"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Google+ Badge

Friday, 19 January 2018


Patriarch Athenagoras

The day on which Pope Francis moved on from Chile to Peru marked the beginning all around the world of the annual week of prayer for Christian unity, which culminates on January 25 with the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul.

Half a century ago, on July 25, 1967, in Istanbul, the ecumenical journey passed a historic milestone: the second meeting between Paul VI and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras. And on the occasion of this anniversary, Eliana Versace, a Church historian, has published in the “Notiziario” of the Paul VI Institute in Brescia two documents of exceptional interest.

These are two reports sent by the Italian ambassador to Turkey at the time, Mario Mondello, to the Italian foreign minister, Senator Amintore Fanfani.

The first report is a detailed account of that voyage of Pope Giovanni Battista Montini to Turkey.

While the second, a dozen pages or so in length, reports the long conversation that the ambassador had with Athenagoras around ten days after the meeting with Paul VI.

A conversation that the ambassador himself was the first to find “surprising” and “troubling,” beginning with the character he found before him: “picturesque,” “ardent and affable,” “perhaps a bit awkward and perhaps a bit histrionic.”

And this character profile itself leads one to associate the figure of Athenagoras with that of pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

But there’s more, much more. We now know that there is an extraordinary proximity between the two precisely in their manner of conceiving of the ecumenical journey.

To grasp this proximity it is enough to read this passage from the ambassador’s report:

“To the question from the Italian diplomat on the importance of the theological differences among the various Churches, the patriarch responded vigorously, and said: ‘And how could I attribute importance to them, if there are none?’ To explain the meaning of his words to his surprised interlocutor, he compared himself to a diplomat: ‘You know, theologians are like jurists. Do you diplomats listen to the jurists when you feel that you must carry out some gesture or some important act of international politics? Of course not. Well then, I am a diplomat. Besides, out of scruples of conscience, I asked a few theologians to study in what these differences would consist. Well then, you know what they found? That there are none. That’s it. On the contrary, they realized that our Churches separated without any motives for conflict, without any reason, but only because of a succession of actions carried out by one side and the other, imperceptibly. In short, a ‘querelle d’évêques’.”

And further on:

“So there was only path for the patriarch of Constantinople to follow: ‘There is only one Blessed Mother, the same for all. Just as there is only one Christ, the same for all. And we all use the same baptism, which makes us all Christians. Enough with the differences: let us draw near to each other with ‘acts.’ The only path to follow is that of love and of charity, and love and charity impose the way of union.”
And now compare this with what Pope Francis said on February 26, 2017 in a question-and-answer session at the “All Saints” Anglican Church in Rome:

This was the question:

"Your Predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, warned against the risk, in ecumenical dialogue, of giving priority to cooperation in social initiatives rather than following the more demanding path of theological agreement. It appears that you prefer the contrary, that is, to 'walk and work' together in order to reach the goal of Christian unity. Is this true?"

And this was Francis’s response:

"I do not know the context in which Pope Benedict said this. I don’t know, and so it is a little difficult for me. I cannot really answer this.... Whether he meant to say this or not?... Perhaps it was during a conversation with theologians.... But I am sure that both aspects are important. This is certain. Which of the two has priority?... And on the other hand, Patriarch Athenagoras’ famous comment – which is true because I asked Patriarch Bartholomew and he said: 'This is true' – when he said to Blessed Pope Paul VI: 'Let us make unity together and leave the theologians on an island to think about it'. It was a joke, but historically, it is accurate. I had doubts but Patriarch Bartholomew told me that it was true. But what is the heart of the matter, because I believe that what Pope Benedict said is true: we must seek a theological dialogue in order to also seek the roots... of the Sacraments .. of many issues on which we are still not in agreement. But this cannot be done in a laboratory: it must be done as we advance, along the way. We are on a journey, and as we journey, we also have these discussions. Theologians do this. But in the meantime, we help each other, we, one with the other, with our needs, in our lives; also spiritually we help each other. For example, in the ‘twinning’ [of the parishes] there was the fact of studying Scripture together, and we help each other in our charitable service, in service to the poor, in hospitals, in wars.... It is very important. This is very important. It is not possible to have ecumenical dialogue while standing still. No. Ecumenical dialogue is carried out as we walk, because ecumenical dialogue is a journey, and theological matters are discussed along the way. I believe this betrays neither the thought of Pope Benedict, nor the reality of ecumenical dialogue. This is my interpretation. If I knew the context in which that thought was expressed, I might say something different, but this is what comes to mind to say."

