Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: has ecumenism lost its way?

Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: has ecumenism lost its way?

Fr Peter Knowles OP

Father Peter Knowles O.P., who has several times visited Eastern bloc countries and the former Soviet Union, is currently working and living at the Russian Catholic Centre in Kew, Melbourne. He has specialised in historical and liturgical research of the Slavonic Byzantine world.

In Istanbul on the waters of the Golden Horn, there is a small landing stage with the word "Fener" painted on a board on its wall. It is used for the ferries that cross from the Galata Tower side of the Horn to the Agia Sophia side. Stepping off the ferry at this landing, walking up the footpath, and turning the corner into a narrow street, one is soon met with the high walls of a compound, whose gates are guarded by Turkish soldiers.

Going inside one sees a large house on the right, and opposite a greyish, somewhat undistinguished church. This compound is the "Phanar", the home of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and hence a significant location for the recent convocation of some 15 primates of various Orthodox Patriarchates and jurisdictions on the first Sunday of Lent - "Orthodox Sunday" - convened by the recently elected Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.

To meet in this way is almost without precedent in the annals of Orthodoxy, where the different autonomous jurisdictions conduct their own church affairs separately from one another. The meeting - and the willingness of so many Heads of Churches to lay aside for the time their family squabbles to attend - was quite out of the ordinary. The statement they issued, however, was startling in its acerbity. It was a broadside aimed at Rome, whose language was in complete contrast to the hitherto conciliatory diplomatic statements that have passed between Constantinople and Rome during the slow paced years of the "Dialogue of Love and Truth."

The assembly complained of Rome's proselytism in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, and that by this action Rome had "inflicted a most severe wound on the dialogue between the Churches which will be difficult to heal. Traditional Orthodox countries have been considered missionary territories by the Vatican, and proselytism is practised with all the methods that have been condemned and rejected for decades by all Christians. This has created a situation incompatible with the spirit of the Dialogue initiated in 1964 by the late Christian leaders Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I."

The course of the Dialogue has never run as sweetly as its published statements might pretend, but now in hindsight two recent events had provided presages of the type of belligerence expressed in this latest statement. Last year, Patriarch Alexei II, himself not long elected as Patriarch of Moscow, refused to send a representative of his Patriarchate to the Synod of Europe held in Rome, and while Bartholomew I of Constantinople did send Metropolitan Spyridon, that representative startled the Synod, and caused no little embarrassment, by speaking bitterly of Roman intransigence and inveighing against the phenomenon of "Uniatism" - a derisive word used to describe oriental rite Catholics who themselves reject the term.

The second warning cloud in the sky of the Dialogue was the sharp censure issued by the members of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece (which is a separate jurisdiction from that of Constantinople) at their meeting in Athens in February of this year. The Synod announced that "it is time to denounce the dishonest tactics of Rome," and criticised the Pope personally, saying, "our brother in Rome is neither sincere nor fraternal towards the Orthodox, as the facts have shown, he is sly and personally interested."

It is worth noting that among the other Orthodox jurisdictions, the autonomous Church of Greece is renowned for not being very much in love with Rome, but language such as used here is outr, even for Athens.

Behind all this, what really seems to be the nagging concern of the Orthodox is the existence of those groups of Catholics known - incorrectly - as the "Uniates."

Small in number, minute compared with the main body of Catholics, and scattered now throughout the world, they wield absolutely no power within Catholicism. The Orthodox appear to be under the delusion that they do. Suspicion of them and their aims has been present in the mind of Orthodoxy since these groups began, but has grown enormously of late, pari passu with the development of the official Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue. Would that they did have the influence and power they are suspected of wielding: were that indeed the case the "Uniates" could do much for the health and stability of Western "Latin" Catholicism.

Union with Rome

Who are they? "Uniates" are former Orthodox, largely from Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Near East, who at various stages during the last four hundred years have sought corporate union with Rome. They sought this not as individuals, but as local dioceses or other groups of faithful, always under the condition that they would be able to retain their ancestral customs of public worship, personal piety and even canon law. These things had been the way they had been taught and had lived the Christian mystery of redemption. They knew this mystery in its Byzantine expression. Being, then, Byzantine in church life - in calendar, liturgy, laws, (such as married parochial clergy) - before seeking union with Rome, they wished to continue as Byzantine in these matters after union. Rome agreed.

The most numerous among these are today's Ukrainians. Their history is that after decades of discussion, some Orthodox subjects of the King of Poland, who were yet ecclesiastically members of the beleaguered Patriarchate of Constantinople, petitioned Rome that they might place themselves within the number of those Christians who were in full union with Rome. This was effected by what came to be known as the Union of Brest.

Thus was created groups of Catholics who were not Latin or Western in tradition, attitude or liturgy, but who none the less formed one body with the rest of the members of the Church of Rome in every other way.

This process was repeated with other groups in 1646 and 1701 by other Orthodox people: at that time citizens of lands that are known on today's European map as Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

In the Near East a substantial number of faithful of the Patriarchate of Antioch - ten bishops with their people - made the same request in 1724. These "Uniates" are known today as the Melkites.

There also exist "Uniates" who have never been "re-united," because they never broke away. In Sicily and Calabria two Byzantine Dioceses exist. They are the remnants of the world of the pre-schism period. They have a monastery founded in the tenth century in the hills outside Rome at Grottaferrata, that still observes the Byzantine rite in Greek as it has unbrokenly since 990, with the rest of the Greco-ltalian Church.

