The author is President-Emeritus of the International Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and a noted writer on catechetics, sex education, and historical theology. A convert from Greek Ortodoxy, he has written much on the Eastern Rites and Ortodox Christians. For books see end of article.
There can be no question that the restoration of Unity with the separated Eastern Orthodox churches (not to mention the other lesser Eastern churches which are not in communion with either Rome or Constantinople) has been one of the highest priorities of Pope John Paul II's pontificate. He has followed firmly in the wake of the Second Vatican Council which implored Catholics to pray and work for the unity of all who profess the Christian name, and especially those of the dissident Byzantine Greco-Slav Orthodox churches that have maintained such a profound love of and devotion toward Our Lady.
In the Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom the Blessed and Ever-Virgin Mary is acknowledged 16 times as the most holy of all God's creatures, "more honored than the Cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim." In Byzantine services she is profusely invoked as "Our All-Holy, Immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary." In the liturgical calendar of the Byzantine rite there is a Marian feast for every day of the year and celebrating other events in her life on earth as well as the miracles attributed to her motherly intercession and help in all the needs of life in this "vale of tears." As Bishop Kallistos Ware, a well-known Eastern Orthodox scholar, has written: "It is precisely on account of the Son that we venerate the Mother.... When people refuse to honor Mary, only too often it is because they do not believe in the Incarnation."
Some years ago, Franciscan theologian, Fr. Cuthbert Gumbinger, OFM, noted correctly:
"It is devotion to the Mother of God even among the dissidents that gives us hope for the reunion of churches. She, the Mother of the Good Shepherd, will lead back to the true flock those countless souls who, for so long, have been without a shepherd."
That shepherd is the Successor of Peter who continues the Christ-given commission to feed and rule all the baptized lambs and sheep of Christ (Jn. 21:15-17). Bearing the heavy burden of the Keys of the Kingdom, Pope John Paul II has been indefatigable, not only in writing encyclicals, addresses and speeches calling for the reunion of the separated Eastern churches but also in encouraging personal contacts with their Patriarchs and Bishops. His recent travel to Rumania and to Georgia (both countries largely Eastern Orthodox) mark a new stage in Catholic-Orthodox relations quite different from the days of Pope Pius IX who was deeply disappointed at the refusal of Eastern patriarchs to accept his invitation to attend the First Vatican Council (1870). Eastern Orthodox observers at Vatican II evidenced a far more ecumenical attitude.
Mary a Key to Reunion
The Catholic hope for the reunion of the Eastern Orthodox churches which have
maintained a valid Episcopate, priesthood, and the Seven Sacraments, has
always laid with the Mother of God's love for her children who have wandered
from the one flock especially committed to Peter.
"Nor, because we are Catholics do we assert that she is the Mother of Catholics only; she is the Mother of all the baptized, whether they be within the fold of Peter or belong to the 'other sheep' mentioned by the Good Shepherd, abroad in the desert places of schism, yet very dear to Jesus and to the motherly heart of Mary." (Sermon for the Feast of Our lady of the Atonement, July 9, 1930)
In truth, from the earliest days of Christianity, the Eastern Fathers of the Church were very effusive in praising, honoring, venerating, and invoking Mary the All-Holy Mother of God. St. Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 403), for example, exclaimed:
"Through you, O Holy Virgin, the dividing wall of enmity was destroyed. Through you the peace of heaven was given to earth. Through you men were made angels [in disposition]. Through you men came to be called friends, servants and sons of God. Through you the Cross came to shine over the whole earth, on which hung your Son, Christ our God. Through you false gods fell and heavenly knowledge was spread abroad."
