Will East and West Meet Again?

Dr. Gayle Woloschak, gesturing, at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
Dr. Gayle Woloschak, gesturing, at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

The Great Schism that divided Christianity into the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches occurred in July of 1054 when the patriarch of Constantinople, representing the Greek east, and the pope in Rome, representing the Latin west, both excommunicated each other, formalizing a rift in theological interpretations and church organization and governance—centered principally on the pope’s primacy—that had been brewing since the fifth century. Historians summarize the differences as tracing back to Greek philosophy on one side and Roman law on the other.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Greenwood hosted an ecumenical prayer service and conference on the prospect of uniting the two traditions July 14. Fr. Robert Holet of St. Nicholas, Fr. Stephen Alcott of St Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church in Charlottesville and Fr. Gerald Fogerty, a Jesuit professor of Religious Studies at U.Va. attended, along with Dr. Gayle Woloschak of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (Orthodox), who had also attended the recent Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox churches, which was held in June in Crete.

The event started with a half-hour service, called a moleben, led by Fr. Holet, that prayed for unity of the churches. The service was conducted with the congregation, about 60, standing, as is the custom in the Orthodox churches. “We stand because we believe Jesus is present,” Fr. Holet explained. “If the King is here, we stand to show reverence.”

“We share much in common,” he said, addressing the many non-Orthodox visitors, “but we are not in full communion with the churches of the West.” The service included Psalm 143, which says “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity,” and a Litany of Peace, prayers of confession and pleading for forgiveness, and a Litany of Supplication, ending with a prayer that, as Christ said, “All may be one.”

Fr. Alcott at the end of the service said, “We gather to glorify Christ. We may seem small, and we’re in a small town, but may Christ do great things.”

A light buffet was served afterward, even though it was a fast day in the Orthodox Church. Fr. Holet said, expansively, that the story of The Prodigal Son encouraged him to ‘kill the fatted calf’ to celebrate the gathering of the different faiths.

Fr. Gerald Fogarty
Fr. Gerald Fogarty

Dr. Woloschak, a professor of bioethics, had served in the press office for the American delegation of Orthodox Churches to the first ecumenical council of Orthodoxy held since 787.

787?! Yes. That’s how far, and as fast, as Orthodoxy has advanced in unifying itself. Orthodoxy is mainly organized in national churches—St. Nicholas is in the Ukrainian tradition—with the Russian Orthodox Church presuming to be dominant. Language differences partly explain this, but national politics are also a factor. Orthodoxy stresses the collegiality of bishops, hence actions must be nearly universally agreed on, and this value can sometimes impede progress. But, then, a church is necessarily an institution that sees itself as outside of Time.

Woloschak said the Council had focused on ecumenical relations, the diaspora (the scattering of national traditions to distant corners of the earth, such as happened in the U.S.), impediments to marriage, and the mission of the church in the world. The Russian and Bulgarian Churches did not attend the council. But 230 bishops from 13 Orthodox churches did.

“It was amazing to see it and feel the camaraderie,” said Woloschak. “It was very special.”

The churches had to vote as blocs and the Russians required unanimity in passing a motion. “They didn’t want any shows of division,” she said. “The Orthodox bishops are all equals. The Patriarch, Bartholomew, is merely first among equals. It’s a very democratic and open process.

“Each page of each document had to be signed by each hierarch to show their agreement. My private opinion is that Putin told the Patriarch of Moscow not to come and also told Bulgaria to be the first to say it would not come. I think it was political and had nothing to do with church issues. I think the Patriarch of Moscow wanted to come.

“Historically, there have never been all the churches represented at any ecumenical council. But all the documents were signed in advance at pre-counciliar meetings, so they should have effect. Roman Catholics, Copts and Anglicans also attended as observers. There was simultaneous translation.”

Woloschak said that the problem of mixed marriages refers to marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Not allowing them is a problem for the American churches, but the older churches, such as the Greek Church, opposed any change. In a bit of diplomacy, an accommodation is that they will be allowed where “economia,” meaning ‘the running of the household’ requires it.

She said one take-away for her was that “the third-world churches were actually running the theological agenda.”

The Hierarchs released doves, symbols of the Holy Spirit, at the end of the Council.

“The most important thing is that it happened,” Woloschak said. “It’s been planned since 1920. Councils are now expected every seven to 10 years to renew counciliar action to function as one across the globe.” She said that in places such as America where cities may have churches of more than one tradition present, the goal is to gradually consolidate the number of bishops so as to reduce their competition. She said it may come down to “a process of dying out and seeing who’s left standing.”

She said the Council also condemned “fundamentalism” but did not define what fundamentalism is.

She said Russia now is saying it does not recognize the statements of the Council, which, of course, is a position it set up for itself by declining to attend.

Woloschak’s report showed the fractured state of the Orthodox churches, despite their spiritual fortitude, endurance and their mutual respect, and that their hope for coordinating their presence in the world faces decades more work.

Fr. Fogarty said the position of the Catholic Church, which particularly under Pope John Paul II, actively sought to overcome differences with the Orthodox, is that no church should change its doctrine while in dialogue with another church. He noted that at Vatican II, the Catholic Church only recognized one other church, the Orthodox, as a church. Both churches recognize seven sacraments and apostolic succession, he said. He noted that the Orthodox sent representatives to Vatican II, from the Russian Church, at a time when Krushchev was trying to influence Western pressure on Berlin.

As a gesture of conciliation, the head of St. Andrew, the patriarch of Contantinople, which was stolen by Crusaders, was returned to the Greek Orthodox Church at Patros in 1964 by Pope Pius VI. Since 1471 it had been in St. Peter’s in Rome. “It was a peace gesture,” Fr. Fogarty said. “John Paul II would do anything to get an opening to the Orthodox. He talked in an encyclical, speaking in generalities, about reopening the primacy of Peter. The main difference is over the role of the pope.”

“We’ve had separate lives,” said Fr. Holet, “and we are trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. It’s something we can’t do, but the Holy Spirit can. This movement is a movement of God.”

Woloschak said the differences between the Orthodox and Catholics are about theology, but the differences among the Orthodox are about the politics of their countries. She said Russia’s motivation not to go to the council was that the council would end up showing that Moscow is not the “Third Realm,” the third Rome (as Constantinople was the second Rome) and thus its claims to be the most important of the Orthodox churches would be diminished.

“There’s lots of consultation going on between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches,” she said, “at many levels, but we’re not working on being united. The long term goal of the Orthodox is to be one church. The U.S. church is making the most progress in this.”
A parishioner from St. Nicholas noted, “This church is a good example of that—getting past ethnic identity in the national churches and ‘melding’ them. It’s a model for unifying Orthodoxy.” His implication seemed to be that the step after that would be to unite with the Latin church.

Fr. Holet said that people need to be able to worship in the language they know. He noted that Mass is said in Spanish at the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville.

“Our liturgy is identical in all Orthodox churches,” he pointed out.

Yet another commonality with Catholicism.


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