Breaking News Stories
These are news stories breaking after the publishing of this Word
– Twenty-First Century Crusades?
Prediction 7: The Pope taking radical
steps to bring all sheep back into fold
Pope's dream of healing
ancient Christian rift is still a distant glimmer
By: BRIAN MURPHY - Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece -- It's a goal that has eluded Christianity for nearly
1,000 years: mending the rifts between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox
churches. Pope Benedict XVI has already declared a "fundamental
commitment" to heal the divide, and this week will engage in an indirect
round of talks with the Russian Orthodox.
In spiritual terms, it's an epic invitation to repair the broken
foundation of the faith -- at a time when the European Union is erasing
the last Cold War separations and some Christian leaders appeal for
greater cooperation to challenge the rise of militant Islam.
But then comes a reality check. Even the smallest steps toward
reconciliation can kick up disputes that require the finesse of a
diplomat and the perspective of a historian to overcome. And, in the
end, any serious bids at rapprochement will force the Vatican to
confront some core differences such as honoring Orthodoxy's traditions
of autonomous leadership and married clergy.
|Pope Benedict XVI has
already declared a "fundamental commitment" to heal the
Greek theologian Athanasios Papathanasiou calls it "the pain of
It's made more acute because the ancient divide reaches beyond religious
differences, which are mostly over liturgical points and joint
recognition of sacraments. The bigger gulf, clerics and theologians say,
is one of conflicting perceptions and priorities.
When Vatican leaders look east, they see a patchwork of Orthodox
churches with a shared fellowship in the roots of Christianity. On May
29 in Italy's Adriatic port of Bari, Benedict declared a "fundamental
commitment" to advance dialogue with the leaders of the world's 200
million Orthodox and 1.1 billion Catholics.
The Orthodox view of the West, however, is often shaded by historical
grievances -- both religious and political -- and deep suspicion of
Vatican motives and power.
"It's not an even equation," said Thomas Groome, director of the Boston
College Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. "The
deeper skepticism to any improved relations resides within Orthodoxy."
No clear vision exists about what type of unity is even possible or
For the faithful, one important landmark in the future would be a formal
pact on mutual recognition of baptism, marriage and other aspects of
church life. But that would require the Orthodox to speak in a single
voice -- something that's nearly impossible at the moment. The Orthodox
world is divided among more than a dozen autonomous churches and other
congregations, each with different views.
The Vatican, too, could be pushed into some unfamiliar spots.
Closer bonds with married Orthodox clergy don't present a distinct
problem. The Vatican's priestly ranks include married Eastern Rite
clerics and some Anglican priests who converted to Catholicism. It
could, however, put added pressure on the Vatican to reconsider its ban
on married clergy.
A bigger challenge is sorting out the main reason for the split 10
centuries ago: the clout of the papacy versus the Orthodox view of equal
distribution of power among its churches.
"Can Rome devise a new way of thinking of primacy that does not lead to
dominance over any other churches?" said Anton Vrame, director of the
Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, Calif. "That is
the question only Benedict and the Vatican can answer."
It may not be needed for a long time. Church experts from both sides
believe any increased collaboration in coming years may be slow and safe
-- such as possible joint declarations on social issues or sharing
resources for aid work and Christian education. A hint of common ground
emerged last month in Ukraine, where Catholic and Orthodox leaders put
aside their many internal disputes to urge the government to keep
Christian-oriented classes in schools.
Last month, the head of Russia's small Catholic community, Archbishop
Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, said the pontiff seeks to join forces with
Orthodox to battle "aggressive secularism." Similar dialogue is ongoing
with the two churches and the many Protestant denominations.
"Don't expect big things in a short time," said Brother Jeff Gros, a
spokesman on interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops. "If anything, this will be a gradual evolution."
A World Council of Churches conference last month outside Athens --
bringing together clerics and scholars from nearly every Christian
denomination -- demonstrated the sensitivities.