In a well-known passage of his classic and still valuable work. "The Orthodox Eastern Church," Catholic scholar Dr. Adrian Fortescue took occasion to observe:
"The East has always exceeded the West in the ardor of the reverence paid to the Blessed Virgin and the saints... Most of all saints, of course, was the 'All-Holy Mother of God' the object of their devotion. Of all the generations that have called her blessed none has done so with such eloquence as the Eastern Christians. And devotion to Our Lady is still a special mark of all these churches. It seems useless to bring quotations to prove what no one can deny." (London, 1929; p.102)
It is particularly to be noted on the testimonies of the Fathers of the Church, both East and West, who illumined the Church during its first Millennium with the treasures of sacred knowledge that it is to the intercession of the Virgin Mother of God that Christians have traditionally pleaded for the end of all heresy and schism. The 19th century Russian convert, Count Gregory Schouvaloff, who became a Barnabite priest and devoted himself to the work of reunion, often referred to the ancient Latin refrain to Our Lady repeated by the Popes: "Tu sola in universo mundo cunctas haereses intermisti." (Thou alone in the entire world has crushed all the heresies). For Fr. Schuvaloff there was no question that reunion would result from the intercession of the Mother of God. "Yes, they will return. It is not in vain that they have preserved among the treasures of their faith the cultus of Mary; it is not in vain that they invoke her, that they believe in her Immaculate Conception, perhaps without realizing it and without the joyful [formal] commemoration of it." (See his autobiography, "My Conversion and My Vocation"). The depth of Russian piety with regards to the Blessed Virgin can be seen in the writings of the Russian Orthodox priest, John of Kronstadt, who had a reputation for sanctity and whose "My Life In Christ" is regarded as a Russian spiritual classic. Among the many beautiful prayers to the Mother of God can be found the following, so redolent of ancient Catholic faith, piety and devotion:
"O Lord! Deprive me not of thy heavenly gifts, for Thou art the Lord and canst do so if Thou willest; O Lord, save me from eternal torments, for Thou art the Lord and canst also easily do so if Thou willest; O Lord, be it in mind, or thought, in word or deed that I have sinned, forgive me, seeing the infirmity of my soul. Thus, Lord, Thou canst do all things for me, repentant and asking Thy blessings.
Russian Orthodox the Largest
Among all the national autocephalous Greco-Slav churches unhappily separated from the See of Peter, it is the Russian Orthodox patriarchate that is the largest and the most imposing, constituting perhaps 50 million souls, having survived 70 years of savage persecution by the Communists, the "enemies of God" (as Pius XII termed them). It is a matter of wonder that there are Russian clergy and laity who are sympathetic to reunion with the Catholic Church. Some of these have followed in the wake of the great Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (d. 1900) who championed the Catholic doctrine of the Papacy in his remarkable work "Russia and the Universal Church" (published in France to avoid Czarist censorship) which was to have a great influence on various intellectuals. Regardless of fanatical opponents of Unity with Rome who presently exist in all the national orthodox churches, the ruthless persecution and martyrdom of both Catholics and Orthodox who gave their lives for Christ in all the Iron Curtain countries has resulted in an acute awareness of the sinfulness of their divisions and a longing for visible unity among those who honor the Mother of God as also the "Mother of Unity."
Our Lady of Fatima Promised the Conversion of Russia
It is historically and theologically significant that the same Mother of God should appear to three small children at Fatima in 1917 (even before the Bolshevik/Communist take-over) and promise the "conversion of Russia" — a Russia that would:
"..spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated. In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she will be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world."
Many who have labored for the union of the Church after Our Lady's 1917 prophecy that "Russia will be converted," have understood it as predicting not only the end of a vicious atheistic Communist rule in Russia, the heartland of the Soviet Empire, but the fulfillment of hopes and dreams for a Catholic Russia. In 1856 the aristocrat-convert Ivan Sergievitch Gagarin, who had become a Jesuit, published a book, "Will Russia become Catholic?" which excited much interest in the possible reunion of the churches. Despite the conversion of a number of prominent Russian individuals and intellectuals to Catholicism, it was corporate reunion that the Popes have always sought with the East, and it is the corporate reunion of entire churches under their patriarchs and Bishops that the Second Vatican Council certainly desired to promote (See its documents Lumen Gentium, Decree on Ecumenism, and the Decree on Catholic Eastern Churches).
