Current Orthodox-Catholic relations may, from one perspective, seem discouraging. After all, the theological dialogue between the two communions has been bogged down for several years over the awkward issue of Eastern Catholics (Uniates).
But matters may not be as dark as they first appear. The year 2004 will be remembered as a year when the dialogue of love, acts of Christian charity between East and West, made significant progress.
The Feast Day of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Gift of the Church of San Teodoro
Since 1964, when Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagorus embraced and formally nullified the anathemas of 1054 against each other, the patronal feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul (celebrated in Rome, June 29th) and St. Andrew (celebrated in Constantinople, November 30) have brought Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs together to celebrate their common apostolic roots. This year's feast of Sts. Peter and Paul marked the 40th anniversary of the historic embrace of 1964, with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew joining Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square to commemorate the event. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope John Paul II sat side by side beneath a canopy before thousands of onlookers, the sight recalling a time when the Church was whole, East and West together. A Greek choir joined the Vatican's, while the epistle and gospel were read in both Greek and Italian. Of great symbolic significance was the reciting together of the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed in Greek without the filioque clause. Only at the time of the Eucharist, when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew withdraw from the altar, were those of us present reminded of the unfinished nature of our common journey toward reconciliation.
On July 1st, two days later, another significant moment in the dialogue of love occurred. The ancient church of San Teodoro on Rome's Palatine Hill was reconsecrated as a place of worship for Greek Orthodox Christians. While this papal gift had been in the offing since 1964, it was not until November, 2000, that Pope John Paul II formally bequeathed San Teodoro to the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Greek Orthodox community of Rome. Over three years of restoration followed, leading to the July 1st service of reconsecration led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Also present were Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as well as other Vatican representatives.
The gift of San Teodoro is a very appropriate symbol of the ongoing dialogue of love between the two churches. The ancient 4th century church was one of Rome's early Christian diaconiae, where pilgrims and the poor of the city were fed. Moreover, San Teodoro is situated at the base of the southwestern edge of the Palatine Hill, beneath the residences of the Byzantine representatives to the city, in what was considered the Greek section of the city. San Teodoro, along with other nearby "Greek" churches (Santa Maria Antiqua, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, San Georgio in Velabro, and Santa Anastasia) served the large number of Greek Christians who came to Rome for refuge in the 8th and 9th centuries during the Iconoclastic Controversy.
Once again, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is echoing within San Teodoro's walls, and once again Rome will glimpse the diversity within Christian unity that characterized Christianity in the first millennium.
The Feast Day of St. Andrew and the Gift of the Relics of Sts. John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen
Observant Orthodox visitors to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome may have noticed two altars on opposite sides of the massive nave, one holding the relics of St. Gregory of Nazianzen, the other holding the relics of St. John Chrysostom. Few visitors, Orthodox or Catholic, however, would likely have pondered the tragic circumstances that brought the relics of these Eastern Fathers to Rome. Orthodox scholars believe the relics were brought to Rome from Constantinople after the disastrous Fourth Crusade in 1204. In that crusade, western troops on route to the Holy Land were diverted to Constantinople where they rampaged throughout the city, looting and stealing many of the treasures of Eastern Christianity. Catholic scholars offer a slightly different theory, maintaining that the relics of St. Gregory Nazianzen were brought by Greek monks to Rome during the Iconoclastic Controversy of the 8th century.
Knowing the Fourth Crusade remains a painful memory for many Orthodox Christians, Pope John Paul II on his trip to Greece in 2001 asked forgiveness for this tragedy. The Fourth Crusade did indeed create a painful wound dividing East and West, yet it may have had one beneficial result, according to Monsignor Johan Bonny of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Bonny believes it possible that such relics would likely have been lost or destroyed, as other relics were, during the later fall of Constantinople to Ottoman armies in 1452.
During Bartholomew's visit to Rome this past June-July, the Ecumenical Patriarch requested the return of the relics to Constantinople. Following the relics' verification by Vatican officials, the Pope agreed to the request, seeing the return of the relics as a further expression of his desire to promote Christian unity. On November 27th, Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew sat together again in St. Peter's as they jointly blessed the relics. The relics were then carried by pallbearers from the basilica to be returned to the Cathedral of St. George in Constantinople.
In actuality, the Vatican returned only part of the relics of both saints to Constantinople. The two saints are considered Doctors of the Catholic Church, recognized as teachers and defenders of Divine truths, even as they are venerated in the East. Monsignor Bonny believes the relics of the two saints, in Rome and Constantinople, will serve as a "bridge" between the two churches, a bridge of common spirituality, prayer, and theology.
It is the hope of both communions that the theological dialogue can soon resume. Until then, let us celebrate together the continuing dialogue of love. In the words of St. Peter, "Above all, never let your love for each other grow insincere, since love covers over many a sin" (I Peter 4:8).
Dr. David Carlson is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin College, Franklin, Indiana, and a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Indianapolis, Indiana. He recently returned from a sabbatical in Rome, where he continued work on an Orthodox guide to the holy sites of the city.