One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

Should the Orthodox church be in dialogue with the Roman Catholic one? Yes. Will we reunite? It would take a miracle

BY: Fr. Patrick Reardon

 

Were I to list the thousand reasons why Rome is my favorite place in all the world, most of them would have to do the Eternal City's long association with Christian history. On those all too rare occasions when I am able to get back to Rome, most of my time is spent visiting the catacombs, the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, and other sites precious to Christian memory. My personal sentiments about Rome were well summarized by St. Abercius, the second-century Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, who had made a pilgrimage to the Eternal City. Later, in the inscription that he crafted for his own tomb, he referred to the church at Rome as "the queen with the golden robe and golden shoes." Starting with the blood of the Neronic martyrs, there is no city on earth, I think, more deeply saturated in Christian memory.

Surely, then, any Orthodox heart must be saddened when remembering the long and deep estrangement between ourselves and that venerable institution described by St. Irenaeus of Lyons as "the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul."

Should the Orthodox Church be dialoguing with the ancient See of Rome with a view to our eventual reconciliation and reunion? Yes, most emphatically. Such a dialogue, for such a purpose, constitutes a most strict moral imperative, imposed by the will and mandate of Christ for the unity of His church and, for that reason, neglected at the absolute peril of our souls. The reunion of believers in Christ is not a concern that the Orthodox conscience can simply "write off."

I suggest that the proper model for such an Orthodox dialogue with Rome was provided by St. Mark of Ephesus, the most unforgettable of the Eastern delegates to the Council of Florence back in the 15th century. St. Mark is best remembered because of his casting the sole dissenting vote against the reunion of the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church. At the end, he became convinced that the effort for reunion at Florence would be successful only by an infidelity to the ancient tradition, so he conscientiously voted against it.

Still, St. Mark did not refuse to dialogue and discuss the matter. His fidelity to the true faith did not prevent his taking part in serious theological dialogue with those with whom he disagreed. Even though the Roman Catholic Church was at that time in circumstances indicating great spiritual and moral decline, a decline that would soon lead to its massive dismembering during the Protestant Reformation, St. Mark did not despise Rome or refuse to join his voice to a dialogue summoned to make real that prayer of Christ that we all might be one. Those Orthodox who, like myself, believe that continued dialogue with Rome is a moral imperative, would do well to take St. Mark of Ephesus as their model.

At the same time, we should be under no illusions about the difficulties of such dialogue. Because Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have followed progressively divergent paths for nearly a thousand years, arguably we are right now further apart than we have ever been. For example, it should be obvious that the Roman papacy is the major obstacle to our reunion. Make no mistake--we Orthodox do not miss the papacy, not in the least, because we never had it. Not for a minute did the pope of Rome ever exercise over the church of the East the level of centralized authority he has grown, over the past thousand years, to exercise over the Roman Catholic Church.

In the East, the pope of Rome was simply the senior among his brother bishops, all of whom taught, pastored, and governed the church through local synods and other exercises of consensual adherence, most of them without the slightest reference or attention to Rome except in extraordinary circumstances, and never outside of Rome's relationship to the Eastern patriarchates.

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