Perhaps a Reunion Council
Because important ecclesiastical decisions are regarded as the work of Councils and Synods in the context of the notion of Conciliarity, (or Collegiality) much revered in Eastern eyes, it would not be surprising if a great Reunion Council (such as the Council of Florence in 1439 which had only partial success) could take place as the climax of the strenuous ecumenical efforts undertaken by the Roman Pontiffs in our century. The Ecumenical Council of Florence, which for a brief period saw fall the doctrinal barriers between East and West, was participated in by the famous Isidore, Metropolitan of Kiev, who remained faithful in defense of the Council and unity with Rome until his death in 1463. Would it be impossible for a new Council of Union to take place at the beginning of the Third Millennium wherein the great Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople would take the lead in discarding the old discords, quarrels, cultural hostilities, and doctrinal misunderstandings which have fueled a centuries-old Schism? Would not that new "Springtime of Christianity," so eagerly desired by the present Successor of Peter find an astonishing fulfillment in the conciliar re-integration of a major bloc of Eastern Orthodox churches into Catholic unity and thus see the realization of a Catholic Russia. To many who see only the shortcomings of past attempts at Union (Lyons 1274, Florence 1439, Brest-Litovsk 1596) such an eventuality would seem by human standards an absolute impossibility. But then it was contrary to all human calculation that the Iron Curtain collapsed dramatically in 1989, followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and thus, freeing the Russian Church from 70 years of Communist oppression and centuries more of isolation from Catholic influence and direct contact with Peter's See.
A Catholic Russia? Let us recall that Russia (so long afflicted by atheistic
Communism) has been specifically consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary
by Pius XII, Paul VI, and Pope John Paul II, who further made a collegial act
of consecration with the Roman Pontiff united with the college of Bishops at
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on March 24, 1984, and this just a few years
before the unraveling of the Soviet Union. It has been reported that some
Eastern Orthodox bishops even joined in that consecration! In his prayer,
moreover, the Pope noted that "the power of this consecration... overcomes
every evil that the spirit of darkness is able to awaken...." Such words may
well imply that the evil of a centuries-old Schism that has wounded the Body
of Christ in this world will finally be overcome, and that the centuries-old
prayers of so many confessors and martyrs for Unity will finally be answered.
In the 8th century, the pre-Schism Byzantine Greek Catholic Patriarch of
Constantinople, St. Germanus, fittingly termed the Holy Virgin "the one who
unites those separated." In 1917 the Mother of God under her title of "Our
Lady of Fatima" looked with affection and tenderness on the beloved
Russian people so devoted to her prophecy, the "conversion of Russia" and
perhaps the end of the most tragic and scandalous Schism in the history of
May the Immaculate Heart of Mary bring about our own conversion in order that we may assist Her with our own prayers for a new "Springtime of Christianity" in the Third Millennium. May Our Blessed Lord hasten the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary!
Editor note: James Likoudis, a convert to Catholicism from Greek Orthodoxy, in 1992 wrote the book "Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism" ($17.95 postpaid) which deals with the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Papacy and the Procession of the Holy Spirit. Likoudis has also written an expanded and updated edition of: "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy" dealing with Eastern Orthodox objections to Papal supremacy and infallibility which he shows to be without doctrinal or historical merit. All who are interested in a detailed refutation of the Eastern Orthodox claim to constitute the "undivided Church" of the First Millennium will find Mr. Likoudis' defense of the Petrine Ministry in the Church invaluable. "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy" is available directly from the author ($27.95 postpaid). For these books write: James Likoudis, P.O. Box 852, Montour Falls, N.Y. 14865; or E-Mail the author at: email@example.com
This article was originally published in the Catholic magazine "IMMACULATE HEART MESSENGER", issue of January-March 2000.
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