ecumenicism is the ecumenicism of the Spirit. What he meant was that Christians from Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism should be clear about their differences but talk together anyway. We are drawn by the Spirit of God and driven by increasing de-Christianization of the larger culture. "We are more united in the acknowledgement of our differences than in pretending that they don't exist," Fr. Neuhaus correctly said.
Needless to say the participants in the conference were social and moral conservatives - orthodox Catholics and non-progressive Orthodox. We see the same dynamic when talking with Protestants. Authentic conversation with Christians of other communions takes place only when the foundational moral and theological questions are settled.
Again, this does not mean that universal agreement exists. It doesn't. It does mean however, that the path to moral and theological relativism where distinctions are erased and where the authority of the received tradition is reduced to private opinion is closed. Unity at the expense of truth is a collaboration of the confused where the only possible outcome is collapse. We can look to the Episcopalian Church or the National Council of Churches as evidence.
We Orthodox owe something to the Catholics. Catholic leaders have been the clearest and strongest voice in the defense of the dignity of the human person in our increasingly secularized culture. We benefit from their witness. They draw from the moral tradition in ways that that hold our own leaders to account - and correctly so since we hold that part of the moral tradition in common. All Christians, not just Catholics, benefit from their faith and courage.
They also give the American Orthodox Church some breathing room as it finds its way in American society and learns how to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the American ethos. Learning this takes time just as it did in the early centuries of the Church. Orthodox Christianity has much to give secularized America especially to the young who, as I said at the outset, are searching for authenticity and communion.
What are they waiting for? In a word - anthropology. "Anthropology" is a theological term that is derived from the Greek work anthropos or "man." It means that within our Orthodox tradition lies the knowledge of what it means to be a human being particularly how our personhood - the who of who we are - is realized and actualized in communion with the Risen Christ. We Orthodox understand this. Our anthropology is developed. That's one reason why the Church does not fall apart despite our disorganization and historical suffering.
This understanding has to be brought forward and actualized in the American ethos because that is where we live and how we think. This is true of both cradle born and converts (two misnomers because both are adopted in Christ only through baptism) if the ground for human flourishing is to be recovered and tilled. Many are waiting for us. This too was evident at the colloquium.
I've written extensively in the Catholic press about the cultural project that has brought Catholics and Orthodox together on high levels (Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kyrill for example) as well as local efforts like the colloquium. One question the Orthodox asked was whether the retirement of Pope Benedict would dampen the work. It does not look like it will.
Pope Francis is faithful to moral tradition and also appears to be courageous (these days there is no faithfulness without courage). He understands the moral crisis in Christendom and appears to be as committed to the restoration of the Christian foundations of culture as his predecessors were. This portends a good future for Orthodox-Catholic relations and will hopefully make more Orthodox aware of the grave crisis facing us.
May God grant him many years.
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is an Orthodox priest serving in Naples, FL. He is President of the American Orthodox Institute and blogs at www.aoiusa.org/blog. This article first appeared in The Observer, the American Orthodox Institute Blog, entitled The Colloquium and Pope Francis and is used with permission.
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse, Pope Francis, Orthodox/Catholic relations, two lungs, communion, east, west,
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