It is hard to diagnose the reason for the black dread that the Orthodox have of these minute and almost invisible "Uniate" Churches. Despite the fact that a large number of the higher clergy among the Orthodox have been educated in Western Europe (the present Patriarch of Constantinople, for example, is an alumnus of the Biblical Institute in Rome) they still appear to know nothing of the historical facts of "Uniatism". Even more, unaware of the well nigh universal ignorance of "Uniates" that the majority of Catholics have, they do not see the consequent weak position they hold in the Catholic Church in terms of influence or "power."

Apparently, the Orthodox have not adverted to the indifference in which they themselves are held by the vast mass of Catholics, and do not see that the lack of interest is born of lack of awareness of their history and their place in Christianity. For the average Western Catholic, Orthodox, as well as "Uniates", are an unknown quantity. This is a tragedy. Western Christianity would be much enhanced by a knowledge of the East. Her ignorance of the East is, then, a tragedy, but a fact of life of which few Orthodox seem aware.

To speak of Oriental Rite Catholics as "Uniatism, conducted with treachery and violence", and as "the long arm of the Vatican in Eastern Europe," which is the description recently expressed in Athens, is ludicrous. This is obviously a description of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. This Church was snuffed out by Stalin in 1945. The bishops were the first to be arrested and deported further into the USSR: priests and laity who would not conform were constantly hounded, and many ended their lives in the Gulag. For nearly fifty years their Church went underground. It managed to live a hidden life not only in the forests or out of the way places, while retaining the loyalty of its faithful, but conducted its church activities in the cities under many disguises.

A parallel history was being put in train over the southern border in Romania. Two million Romanian "Uniates" were similarly deprived of their church by the Communist government there at the same time as in Ukraine, and by the same methods: bishops and leaders first (all the Romanian Catholic bishops of Byzantine Rite were imprisoned together in Caldarusan outside Bucharest), then came confiscation of church property and harrying of the laity.

Further south, in Bulgaria, the story is just the same, with the exception that property was not taken from the "Uniate" Bulgarians, and handed over to another Church, as had happened in Ukraine and Romania. Hence relations now between Bulgarian "Uniates" and other Churches there are more amicable than is so elsewhere in their new found freedom.

Out of the catacomb

After nearly 50 years these Churches came up to the light out of a long catacomb existence. Weakened and wearied, struggling to set up a new life and to rebuild their communities and educate their clergy and their young with almost no resources, these are the people described as "the long arm of the Vatican in Eastern Europe." Some long arm!

It is said often that the fall of Communism has left a vacuum in the former Soviet empire. The reality is much more dangerous. It has not left a vacuum, it has left a catastrophe: morally, socially, politically as well as religiously. This shambles is now ripe for exploitation: again moral, social and political exploitation by all manner of self- interested people. The danger in the religious field, however, does not come from the exploiting "Uniate" Church, in any of these countries, that at long last senses the time is ripe for proselytism. The danger comes from another quarter. Fundamentalist Protestant sects based in North America have been preparing for some time to make a sally into the former USSR and other Eastern bloc countries. They are wildly sincere, utterly earnest, and extremely rich. They are also abysmally ignorant of the nature of the Church traditions and national cultures of the inhabitants of these lands. Armed only with Bibles, and a zeal to help people to share their extremely simplistic version of the Christian Gospel, they are having a field day: mass meetings in most of the big cities followed generally by mass baptisms are taking place all the time.

One must wonder about the con sequences of this phenomenon, though. Fundamentalism is an emotional movement that pays little attention to the intellect. When that wave of enthusiastic acceptance of the new, simple Gospel dies away, what is left? The last state could be worse than the first. It is from this quarter that exploitation, albeit innocent and well-wishing, can be said to be coming, not from the "Uniates", who are as hungry and bewildered as the rest of the population, and are in as much need of help, in kind and in moral encouragement, as their compatriots.

In the face of this statement from the Phanar, what is the future now for the Dialogue? Most likely it will soon pick up momentum, and continue delicately picking its slow way.

The reaction of the Vatican, and indeed of the "Uniates", to these unfortunate harsh words will probably be to follow the example of the Pope at the Synod in Rome, when Metropolitan Spyridon delivered his diatribe. In the startled hush after his words of criticism, the Pope came down to him and silently embraced him. There is the pattern for response.

Moreover, behind this barrage, Orthodox in general, and the Orthodox higher clergy in particular, are much aware of the help that the Western Church can offer them. As the London Tablet (15 February 1992) put it: "The plain truth that must in the end be grasped is that the Catholic Church, in both the Latin and Greek ['Uniate'] versions, is the best ally the Orthodox Church has in dealing intellectually with the immense problems it faces, including the challenge of the North American sects".

Consequently, Eastern scholars and churchmen will still continue to take advantage of the Catholic Institutes of Byzantine research in Italy (Rome and Bari) and Belgium (Chevetogne) for their study. Meetings and contacts will go on at a local level and individual level, wherever Catholics and Orthodox live together, where there is no fear of the - as some Orthodox view it - towering monolith of the Vatican.

This is probably a more effective and fruitful dialogue than what has been achieved through the official "Dialogue", with its bland diplomacy and cautious language.

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