Or again, compare it with what Pope Francis said on November 30, 2014, on the flight back from Turkey:

"I believe we are moving forward in our relations with the Orthodox; they have the sacraments and apostolic succession... we are moving forward. What are we waiting for? For theologians to reach an agreement? That day will never come, I assure you, I'm sceptical. Theologians work well but remember what Athenagoras said to Paul VI: 'Let's put the theologians on an island to discuss among themselves and we’ll just get on with things!' I thought that this might not have been true, but Bartholomew told me: 'No, it's true, he said that'. We mustn't wait.  Unity is a journey we have to take, but we need to do it together. This is spiritual ecumenism: praying together, working together. There are so many works of charity, so much work.... Teaching together.... Moving forward together.  This is spiritual ecumenism. Then there is an ecumenism of blood: when they kill Christians, we have so many martyrs.... starting with those in Uganda, canonized 50 years ago: half were Anglican, half Catholic, but the ones [who killed them] didn't say: 'You're Catholic.... you're Anglican….' No: 'You are Christian', and so their blood mixed. This is the ecumenism of blood. Our martyrs are crying out: 'We are one! We already have unity, in spirit and in blood'. […] This is ecumenism of blood, which helps us so much, which tells us so much. And I think we have to take this journey courageously. Yes, share university chairs, it's being done, but go forward, continue to do so....  I’ll say something that a few, perhaps, are not able to understand: the Eastern Catholic Churches have a right to exist, but uniatism is a dated word. We cannot speak in these terms today. We need to find another way."

It is not known for sure where and when Athenagoras is thought to have made his quip about the theologians to be marooned on an island. Certainly not during his first historic encounter with Paul VI in Jerusalem on January 5, 1964, the entire audio recording of which has been made public:

The fact is, however, that the quip has entered the oral tradition, and Francis has resorted to it a number of times for confirmation of his own vision of ecumenism.

Returning to the report of Ambassador Mondello, Eliana Versace has also published a summary of it in "L'Osservatore Romano":

And it is a letter that has other surprises in store, for example where Athenagoras tells the ambassador that he is in the habit of calling pope Montini by the name of “Paul II,” because he is the true “successor of Saint Paul, updated for the present time,” or better yet, by the name of “Paul II the Victorious,” “imitating with his hand the gesture that Churchill used to indicate victory.”

In the run-up to the present week of ecumenical prayer, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for Christian unity, recalled in “L'Osservatore Romano” that there are two paths that feed into the ecumenical way, from its origin until today.

The first, begun in 1910, took the name of “Faith and Order,” and has “as its primary objective the search for unity in faith,” on the terrain of doctrine and theology.

The second, opened in 1914, took the name of “Life and Work,” and is intended to unify the various Christian denominations, regardless of their doctrinal divisions, in a shared “effort on behalf of understanding and peace among peoples.”

It is patently clear that of these two paths only the second interests Pope Francis. Just as, we now know, it did Patriarch Athenagoras before him.

(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)

David Bentley Hart: Francis Is Just Alright With Me

While the Douthats, Doughertys and Drehers of this world continue to accuse Pope Francis of everything from heresy to conspiracy to provoking schism, who should come to the pope’s defense (and at First Things, no less) but the formidable Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart?

In “Habetis Papam” (roughly, “You’ve got yourself a pope”), Hart first expresses “a wholly unqualified admiration for Francis,” adding that “nothing he has done, said, or written since assuming office has had any effect on me but to deepen that esteem.”  But, controversialist that he is, Mr Hart does not leave it at that; instead, he goes on to say:

“I am utterly baffled by the anxiety, disappointment, or hostility he clearly inspires in certain American Catholics of a conservative bent (using “conservative” in its distinctly American acceptation). And frankly, I find it no more inexplicable in its most extreme expressions—which at their worst verge on sheer ­hysteria—than in its mildest—an almost morbid oversensitivity to every faint hint of hidden meanings in every word, however innocuous, that escapes the pope’s lips or pen.”

