Orthodox-Catholic relations explored - Catholic Courier

Orthodox-Catholic relations explored

What would it take to reunite the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches?

A lot of discussions and agreement about the role and authority of the papacy in the church, according to an Orthodox Christian scholar who spoke Oct. 23 at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit in Rochester.

Father Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox Christian priest and theologian, addressed a mixed Orthodox and Roman Catholic audience during a dialogue about relations between the two churches, which was cosponsored by diocesan Parish Support Ministries’ Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Father Hopko said such local discussions as his presentation are a first step toward improved relations between the churches.

“It’s unique still even though we are in the beginning of the third millennium,” said Father Hopko, an emeritus dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, where he taught dogmatic theology from 1968 to 2002. “These dialogues are not happening, even in local areas.”

A former president of the Orthodox Theological Society in America, Father Hopko breezed through 2,000 years of religious history with humor directed at both faith traditions as he explained events that led to a split between the two churches in 1054. Although dialogues between the churches continued for years thereafter, at the time of the schism, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and a papal delegation from Rome excommunicated each other during a dispute about papal primacy. The mutual excommunications were not annulled by hierarchy in both churches until 1965.

Another factor that contributed to the schism was the “filioque,” a phrase meaning “and the Son,” which was added to the Nicene Creed in the West, but not in the East. The original text of the creed said that the Holy Spirit proceeds “From the Father,” while the revised Western version said it proceeds “From the Father and the Son.”

Orthodox worshippers also reject St. Augustine of Hippo’s interpretation of original sin, and some dispute the recognition of Eastern Catholic churches by the Roman Catholic Church.

Orthodox churches are governed by the bishops and archbishops of their regions. The churches pay special honor to the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, currently Patriarch Bartholomew, who is known as the ecumenical patriarch. The ecumenical patriarch lives in Istanbul, Turkey, and has the authority to invite other Orthodox churches to join in common action, but among all Orthodox bishops is considered first among equals. The combined Orthodox churches have a total of 219 million members and are the second-largest branch of Christianity after the Catholic Church.

Although groups in the U.S. have been meeting routinely to discuss Orthodox-Catholic relations, talks have been more sporadic on the international level. Father Hopko acknowledged that any sort of dialogue between the two religions might displease some traditionalists.

“A lot of folks would not be pleased to see what we are doing here tonight,” he said.

As if to illustrate that point, one Orthodox Christian attendee, who said he is not affiliated with a specific parish, said to the group that he will never accept the papacy nor the “filioque,” and called the pope the Antichrist.

As people throughout the room audibly gasped, Father Hopko defused the tense moment by acknowledging deep divisions. Yet, by calling for conciliation with the Orthodox, the pope has acted in a way that would not be expected of the Antichrist, Father Hopko noted.

“If the pope is the Antichrist, then the Antichrist is inviting us to question what he’s doing,” Father Hopko said.

Other audience members offered positive reactions to the theologian’s talk.

“I think this is a great beginning,” said Deacon James Witulski of St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Rochester. “The Orthodox Church has much to offer.”

Deacon Witulski said it can be helpful to review the origins of the split between the two churches so that members on both sides understand the underlying issues and find common ground.

The Rev. Deacon Raphael Barberg of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Niagara Falls said Father Hopko was able to articulate in a frank way what problems Orthodox followers have with Roman Catholic traditions.

Mary Smith, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church that hosted the event, said healing of ancient divides will take longer if people have to wait for church leaders to start the process. She said Father Hopko’s assessment of the status of negotiations was honest and refreshing.

“It’s only going to work if we have a dialogue on a local level,” Smith said.

Donald Messina of Irondequoit, a member of St. Andrew Roman Catholic Church, said he believes the only way to have progress is for the two religions to have a simple Eucharistic service together, in which they affirm what they have in common.

Even a simple act such as that would pose theological complexities, such as whether the celebrants would face parishioners or face the altar, Father Hopko said.

“It’s the explanation we have to agree upon,” he said.

To renew relationships between the two churches, Father Hopko said members of both would need to distinguish which differences between them are essential and nonessential.

“What is the essence of faith, and what are things that could just be different?” he asked.

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