"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

Sunday, 31 July 2016


In the website CONCILIARITY AND ECCLESIAL LOVE we put together all the posts that are in my blog "Monks and Mermaids" about the two synods on the family and added material to make the presentation more complete.  This article forms part of the Introduction to SOBORNOST AND ECCLESIAL LOVE on the "Holy and Great Council" that was held at Pentecost 2016 in Crete; and it is my intention to put all the posts in my blog about this Orthodox council together with other articles and documents, almost entirely from Orthodox sources, on this other website.   This article is my contribution.  I hope the new website will be ready in about a month. 
 I was first introduced to Orthodoxy in the early sixties - Vatican II was in full spin - when I met Father Barnabas in a Paris street.  We were both in Benedictine habits, he because he was taking part in an Orthodox experiment in western Orthodoxy, I because I am a Benedictine.   We became friends for life.   He invited me to his monastery in Paris, and I have never forgotten the experience.

Most impressive of all were the old Russian monks.  They were gnarled and misshapen like ancient trees that have withstood strong winds ever since their planting.   They wore wide black trousers tucked into heavy boots, a black knee-length smock with a leather belt, and round black caps, their faces lined like contour maps: they looked the very personification of Holy Russia, and looked on them with reverence.  (I was already a fan of "The Brothers Karamazov.")

Father Barnabas introduced me to another guest, a Bishop Alexis van der Mensbrugghe.   He was an ex-monk of Amay (now Chevetogne) who converted to Orthodoxy and later became an Orthodox bishop and a lecturer in Church History at Oxford University.  He had an interesting theory.

He told me that one surprising fact about Orthodox and Catholic history seems to corroborate Pope John XXIII's dictum that our divisions do not extend to heaven.   He said it is a surprising thing that, in spite of the great differences between East and West, there have been movements down the ages which correspond to one another across the divide, even when there is no contact between them and no evidence that one is copying the other.   He gave two instances, but said there were others.   The first was the tendency to express spirituality in long and sumptuous liturgies, that the Byzantine liturgy reached its maturity during the time of Cluny which also went in for the same but without copying Byzantium. The other instance is the Hesychast movement that was exactly contemporaneous with the Rhineland and English mystics.  Of course they were different in theology, vocabulary and style, belonging as they did to two different religious cultures; but they were expressions of the same faith and had the same inspiration.

Of course, unlike so many Orthodox critics of Catholicism nowadays, he knew both Orthodox and Catholic spiritualities from the inside.   Like Father Lev Gillet, he had no patience with those Orthodox xenophobes who make sweeping superficial condemnations of a Catholicism they don't really know.   "Why is it that so many Russians condemn the Catholic Church in a way that only shows their ignorance!" exclaimed an Orthodox deacon to me in Minsk a few years ago,  "They often don't know any Catholics, while many of us in Belarus have Catholic relatives and all of us have Catholic neighbours.   We are looking forward to Christian unity."

Bishop Alexis died in 1980; but, if he had lived until now, I am sure he would have recognised parallels between the two synods on the family that were called by Pope Francis  and the "Holy and Great Council" called by the Patriarch of Constantinople.   I am not saying that the Catholics and Orthodox copied each other; nor did they take advice from each other; and the Catholic synods reflected the  concerns of recent Catholic history, and the Orthodox council reflected Orthodox history; and their historical experience is very different the one from the other. Nevertheless, the similarities are all the more startling when they are found, even if we have to dig deep to find them.   Here are a few:

  1. Both Pope Francis and many Orthodox commentators said that their respective church are synodal by nature.  "Conciliarity is in our DNA," wrote one Orthodox priest.  Yet there was no universally accepted way of conducting a synod or council; and both Catholics and Orthodox gave the impression that they were experimenting.
  2. Both the procedure and the documents that issued from the discussions have been subject to a lot of controversy and there is deeply felt disagreement in both churches.
  3. Those who called and supported the meetings are enthusiastic about the  results and look forward to future synods at regular intervals so that they may become the  normal expression of universal church unity, thus lowering the status of the Vatican in the Catholic Church and of the  autocephalous patriarchates in the Orthodox Church.

  4. In both churches, the tension has arisen between those who are happy with the model of the Church as they have inherited it from Christendom and who believe that it is the best model for the modern world, and those who go back to the sources to find radical - rooted in Tradition - but new answers to the problem of the Church's relationship to the modern world, a world that is without Christendom.  
  5. As the history of Christendom in the West was so different from its history in the East, so the classical Vatican position is very different from that of the Moscow patriarchate; yet both represent and champion the way of doing things of their respective churches during the time of Christendom.  One favours Roman centralisation, and the other favours the autocephalous churches that work in synergy with the basileus (civil power) so that they jointly rule over the christian people; and  the latter cooperation is impossible in secular or Moslem countries.
  6. In contrast to those who favour a continuation of the Christendom model, those who seek new answers and even ask new questions from Tradition, represented here by Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Constantinople, look very similar and are coming to ever closer solutions. Both pope and patriarch live in the secular world.
  7. However, it would be wrong to think that Rome and Constantinople can go one way, leaving behind the opposition; and it would be equally wrong for the "conservatives" to go their own way, leaving behind the pope and the patriarch.   As Archbishop Justin Welby said a little time ago, "You can choose your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives."   The Patriarch of Moscow and the Patriarch of Constantinople are brothers; and neither can go anywhere without the other.   Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke are brothers; and they too can't go anywhere without the other. to do so would be to repeat the error of 1054! And this leads us to another lesson we can learn from both the Holy and Great Council and from our own Synods on the Family.
  8. There is the faith, which is that which we all agree to be the teaching of the Church: there is a consensus.   There are, however, within the context of this shared faith, differences of perspective, of priorities, and opinions about how we believe this common faith is to be implemented in different situations.  We cannot impose a solution by force.   We must humbly beg to differ and try to resolve differences if this is required or tolerate them when this is appropriate, all within a context of ecclesial love.
  9.   Before reciting the Creed in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the priest says we should give a sign of peace so that we may love one another in such a way that we can say with one heart and one mind, "I believe..."  By the love we share in the Eucharist - the Fathers sometimes called the Eucharist "Love" -  we must say with St Paul, "The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

Ecclesial love is not a romantic feeling: it is the kenosis of God by which the world is created and redeemed; It is the Father's love which we share through Christ in the Holy Spirit. It demands from us humility of heart, readiness to forgive, and respect for the other, even when we differ.  The Church asks for it at Mass in the epiclesis so that we can together find Christ in communion, his love working in synergy with ours, transforming it and leading us to true knowledge.  Christ does the rest.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church may well re-create Christendom in Russia, working in synergy with the civil power.  Holy Russia is flourishing once again; even though the ignorance of the general population about the basic tenets of Christianity, the number of abortions etc, the weight of the effects of the long years of Communism, do not make the result a foregone conclusion.  The Russians must learn that Orthodoxy in a pluralistic world has its own needs and its own insights, while th whole of Christendom must await what Divine Providence has in store for Russia.

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