WASHINGTON (CNS) — Fifty years ago, a group of American Catholic and Orthodox clergy and theologians undertook an unprecedented step under the auspices of their respective churches toward better understanding and, it was hoped, eventual unity.
But the participants representing the churches never saw each other.
“We met in different rooms,” recalled Thomas E. Bird, director of the Slavic Studies Program at Queens College, City University of New York and a Catholic representative at the first meeting of the United States Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation on Sept. 9, 1965.
The gathering stemmed from a January 1964 meeting in Jerusalem between Blessed Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople and decrees approved by the Second Vatican Council on ecumenism and on the Eastern Churches.
Named the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation since 1997 after the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops joined as a sponsor, the consultation continues to meet twice a year — always face-to-face — to discuss key topics and build greater trust and understanding.
Orthodox members represent the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States and include Greek, Antiochian, Romanian and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox, as well as the Orthodox Church in America. The Orthodox Church in America was granted autocephaly — canonical independence — by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1970, but the status has not been recognized by the ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul.
Bird continues to serve on the consultation. He has seen comradery and friendships develop that were unforeseen a half-century ago. Other participants told Catholic News Service that respect, honesty and Christian love have emerged over the decades as members envision a day when the 1,000-year schism that has separated the Catholic and Orthodox churches will end.
“Something great has happened in the last 50 years. We are not reunited yet, but considering we have been in schism for so long, we have accomplished a lot in 50 years,” said Father Thomas FitzGerald, Orthodox executive secretary of the consultation.
“We have not gone as far as we would like,” he added, “but we have taken some bold steps in terms of reconciliation.”
Among those steps are more than two dozen agreed statements addressing topics such as the sanctity of marriage, mixed marriage, respect for life, holy Eucharist and baptism. The consultation continues to discuss a statement on the role of laity in each church.
Franciscan Father Damian MacPherson, director of the Ecumenical and Religious Affairs Office of the Archdiocese of Toronto, is one of two Canadians serving with the consultation. He credited the accomplishments to “good dialogue,” which involves “how you listen to the other.”
“Dialogue allows us, if it’s really honest and legitimate, to reveal or share with others what the full extent of our faith is all about,” he told CNS.
“There’s a spirit of sacredness that occurs when dialogue takes place. It’s in that context when we discover commonality. We’re not together to share opinions. Oftentimes we’re there to understand a particular background of what a situation is and how it has influenced and shaped the church itself. Coming to that common understanding helps both sides to appreciate and understand and accept certain areas,” he said.
The North American consultation is one of several taking place around the world, including one in France. While participants are pleased that the North American consultation has made great strides during its twice-yearly gatherings, work on the international front has proceeded cautiously.
The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church has convened 13 times since 1980, the most recent being in Amman, Jordan, in September 2014.
The international commission faces cultural and ethnic hurdles that do not exist in North America.
“Part of it is in most parts of the world if you are a Catholic or an Orthodox, it means you are from a different ethnic group and culturally there are all these issues,” explained Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, who staffs the consultation for the bishops.
Because North American consultation members culturally are similar and speak the same language, they do not face the same barriers that prevent greater understanding among ethnic Catholic and Orthodox communities elsewhere, Father Roberson said.
The difference in the size of the churches — Catholics outnumber Orthodox Christians by about 11 to 1 in the U.S. — is not such a concern either.
“You don’t have to deal with all the underlying issues of distrust, history, grievances. In Greece for example, Catholics feel persecuted. … In places where there’s a Catholic majority, it’s the opposite,” Father Roberson said.
Stable membership helps, too, Bird said.
“Many members have been on 10, 20 or 30 years or more. There’s fraternity and Christian love. It’s a very real fact of how we feel about one another. It took a couple meetings to get over being cautious with one another and being diplomatic with one another. But very soon … we were trusting one another and saying things frankly and openly, both about our own beliefs and misconceptions about one another,” he told CNS.
Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis is the presiding Catholic leader of the North American consultation. He said both churches can learn from the experience of each other through the multifaceted conversations that consider topics go beyond just Orthodox and Catholic theology.
The consultation’s work has gotten international notice as well, Archbishop Tobin said, noting that officials at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have welcomed its statements, which have guided the international commission’s discussions.
Most recently, the consultation’s discussions have focused on the role of the laity in church life. It’s a question that will take on growing importance as the number of ordained clergy in both churches continues to decline.
“This is not a church-dividing issue as other hot topics have been,” Father Fitzgerald said of the discussions on laity. “The laity is a question both churches are struggling with, the role of the laity in the life of the church.
“It’s taken a little bit of time. That’s made it a little more difficult and raises questions about the relationship between the clergy and laity. We had to look at that on the side. We didn’t want it to become a statement on clergy. We want it to be a statement on laity and to discuss the relationship in the church,” he said.
Metropolitan Methodios, Greek Orthodox metropolis of Boston, said the discussions have looked at how “we can best utilize the gifts of our laymen. It’s the laity really getting involved in the administration of the church.”
“There are people in both churches that have laymen and priests who are not anxious to take those steps,” he said. “That we have to overcome.”
Participants in the consultation issued a statement during its most recent meeting Oct. 22-24 at reflecting on a half-century of theological dialogue. It reviews how the consultation has evolved and “contributed to the ultimate goal of restoration of full communion between our churches.”
It encourages the Orthodox and Catholic faithful to “move beyond isolation and to commit themselves to dialogue in obedience to the prayer of Christ for the unity of his followers.”
Consultation participants told CNS that they expect that full unity will occur, but that it will not be any time soon and that it will take significant progress on the part of the international commission before it can be achieved. At the same time they realize they are contributing to something bigger than both churches individually.
“The exchange, I’ve always felt to be quite rich and at time quite frank and painful,” Archbishop Tobin said. “There is lingering pain there. We realize we’re contributing to the reversal of a 1,000-year rupture in the body of Christ. You’d like to move fast, but the longer I’ve been part of the dialogue, the more I see it will take time.