As the readers of The Hellenic Voice and other Greek-American and Orthodox Christian publications remember, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey, and particularly to Istanbul, historic Constantinople, was given much press attention. Benedict was hosted by Patriarch Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch of the world-wide Orthodox Church. The occasion was the annual commemoration of St. Andrew the Apostle, the Feast Day of the Patriarchate on November 30, 2006. It took place in the cathedral church of St. George, located in the Fenar section of the city. A day later, Bartholomew was in attendance with other Christian leaders at a Mass offered by the Pope in Istanbul's Roman Catholic cathedral. . The events received wide press attention. It was reported that 900 or so media representatives covered the visit of the Pope to Istanbul.
Not surprisingly, this event provoked many different kinds of reaction, across the whole spectrum of public and church opinion. Prior to the visit, our own Archbishop Demetrios, expressed some optimism about the potential impact for fostering better relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholics. However, he was cautious in his expectations. The Archbishop knows well that almost a thousand years of division that has included significant doctrinal estrangement between the two, will not be adequately addressed in a short period of time and in just a few acts of friendly encounter. Demetrios expressed the mainline stream of opinion in world Orthodoxy of the past seven or so decades, since the beginning of the modern day Ecumenical Movement. This has been an effort to try to improve relations among Christians, not by way of compromise or the submission of Christian bodies to one or another, but by means of dialogue. Dialogue seeks understanding in a spirit of mutual respect. This principle has changed the climate of inter-Christian relationships from one of overt antagonism, to respectful and charitable meetings, discussions, and cooperation wherever possible without threatening compromise of principle. Essentially the meetings of November/December, 2006 in Istanbul were an expression of that practice. For the sake of the future of Christian unity, as Archbishop Demetrios put it anticipating the meetings of the two leaders, "these two men, who can speak the language of the truth and identify things as they are, should be able to find some common ground." This hopeful and positive attitude was characteristic of nearly all of the canonical and recognized Orthodox Churches throughout the world.
However, non-canonical splinter groups reflecting some of the Orthodox tradition were vociferous in their condemnation of the meetings and conversations between the two leaders of the respective Orthodox and Roman Catholic bodies. Their sectarian mentality made it impossible for them to accept that these tentative openings toward overcoming ten decades of division reflect the Lord's expectation that all the followers of Christ should find unity some day.
There were however, two responses which are worthy of serious attention. One was a respected voice of caution. The other was a reckless disregard for the present state of relationships between the Orthodox and Roman Catholics.
The first was a serious word of caution from the Sacred Community of the Holy Mountain Athos. In a long and respectfully worded statement the monks of Mount Athos raised some important issues about the visit. Leaning heavily on the formal realities of the separation existing between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism, the Athonite monks expressed objection to the exact forms of greeting, the vestments worn, and what appeared to the monks as the down-playing of doctrinal differences. In their statement, they expressed a deep concern about the effect that such "polite exchanges such as the visits of the Pope to the Fanarion" may "create false impressions of unity."
The second response, unfortunately reflecting that concern, seems to have actually taken place. It is reported that some Orthodox Christians, as well as some Roman Catholic Christians, emboldened by these meetings, have attended the other church and received the sacraments there. Admittedly, it seems that there are few such incidents, but it is a practice that should stop. For both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, participation in the Eucharist, that is, receiving Holy Communion, is a defining characteristic the unity of the Church and membership in it. As yet, that unity does not exist between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholics. It did not take place in Constantinople November 30 and December 1 and it shouldn't take place anywhere else. No Orthodox Christian should receive Holy Communion in any Roman Catholic church and no Roman Catholic should receive Holy Communion in any Orthodox church. One day it may be the step that seals unity. But today it is premature and violates the facts of our relationship.
On the other hand, activities in dialogues between the Orthodox and Roman Catholics cannot be sterile academic discussions. So long as prayers are those of fellow-Christians gathered together in a spirit whose purpose is to encourage the breaking down of the barriers between them and fostering the unity in the Truth of the Faith, there has to be some measure of flexibility allowing for an expression of good will.
The task is a road full of pitfalls, but also of possibilities. There will be times to step forward; there will also be times to step back. There are boundaries and they must be respected; but there is the imperative, also, of love and freedom. At all times for us Orthodox there has to be a spirit of devotion to Christian truth and the integrity of the Orthodox mind-set (phronema).
It is without doubt that the Lord wants us to be "one" together. Achieving this has been, is, and will be at the same time difficult and hopeful, dangerous but promising, and a long-term effort demanding both caution and boldness.
Whether or not to take the journey, however, is not a choice. The quest for unity is not an option. It is an Orthodox Christian imperative.
Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.
This article first appeared in The Hellenic Voice. Reprinted with permission of The Hellenic Voice.