Hart says nothing about either the recent Synod on the Family or the even more recent “Lutheran communion” imbroglio. His bafflement here is focused on the conservative Catholic reaction to the papal encyclical Laudato Si, and (characteristically) he minces no words in saying so:

My perplexity achieved a kind of critical mass after the promulgation of the most recent papal encyclical. For myself, I can quite literally find not a single sentence or sentiment in Laudato Si to which it seems to me possible for any Christian coherently to object…I simply cannot find an assertion anywhere in its pages that strikes me as anything other than either a plain statement of fact or a reasonable statement of Christian principle.

Hart also insists that Laudato Si is very much in the Catholic tradition and that, critics to the contrary notwithstanding, Pope Francis has clearly been influenced by a variety of respectably Catholic sources:

Laudato Si positively trembles from all the echoes it contains of G. K. Chesterton, Vincent McNabb, Hilaire Belloc, Elizabeth Anscombe, Dorothy Day, E. F. Schumacher, Leo XIII, John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and (above all) Romano Guardini; its native social and political atmosphere is that rich combination of Christian socialism, social democratism, subsidiarism, distributism, and anti-materialism that constitutes the best of the modern Catholic intellectual tradition’s humane alternative to all the technologisms, libertarianisms, corporatisms, and totalitarianisms that in their different ways reduce humanity to nothing more than appetent machines and creation to nothing more than industrial resources.

A word to the wise, Messrs. Douthat, Dougherty and Dreher: you do not want to get into the rhetorical ring against an opponent who comes up with phrases such as “appetent machines”. 

As for Laudato Si’s emphasis on the environment and on climate change, Hart observes:

Francis has the temerity to take the science of climate change ­seriously, which is the sort of thing that can send a Wall Street ­Journal conservative frantically groping for his smelling salts, but which I cannot help thinking is slightly saner than clinging to the politically inflected obfuscations of the data that so many in the developed world use to calm their digestions and consciences. But, leaving that aside, I again have to ask what the encyclical says that could possibly offend against reason. That the incessant pollution of soil and water by the heavy metals and other toxins produced by the monstrous consumerist voracity of our way of life is a devastating reality? That local ecologies despoiled and poisoned are impossible to recover, and that the poor of the developing world constitute the vast majority of its immediate victims? That stewardship of creation is a long-acknowledged moral requirement of Catholic Christians? That creation declares God’s glory and is an intrinsic good, and that only a depraved moral imagination allied to a petrified heart could fail to see the moral claim made on us by other creatures?

David Bentley Hart acknowledges that he is not a member of the Roman Catholic Church (he belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church), and so his comments may be taken as unwarranted intrusions; in fact, he begins “Habetis Papam” by declaring “Far be it from me—not being a Roman Catholic—to tell Catholics what they should think of their pontiff.”  That caveat aside, Mr. Hart’s “amicus curiae” for Pope Francis is a direct challenge to those Catholics who find, in Laudato Si and in almost every word this pope utters, either naiveté, heresy, or a sort of implicit apostasy from Catholic teachings.

It is, as I have said elsewhere, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of David Bentley Hart.  If Messrs. Douthat, Dougherty and Dreher care to respond to Hart, they had best bring their “A” games—and even that may not be enough.



In order to understand Patriarch Athenagoras or Pope Francis, you have to bear in mind the fundamentally apophatic nature of our understanding of God.   As St Thomas Aquinas wrote, 
God is greater than all we can say, greater than all that we can know; and not merely does he transcend our language and our knowledge, but he is beyond the comprehension of every mind whatsoever, even of angelic minds, and beyond the being of every substance. (De Div. Nom. I.3.77; quoted in Fran O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, p. 49)

 Thus there is an inherent paradox in any attempt to formulate doctrine.  From our point of view, there is the necessity for clarity of thought and of precise formulation.  The only alternative is wishy-washy thought leading to the formulation of pious platitudes.  However, precise formulation inevitably leads to a clear distinction between what we believe and that is believed by others: it leads to frontiers and borderlines and, hence, to divisions.

On the other hand, God's truth transcends particular truths, is not one truth over against another: it is Truth itself, and our truths are only true in so far as they inadequately and hesitatingly participate in that Truth.

