February 26, 2016

Historic meeting reflects ‘imperfect communion’

By Sean Gallagher

An imperfect communion of many Churches.

That statement is a summary of important and complex realities behind the historic Feb. 12 meeting in Havana, Cuba, of Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

The Catholic Church, while being a single Church around the world, teaches that it subsists in a communion of particular Churches under the pastoral leadership of the bishop of Rome.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis forms part of the Roman or “Latin” Catholic Church.

Particular Churches in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia also form part of the Catholic Church. Examples of these “eastern” Catholic Churches are the Maronite Catholic Church, the Melkite Catholic Church and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Many of these are tied historically to specific nations, such as Lebanon, Syria or Armenia. They have their own liturgy, their own proper law and their own hierarchy.

Despite these differences, all of these particular Catholic Churches across the world share communion with the bishop of Rome and are part of the Catholic Church.

St. Athanasius the Great Byzantine Catholic Church in Indianapolis is an example of this unity among diversity.

This parish is a part of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio (the equivalent to a diocese in the Latin Church). Both the Eparchy of Parma and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis share full communion with the bishop of Rome.

Some eastern Catholic Churches were part of the Orthodox Churches not in communion with the pope. Their return to full communion with the Catholic Church still poses difficulties for the Orthodox Churches.

Most of the approximately 275 million Orthodox around the world belong to any one of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches.

The term “autocephalous” refers to the fact that each of these Churches has a leader, often called a “patriarch,” that does not fall under the jurisdiction of another leader.

The faithful of these Churches, many of which were established in the earliest days of the Church, are located primarily in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Emigration, however, has spread the Orthodox Churches to many places around the world, including central Indiana.

The Catholic Church recognizes the Orthodox Churches as true Churches in part because they have maintained “apostolic succession,” that is, the uninterrupted transmission of spiritual authority from the Apostles to the bishops of today. As a result, the Catholic Church recognizes as valid the sacraments of the Orthodox.

Nonetheless, the communion of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is imperfect because of a few doctrinal differences, although many of these problems have found a solution. The greatest challenge to full communion is that the Orthodox Churches do not accept the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome.

During the first 1,000 years of Christianity, those now identified as Catholic and Orthodox were one in faith.

A series of crises due to cultural, social and even linguistic differences, however, led to the rupture of communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 1054 that remains to this day.

Over the past half century, however, Catholic and Orthodox leaders have made significant efforts to further unity among their Churches, beginning with the historic embrace of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964. The ecumenical patriarch holds a special place of honor within Orthodoxy, and is widely regarded as the representative and spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

The meeting of Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill on Feb. 12 in Havana is the latest step in this work to fulfill Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper that all of his followers “may be one” (Jn 17:21). †


Related story: Archbishop Tobin, Orthodox leader see significance in Havana meeting

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