LVIV, Ukraine (CNS) — The problem in Catholic-Orthodox relations is not the existence of Eastern-rite Catholics; the problem is that Christians are divided, said Bishop Dimitrios Salachas, the apostolic exarch of Greece.
Some Orthodox leaders have called the Eastern Catholic churches an obstacle to Christian unity — even “wolves in sheep’s clothing” — because they preserve the Byzantine liturgy and spirituality they share with the Orthodox, but already are in full communion with the pope.
“Even today there are Orthodox who say the Eastern Catholics are an anomaly — something not normal,” he said; they say, “‘You come from Orthodoxy so you should return to Orthodoxy’ or ‘If you want to be Catholic, become Latin.’ They still say this to us today.”
Bishop Salachas was one of the main speakers during a meeting Oct. 23-26 of the Eastern Catholic bishops ministering in Europe. The 45 bishops — mostly from the Byzantine tradition — meet annually to discuss common concerns. Gathered in Lviv for their 2014 assembly, they also celebrated the 25th anniversary of the legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which had been outlawed by the Soviet Union.
After the Great Schism between East and West in the 11th century, Bishop Salachas told reporters, there were people in the East who did not accept the schism and always worked for a restoration of unity. At a certain point, Bishop Salachas said, those Eastern Christians formed strong and stable communities and were recognized as Catholics by the bishop of Rome, the pope.
For the Orthodox, he said, those Eastern Christians’ unity with Rome was a betrayal of the Orthodox communities from which they had emerged. Catholics, however, would say the unions were a result of God’s providence, something “inspired by the Holy Spirit” and motivated by a true desire “for the unity that existed in the first millennium.”
Before the Second Vatican Council, the bishop said, Catholics were not exactly respectful of the Orthodox, taking the view that “anyone who wasn’t in union with Rome was not a real church.” But the council made it clear that the Orthodox churches are real churches and that they have valid sacraments.
For Eastern Catholics today, he said, the anomaly is not that Eastern Catholic churches exist, but that divisions continue to exist between Christians. “For 1,000 years the churches of the East and West were united — 1,000 years! — and don’t think there were no problems, conflicts and controversies. The church was united despite them.”
At the end of their meeting in Lviv, the Eastern Catholic bishops issued a statement affirming the rights of both the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches to provide pastoral care to their faithful, wherever they are, and to proclaim the Gospel to those who have not heard it.
“We affirm that the division of the one church of Christ is an ecclesiological anomaly which cannot be considered as a standard for the life and mission of the church,” they said, adding that the “unity of the church of Christ is one of the necessary, priority and irreversible dimensions of the identity of the Eastern Catholic Churches, in spite of the difficulties and hardships of the ecumenical journey.”