According to  the late Bernard Lonergan S.J., "Faith is the knowledge born of religious love," not just any love, but God's love for us revealed in Christ on the Cross, a love which crosses every barrier and meets the human race at its worst, at its most destructive, when human beings are intent on killing the God who created them and holds them in being.  This is not a theology: it is the reality about which theology is written.  We can respond to it because it happened in our visible world; but because it is a theophany, it leads us into a Truth and a Love that are beyond our comprehension.  This Mystery of Christ is what the Greeks call the "economia"  Our positive response to it, our answering "yes" is faith and our participation in it leads to our understanding.

   Every Good Friday, we put everything else aside to confront the Church with the naked Cross, God's supreme revelation of his nature as self-giving Love, a love which is beyond our comprehension but which is made visible so that we can respond.

Christianity can only be understood within the context of that Love which breaks down every barrier and reaches out to every soul.  When this is forgotten, then we forget the limitations of our own success.  For those of us who do theology, God becomes the Great Theologian in the sky who always acts in line with our theology.  For canonists like Cardinal Burke, our salvation becomes God's solution to a legal problem of how human beings can give adequate recompense for sin against an infinite God and who believe that, among others things, Christ came to give us a revised edition of the Mosaic Law, especially on marriage.  Liberals see God as the Great Liberal in the sky who ignores the concerns of the theologians and the lawyers in favour of white western values. The inescapable apophatic nature of our understanding of God and the things of God has been lost.

 The media seems to hold that because the late Patriarch Athenagoras and our Pope Francis believe that neither theologians nor lawyers can have the last word, they are really liberals, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Liberals urge tolerance because theological truth is not all that important.   True ecumenical agreement among Catholics and Orthodox is realised when they joyfully discover that their different formulations, in spite of their limitations, arise out of a real participation in the same ecclesial reality and basically express the same faith.

I would like to add, not only Patriarch Bartholomew to Athenagoras and Pope Francis suggested by Sandro Magister, but also Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.  He seems quite rightly terrified by the possibility of a doctrinal agreement by the theologians engaged in ecumenical dialogue before links of ecclesial charity can be established within the ordinary community life of our separated churches.  This would mean that the ecumenical agreement would be understood outside the context of ecclesial love which reflects the presence of the incomprehensible Love of God that challenges us to think outside out intellectual boxes.  In other words, the ecumenical agreement would not be understood at all.

There is a real possibility that a substantial agreement could be reached very soon between Greek Orthodox and Catholic theologians, but they live and work within an academic environment that has little to do with the lives of the ordinary Orthodox and the Catholic faithful.

  What would happen if they were to present to their respective churches a full doctrinal agreement?   In many places, the faithful of both churches would erupt and reject the agreement that has been made, and other theologians would rush in to support the popular will, finding in the agreements all kinds of errors.   Years of work would be trashed and unity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy would be put off for another few centuries.

Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Francis share the same faith but different ecclesial allegiance.  They know that what separates them isn't a difference of belief, only years of living as though the other side doesn't exist.  They know that this unity of faith will only become apparent, not when the theologians come to a reluctant agreement, but when  Catholics and Orthodox love one another.   When this happens, their common faith will hit them with all the force of revelation, and both sides will bow the knee in humble acceptance. 

First, we need to love one, which is why the Byzantine rite puts the kiss of peace before the common recitation of the Creed so that they can say it "with one heart and one mind."  To love one another we must know one another, which is why Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Francis and the present Archbishop of Canterbury put sharing before a theological agreement.  As Pope Francis said to the Anglicans:
Ecumenical dialogue is carried out as we walk, because ecumenical dialogue is a journey, and theological matters are discussed along the way.

Thursday, 11 January 2018


Vatican Investigation Declares First Days of the Medjugorje Apparitions Real and Authentic

early days

It may be a coincidence that the Vatican finally has released the text of norms it designed for use in evaluating apparitions way back in 1978 at the same time that it's evaluating the most famous apparition since Fatima and one of the most visited religious places on earth: Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which has been experiencing building boom after building boom, such that anyone who visited in the late 1980s or 1990s or even as recently as five years ago would hardly recognize it.

What was once a hamlet surrounded by vineyards is now a city -- one that, to our eyes, may be approaching the size of Fatima and Lourdes (if it has not already).

Though Americans no longer flock there as they did before the Yugoslavian civil war as well as terrorism threats and high airline prices, Poles, Irish, and particularly Italians have been flooding the site -- maxing out even the great expansion in bed-and-breakfast-hotel space.