The head of the Greek Orthodox church, Archbishop Christodoulos,
welcomed more than 700 delegates with a call for greater contacts among
Christians. But he added some direct swipes against the West -- a
point-by-point litany of past and present wounds felt by most Orthodox.
They go back to the Crusades, including the 1204 sacking of
Constantinople, the ancient center of Greek Byzantium and now -- as
mostly Muslim Istanbul, Turkey -- still the spiritual center of
Orthodoxy. Christodoulos zeroed in on the main contemporary obstacle:
The growing Eastern Rite churches that follow most Orthodox traditions
but are loyal to the Vatican.
Many Orthodox see these churches as Roman Catholic encroachment and
attempts to poach followers. Hard-line Orthodox go further. To them, all
non-Orthodox Christians are heretics.
"Repent!" a small group of Orthodox zealots shouted through bullhorns
outside the conference.
Rifts between the two ancient branches of Christianity began as early as
the fifth century over the rising influence of the papacy and later over
wording of the creed, or confession of faith. The split was sealed in
1054 with an exchange of anathemas -- or damnations -- between the Holy
See and the patriarch of Constantinople. Centuries of cultural
separation deepened the estrangement and the Protestant Reformation in
the 16th century further fragmented Christianity.
Pope John Paul II turned his attention to the Orthodox world late in his
nearly 27-year papacy. He traveled to several predominantly Orthodox
nations and built close ties with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I,
the "first among equals" among Orthodox leaders. In Greece in 2001, John
Paul apologized for "sins of action and omission" by Catholics against
The mutual outreach wasn't enough to win over one of the most powerful
figures in Orthodoxy, the ailing Russian Patriarch Alexy II. He refused
to allow a papal trip to the world's most populous Orthodox nation.
Benedict appears content to move slowly on any proposals to visit
Russia, but one of his first meetings as pontiff in April was with the
Russian church's top foreign affairs envoy.
This month offers another chance for high-level messages.
On June 16, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the
Rev. Samuel Kobia, is scheduled to visit Benedict at the Vatican. Kobia
then heads for talks with the Russian Church leaders from June 18-24.
The Geneva-based group includes the Orthodox churches. The Vatican is
not a full member, but participates on many levels. The pope -- then
German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- served on a WCC panel in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, a joint commission is expected to be formed by next year to
"set out an agenda" on improving relations, said the Rev. Brian Farrell,
a member of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian
The council president, Cardinal Walter Kasper, also urged a
pan-Christian synod -- Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants -- to "form
an alliance to rediscover the Christian roots of Europe."
Among the Orthodox, Russia is the heavyweight. But it's not the only
voice. Smaller Orthodox churches have power to shape the dialogue. At
least one, the Macedonian Orthodox Church leader, believes it's "still
too early" to talk seriously of moving closer.
"There are too many differences from the past which cannot be easily
resolved," said Archbishop Timotej. "It would be very difficult to
ensure a full reconciliation. This is more the pope's good will
(gesture) than reality."
A look at Orthodox Christians around the world
Most of the world's 200 million Orthodox Christians live in Eastern
Europe and the Balkans. Other significant communities are in the United
States, with at least 1.5 million Orthodox followers, and Australia,
with an estimated 250,000.
The spiritual center of Orthodoxy is Istanbul, Turkey -- the former
Byzantine capital Constantinople. Its small Orthodox presence is led by
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is considered "the first among
equals" among the Orthodox leadership. But his authority is mostly
symbolic. The Orthodox world is carved up into more than a dozen
self-governing churches and other largely independent congregations.
Some of the churches have direct links to the foundations of
Christianity: Alexandria, Jerusalem, Greece and Antioch in present-day
Syria. Many of the other jurisdictions are divided along national and
ethnic lines, including the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.
Bartholomew's oversight also includes diaspora Orthodox areas in the
United States and elsewhere in the world.