November 14, 2014

At Marian lecture, Orthodox theologian traces 50 years of ecumenical strides

Orthodox Archdeacon John Chryssavgis gives an address on Oct. 20 at Marian University in Indianapolis. He spoke about the 50 years of efforts to promote greater unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Approximately 200 people attended. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Orthodox Archdeacon John Chryssavgis gives an address on Oct. 20 at Marian University in Indianapolis. He spoke about the 50 years of efforts to promote greater unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Approximately 200 people attended. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Orthodox Archdeacon John Chryssavgis sat close to Pope Francis and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople as the two religious leaders participated in a prayer service last May at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

As a theological advisor to the ecumenical patriarch, Archdeacon Chryssavgis had previously participated in such prayer services. But “an amazingly moving moment” happened that day that caught his attention.

“[It] wasn’t captured by photographers, because it wasn’t expected in the program,” said Archdeacon Chryssavgis during an Oct. 20 address at Marian University in Indianapolis. “The pope spontaneously initiated it.

“As they were listening to readings about repentance for the sins of arrogance of the past, the pope leaned over and took Patriarch Bartholomew’s hand and kissed it. Whereupon, the patriarch, himself shocked, stood up out of his chair and embraced the pope.”

Important ecumenical events where the pope and the ecumenical patriarch meet—even those where unplanned dramatic gestures are made—have become almost commonplace over the past 50 years.

But for almost 1,000 years before 1964, there was almost no communication between Catholic and Orthodox leaders.

Then Blessed Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople met in Jerusalem in January 1964. Later that same year, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council approved decrees on ecumenism and on the Eastern Churches, both of which sought to revive long-dormant relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Archdeacon Chryssavgis spoke about the 50th anniversary of these landmark events during his Oct. 20 address.

He said that the very notion of an Orthodox theologian giving a lecture at a Catholic university prior to 1964 would have been “unthinkable.”

“Relations between the two sister Churches have improved so dramatically—despite setbacks and tensions—that contacts between regional and global leaders, as well as local parishes and individual faithful, are today almost taken for granted,” Archdeacon Chryssavgis said.

Over the course of his lecture, Archdeacon Chryssavgis described the encounters that have taken place over the past half century that have led so many Catholics and Orthodox to see them as commonplace.

They included Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s “spontaneous decision” to attend Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass in 2013, “the first and only time in history that one leader was attending the installation of the other.”

Archdeacon Chryssavgis described another dramatic moment shared by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in May.

“As I watched the two leaders together approaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” said Archdeacon Chryssavgis, “I saw, above all, two frail mortals bowing down at the stone of unction where Christ’s body was anointed after the crucifixion to venerate the One who alone could provide unity, the One who alone could provide immortality.”

The meeting between the pope and the ecumenical patriarch in Jerusalem earlier this year was organized in large part to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic 1964 meeting there between Blessed Paul and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras.

Ongoing ecumenical efforts of Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Archdeacon Chryssavgis said, can help counter the “abuse of religion for political and other secular purposes,” the persecution of Christians, especially in the Middle East, ecological crises and “the injustices inflicted on the weaker members of our society today.”

“All these call for a common and a collaborative solution to the problems that still divide us as Churches,” he said.

Those divisions that have persisted through 50 years of efforts to promote unity between the Churches should not discourage the faithful of both from continuing those efforts, Archdeacon Chryssavgis said.

“There is no alternative path to dialogue and reconciliation,” he said. “To discontinue would mean a return to our estranged past. East and West have followed separate ways since the 11th century, but they must be constantly reminded of their shared common history in Scripture and tradition, where they can always rediscover so much common ground for the future.”

During a question-and-answer period that followed his lecture, Archdeacon Chryssavgis said the fact that both Catholics and Orthodox Christians are minorities in the overall population of Indiana can make ecumenical efforts easier.

“It’s actually more difficult on the East Coast or in Chicago, where there are many Orthodox churches, for them to remember that there’s anything else apart from the Orthodox Church,” said Archdeacon Chryssavgis, a native of Australia who also helps lead Orthodox ecumenical efforts in the United States. “And that happens in Catholic churches, as it does in ours.”

Archdeacon Chryssavgis said promoting greater unity between Catholics and Orthodox Christians only “takes a little bit of openness and, ultimately, love” and can be as simple as one congregation inviting members of the other to events that they are sponsoring.

He also reflected on the way in which the persecution that both Catholics and Orthodox Christians are experiencing in the Holy Land and the Middle East can increase solidarity between them.

“We bear a common cross,” Archdeacon Chryssavgis said. “There can’t be any other symbol that we hold as Christians together than the cross.

“If we’re not reminding ourselves that the cross is a shared burden to bear, if, somehow, we’ve become comfortable in our own issues, our own concerns … somehow we’ve forgotten the cross.”

Father Rick Ginther, director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenism, noted there are many factors that continue to divide Catholics and Orthodox Christians and asked Archdeacon Chryssavgis which one both sides should pray that God might remove.

“Arrogance,” was Archdeacon Chryssavgis’ quick reply. “Pray for humility,” he said and then “all of the rest can fall into place.”

An increase in humility, he said, however, does not mean forgetting the wounds and scars on the body of Christ that came about when relations between the two Churches were so poor for so many centuries.

He mentioned the 1204 sacking of Constantinople and the subsequent killing of many Orthodox Christians by Catholic crusaders.

“That kind of scar on the Body of Christ is not easily removed, not easily healed,” Archdeacon Chryssavgis said. “It doesn’t go away. But perhaps it shouldn’t go away. It is what happened. It’s part of our history. We’re not going to get rid of that.

“Our wounds are going to be part of us, even in the kingdom of heaven. You don’t have antiseptic wounds, healed hands, in the kingdom of heaven. When Christ rose from the dead, the proof of it was the scars, the holes, the marks. He rose with his wounds.”

Attending the lecture was Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin. He had a special interest in the topic because he serves as co-chairman of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation.

“It was a wonderful moment,” said Archbishop Tobin of the lecture. “If it’s possible, I felt a kind of reciprocal pride, first to have the riches of the Orthodox Church so well-articulated in an ecumenical dialogue, but also that this very prominent theologian would come to know the Church in Indiana.”

Archbishop Tobin said it was important for all Catholics across central and southern Indiana to pray for greater unity among Christians and do whatever else they can to foster it.

“If you think of how much we treasure our loved one’s last words, well, among the last words of Jesus on the night before he died was ‘that they all may be one, even as you, Father, are one with me and I am one with you,’ ” he said. “So, in a sense, we have to do this, or else we disrespect the living memory of Jesus Christ.” †

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