Yet, this is not an approved apparition -- and no one, outside of perhaps the Pope, knows if it will ever be.

The norms released by Rome are "new" to the vast majority and fascinating because they are not only comprehensive but unambiguously dispel a notion -- widely and tirelessly circulated by opponents to the apparitions during the past dozen or so years -- that only a local bishop -- no one else -- can rule on such private revelations. (Although he may be softening a bit -- some think recent statements from him indicate a more positive Vatican view -- the local bishop has long and vehemently opposed the alleged miracles.)

The norms clearly spell out that "the Apostolic See can intervene if asked either by the Ordinary himself, by a qualified group of the faithful, or even directly by reason of the universal jurisdiction of the Supreme Pontiff (cf. infra, no. IV)," adding that it's up to the Sacred Congregation "to intervene motu proprio in graver cases, especially if the matter affects the larger part of the Church" -- which Medjugorje -- drawing pilgrims from around the globe (including dozens of cardinals, hundreds of bishops, and tens of thousands of priests) has for decades.

It is now spelt out clearly for this situation which since 1987 has been out of the local bishop's hands and since 2010 has been taken from a committee of several Bosnia-Hercegovinian prelates for handling directly by a special Vatican commission that has been assiduously researching the apparitions and interviewing seers.

What this commission will recommend -- and whether it will even be made public -- is anyone's guess. For months now the rumor has been that it will make recommendations  by the end of the year. The Pope will then do whatever the Pope wants to do with the recommendations.

Image result for cardinal ratzinger
Credible reports indicate that Benedict visited Medjugorje when he was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (he was seen there by eyewitnesses, and photographed another time in Linz, Austria, with a famous Medjugorje priest, right), and it makes sense in that his superior at the time, John Paul II, who beyond doubt favored the apparitions, encouraged his cardinals to visit there. As his right hand man -- in charge of the Congregation that oversee private revelations -- it only makes sense that Cardinal Ratzinger visited (incognito, as observers from Rome still visit).
Image result for medjugorje the pilgrims
Jacov speaks to pilgrims
While indications are that in the early days Cardinal Ratzinger was in the camp of believers, no one knows his current thinking; where John Paul II spoke to any number about Medjugorje, Benedict XVI has been tight-lipped with visiting bishops (or, bishops have been tight-lipped with anything that has been said). There was a rumor several years ago that when he was still cardinal the Pope had concerns about the way at least one seer was conducting life as a visionary and the norms include monetary gain as a negative though not sole determinant to consider when evaluating private revelations.

A key and perhaps the key norm in apparitions (one mentioned prominently in the norms) is whether there have been fruits, and at Medjugorje these have been legion -- countless healings, conversions by the hundreds of thousands (if not millions), deliverance, and priestly vocations. It can be argued that no apparition has had more fruits at the same point and perhaps none has had more in the same time span.

Still, the likeliest outcome from the commission is a statement to the effect that final proof of supernatural authenticity has not yet been definitively established but the faithful are allowed to continue attendance and devotions. Recently, as mentioned, Bishop Ratko Peric seemed to soften a trifle -- saying in a homily during Confirmation at Saint James Church that Medjugorje could be a "new Jerusalem" (or, if commercially consumed, a "Babylon"). That implied he saw what has occurred there as something that will remain and hinted that the commission will be less than condemnatory.

But that doesn't mean formal acceptance (it is rare for an ongoing apparition to be officially recognized, before alleged prophecies are at least partially fulfilled).

And there remains a significant chance that the apparitions will be rejected (in which case we, as a Catholic news site, will closely adhere to the ruling, as we will whatever is determined by the Pope).

While it is difficult to envision outright condemnation of an apparition that has been visited by tens of millions, has affected more people than anyone can count, and has greatly bolstered the Church in places where it is in severe crisis (particularly Ireland, Italy, and also many parts of North America), not to mention the economic and diplomatic repercussions (it has become highly important to Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, the pilgrims breaking records at the Mostar airport, one of several they use), anything is possible and the commission is at least somewhat weighted (and perhaps very substantially so) in the direction of  psychology. It also may be privy to information that we are not.

Reverberations of a rejection would be seismic -- but must be obeyed.

There are rumours in every direction.

Will the seers (who currently travel widely, and appear before tens of thousands, as in the case recently in Italy and Lebanon) be reined in? Will the Vatican allow them to maintain pilgrim homes (as does virtually everyone else in this former farming community)?

