Trips of Pope John Paul II to Ukraine, Greece, Rumania, and Israel and his invitations to the patriarchs and bishops of the various separated Eastern churches highlighted one of the priorities of his Pontificate – namely, the hoped-for Reunion of the dissident Byzantine Greco-Slav Churches with the Chair of Peter that has long occupied the Holy See, especially since the reign of Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878). The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had stressed that the divisions among Christians "openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature" (#1). Two of its documents, "Decree on Ecumenism"(1964) and "Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches" (1964) would stimulate the desire for theological dialogue with all the separated Eastern Churches and with the Protestant ecclesial communities in order to overcome the prejudices, hostilities, and hatreds of the past. The Ecumenical Council expressed its hopes for the restoration of "the spirit of brotherly love and unity".
"The results will be that, little by little, as the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion are overcome, all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church which Christ bestowed on His Church from the very beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time." (Decree on Ecumenism, #4)
What was certainly unforeseen by the Fathers of the Council were the doctrinal, liturgical, and moral disorders and scandals which would rock and afflict the Church in the post-conciliar years. Especially serious would be effects of the Dissent and Disobedience engaged in by rebellious theologians who rejected Humanae Vitae (1968) and who began to unravel the entire sexual morality of the Church. Underlying these efforts was an attempted revisionism of key Catholic dogmas and doctrines in order to meet the alleged demands of the "modern mind". A bogus "spirit of Vatican II" would be invoked by journalists, theologians and catechists to question the immutable truths of the Catholic Faith and to challenge, if not out rightly reject, the authority of the Papal Magisterium to determine the meaning of Catholic doctrines. In the late 1960’s the notorious "Dutch Catechism" would be quickly translated into many languages to mark the emergence of an unbelieving neo-Modernism that necessitated Pope Paul VI issuing his "Credo of the People of God" (June 30, 1968) to confirm his brethren in the Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles.
As the Catholic Church in the West showed signs of rebellious Dissent, liturgical turmoil, and the failure of bishops to discipline disobedient priests, religious and laity intent either on schism from the Holy See (e.g., "ultra-traditionalists" such as the followers of Archbishop Lefebrve) or on secularizing the Church together with a significant neglect of authentic spirituality (as with the neo-Modernists), the Holy See’s seeking the restoration of unity with the separated Eastern Orthodox churches proves to be of even greater urgency. Though theological development among the Eastern Orthodox has not been without serious errors (witness their acceptance of divorce-and-remarriage and contraception and the resistance by many of their theologians to Catholic doctrines defined after their separation from the Chair of Peter), the fact remains that the Eastern Orthodox retains the Catholic Faith almost in its entirety. Formal separation was a process that appeared towards the end of the 12th century and was accelerated with the sacking of the city of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 A.D. Nevertheless, the dissident Byzantine Greco-Slav churches (Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Rumanian, etc. and those in the Western Diaspora) have maintained the great wealth of apostolic doctrine set forth in the first Seven Ecumenical Councils. There is the huge body of Christian faith and practice which both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox continue to uphold despite the breaks in formal communion that took place after the quarrels of 1054 A.D.
Dogma remains important in Eastern Orthodoxy whereas in the modern West there has been a veritable Flight from Dogma and there is the strong temptation to adopt a tolerant, anti-dogmatic Christianity, a "Christianity without Christ"! Of course, an anti-dogmatic Christianity is no Christianity at all, as our Eastern Orthodox brethren realize only too well with their strong sense of Tradition wherein the dogmas set forth in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed are fundamental to the supernatural life in Christ. The Trinity, the divinity of Christ, His Virginal Birth, His miracles, His physical Resurrection, His Real Presence in the Eucharist, the veneration and invocation of the Mother of God and the Saints, prayer for the dead, and Sacraments administered by bishops in the Apostolic Succession are among the articles of faith which cannot be tampered with. The claim of the Bishop of Rome to exercise the Apostle Peter’s Primacy among the Apostles and to exercise a universal jurisdiction and infallibility in the Church remains the chief stumbling block for our separated Eastern Orthodox brethren but theological dialogue is already clearing away certain misconceptions concerning the authentic spiritual and Christocentric nature of Papal authority.
It is good to remind readers that it was Catholic scholarship of the last centuries which did much to bring to light for all Catholics the beauty of Eastern liturgy, the splendor of Byzantine mystical theology, and the immense patristic heritage of the Greek and Syrian Fathers of the Church thereby preparing the Catholic mind for the "rapprochement" of the Churches. As Pope John Paul II has stated in his 1995 encyclical "Ut Unum Sint", "The Catholic Church desires nothing less than full communion between East and West and finds inspiration for this in the experience of the first Millennium". As noted, despite difficulties and sporadic schisms, the unity between Rome and Constantinople endured for most of the first Millennium. Having in mind the historical patrimony of the Christian East, the Successor of Peter has spoken repeatedly that "The Church must breathe with her two lungs", that is, both her Western and Eastern traditions (See ibid., #54). The "Springtime of Faith" for the Church which Pope John Paul II prayerfully looked forward to is envisioned as one which will see the Catholic Church breathe freely with its Eastern Catholic lung greatly strengthened by the coming reunion with their no-longer-separated Eastern brethren.
It was in his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (May 2, 1995) that the Slav Pope proceeded to praise at great length the glories of the Christian East and the treasures of Tradition that have been preserved in the life of the various Eastern Churches, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox (these latter ancient Churches separated since the 5th century from both Rome and Constantinople). He noted: "It is Tradition that preserves the Church from the danger of gathering only changing opinions, and guarantees her certitude and continuity." The love and reverence with which Eastern Christians celebrate the Eucharistic mystery, their profound worship of the Trinity, their deep prayer and contemplation of heavenly mysteries, their doctrine of divinization in the Holy Spirit via the Sacraments, their witness to the perennial value of the monastic life – all manifest the continuity of Catholic belief and practice among our separated Eastern brethren and which must be maintained with the restoration of full communion with the Chair of Peter – and that for the benefit of the entire Catholic Church. Continuing the ecumenical legacy of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has stressed his determination to further the Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue to eliminate the "divergences which still exist and to spare no efforts to re-establish full communion." (Address 12/15/05).
It is the will of Christ that separated Christians be one in the Church built on the Rock of Peter. May the intercession of the Mother of God and the prayers of such Saints as the martyrs St. Josaphat, St. Andrew Bobola, the confessor Blessed Leonid Feodorov, and such recent patrons of Reunion with the Eastern Orthodox churches as the Capuchin St. Leopoldo of Castelnovo and the Carmelite mystic Blessed Titus Brandsma grant us the inestimable blessing of the restoration of full communion between the separated Eastern Churches and the Church of Rome which from the beginnings of Christianity was known to all as the Church which "presides in love" (St. Ignatius of Antioch).
The above article appeared in "The Wanderer", February 23, 2006
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