Stay tuned.

The release of the norms in various regular languages (beyond Latin) was expected years ago and thus has been long overdue and is now newsworthy; it will be interesting to see if there are similar delays in a statement on the apparitions.

The current status of Medjugorje is what they call non constat de supernaturalitate, more or less a preliminary statement saying that so far there has been no objective final proof. That view (which, despite the way some try to spin it, is not a negative verdict, nor even an actual judgment) was issued on April 10, 1991 and followed by two Vatican statements saying that Catholics (including priests) were allowed to go to Medjugorje as long as it is not an official parish pilgrimage. Detractors circulated this to be a prohibition, in the same way that they insisted that the local bishop's judgment was final in this matter. This status of non constat de supernaturalitate may be reiterated, with continued permission to visit the shrine.

"It is up to the Sacred Congregation to judge and approve the Ordinary’s way of proceeding or, in so far as it be possible and fitting, to initiate a new examination of the matter, distinct from that undertaken by the Ordinary and carried out either by the Sacred Congregation itself or by a special Commission," say the norms released this week, which were formulated under Cardinal Francis Šeper and in restrospect seemed to set the stage for the removal, in the 1980s, of the Mostar bishop's authority (and establishment of the current commission).

Whatever the final Church view of Medjugorje -- and at this point, it seems like a toss up -- the misunderstandings about the bishop having total and ultimate jurisdiction have now been definitively shown to be just that: an error, or misrepresentation.

BBC Documentary on Medjugorje

Archbishop reveals a surpise about Medjugorje
December 12th, 2017 - Vatican envoy nuances point of view on official pilgrimages to Medjugorje
Vatican envoy mgr. Hoser (emeritus when reaching 75 years of age on December 8): "The decree that forbade bishops to organize pilgrimages is no longer active ... If a bishop wants to organize a prayer pilgrimage to Medjugorje to pray to Our Lady, he can do it without problem. But if it is about organized pilgrimages to go there for the apparitions, we can not, there is no authorization to do it"

500,000 see the Blessed Virgin in Zetun, Cairo, Egypt
The one who impressed me the most was Ivan.  I have met him three times, once in Medjugorje, once when he stayed a night in my monastery at Belmont, and once in Peru.  He is shy, not the kind of person to like attention.


Many Orthodox Christians across the globe welcomed the news that the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa, Theodore, ordained five young women to the female diaconate in February of 2017.  Although overly due, this historic event gives many hope that the Church at large is heeding the pastoral needs of its people. Female deacons existed in the Orthodox Church, and has been kept in some of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, as Dr. Petros Vassiliadis’ mentions regarding the revival of the female diaconate this past November.

The role of women in the Church is, of course, broader than an ordained female diaconate.  Indeed, men and women across the Christian world have thought more seriously about the role of women in the church in recent decades. They understand the pastoral benefit conferred to the entire community when women are more integral in the life of the Church.

Contrary to what many may assume, active roles for women is the Church’s Tradition. Historically, women had a clear place in the life of the Church and had integral functions in its divine services; many were preachers, teachers, chanters, prophets, missionaries, assistants and even administers of the sacraments when needed according to the economy of the Church.[1]

Some of these roles have been maintained in some Eastern Churches, whereas others have dissipated. In the Syriac Church, for example, women chanters date back to the fourth-century, where they were first employed in divine liturgy by St. Ephraim the Syrian.[2] The Armenian Orthodox Church also has a long history of women chanters, and several instances of female choir directors. Today, Greek, Russian, Ethiopic, Antiochian and ROCOR Churches use women chanters, even if there is not a unanimous set of standards for them, and some local parishes of these jurisdictions are averse for such positions.[3] The Coptic Orthodox Church does not have any women choirs (with exception to one official group in the Western hemisphere),[4] and typically does not endorse them.

In addition to chanters and choirs, some Orthodox Churches employ women readers.  But like female singers, these roles too are not standardized across the Churches. In some Churches, this practice is adamantly prohibited. Women readers (mostly in the USA and other parts of the West) are today practiced in some Armenian,[5] Syriac, Greek, ROCOR, and Antiochian Churches.

Today, opposition to women’s sanctioned ecclesial roles is often expressed through a misused and abused interpretation of St. Paul’s instruction that women should ‘being silent in the churches’ (1 Corinthians 14:34). The mere fact women were not silent is evinced throughout Scriptures – most notably in the same letter by St. Paul where he speaks of female prophets  (1 Corinthians 11:5), but also in Acts (21:9); others preached and converted entire towns (John 4) and were commanded by the Lord to witness His Resurrection (which was inherently unconventional for a woman to witness to a man at that time – John 20:17-18); others still corrected false teachings (Acts 18:24-26), were deaconesses (διακονία) of St. Paul (Romans 16), and administered the gospel with him (Philippians 4:3 — αἵτινες ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ συνήθλησάν μοι μετὰ).  Thus, it is impossible to interpret St. Paul’s directive as an unambiguous condemnation of women’s voices in church if we know that Scripture repeatedly affirms such voices.

As Fr John Behr notes, Orthodox Christians should read the Scriptures with a ‘synchronic view’, that is, reading them as a whole. Thus, an Orthodox approach to Scriptures would not extract passages selectively to proof-text one’s argument as they seem fit, nor would it construct a dogmatic principle from any single biblical passage. But this is precisely what happens when opponents of female ministry construct a clichéd and untenable argument to prohibit women’s designated roles in the Church in light of 1 Corinthians 14:34.

Indeed, although many Orthodox Christians sharply criticize the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura, some ironically employ this same methodology in their repudiation of women’s roles in the church.

In other words, using 1 Corinthians 14:34 to prohibit women’s active role in Church (whether a choir or reader) is not only an error of biblical interpretation, which fails to interpret the verse alongside the totality of scripture but also an error of tradition because it negates the living Tradition of the Church, which affirms that women were not silent throughout the history of the Church. In effect, this effort to silence women not only de-humanizes half of the Body of the Church, but it also debilitates the entire Church (when one member suffers, all suffer – 1 Corinthians 12:26) and diminishes the opportunity to administer in the Church of God.

For many who are unfamiliar with the Church’s actual history, the revival of women’s roles for the Church are sometimes perceived as ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’, ‘feministic’, or ‘open-minded’. But these roles are ultimately Traditional – part of our history, ecclesial practices, and living Tradition of the Church.

We must remember that in sanctioning (or re-sanctioning rather) women’s integral role in the liturgical life of the Church, we not only revive an ancient Tradition and practice, but we also embrace and acknowledge the pastoral needs of the laity. The Church is living and dynamic; it is not stagnant and a mere point of reference to the past. It must be relevant – while being Traditional, and this reality is achievable when we recognize women as essential to the liturgical and participatory functions of the Church at large.

[1]  As in the life of St. Sarah (also known as Martyria) for example as witnessed in the Coptic Synexarium on May 3rd (Baramouda 25) and December 9 (Hator 29). See here and here. Also see my article ‘Oikonomia and Salvation: the Life of the Brave Mother Saint Sarah, Martyria’, in Encountering Women of Faith: Volume 3, Kyriaki Fitzgerald (ed.), (Holy Cross Press, forthcoming 2018).

[2] See S.A. Harvey, ‘Revisiting the Daughters of the Covenant: Women’s Choirs and Sacred Song in Ancient Syriac Christianity’, Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 8.2 (July 2005).

[3] My experience in a Greek Orthodox Seminary witnesses that many women in Eastern Orthodox parishes voiced their concerns that their local parishes rejected them to participate in chant at the bema.

[4] This choir has existed in recent years, yet during its inception, it was resisted by many and interpreted this group as ‘anti-Orthodox.’

[5] In the Armenian Tradition, the deaconess can be sanctioned to read the gospel during the divine liturgy. Her liturgical vestment traditionally contains the orarian and full-length stole like in the male deaconate. She also is permitted to hold the liturgical fan during the service.

Donna Rizk Asdourian, PhD in Theology, is a Research Fellow at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University and is currently working on ‘Women’s Liturgical Role Today in the Oriental Orthodox Churches.’ She comes from both Coptic and Armenian Traditions.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

As I am a little unwell and needed to borrow an article that is worth borrowing, that is relevant to both Catholics and Orthodox, and Public Orthodoxy is a good place to look. - Fr David

Search This Blog

La Virgen de Guadalupe

La Virgen de Guadalupe


My Blog List

Fr David Bird

Fr David Bird
Me on a good day

Blog Archive