Bridging the Orthodox-Catholic gap requires dialogue

By Jason Songe, Clarion Herald Guest Column

It takes courage to stand before people different from yourself and speak. Especially if you intend on offering them suggestions for improvement.

Jesus Christ, as he often does, asks a bit more from you than just bravery when preaching to a different church, though. He also asks for humility and charity, another word for love – which is why the lecture by a Greek Orthodox monk went down so smoothly at Notre Dame Seminary on a rainy Tuesday night in late February.

The Very Rev. Archmandrite Maximos Constas is a senior research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts (an archmandrite is an Orthodox term for the head of a monastery.) His lecture was the second in the seminary’s series aimed at assessing relations between the Orthodox and Catholic churches.

The lectures are sponsored by John Georges, owner of The Advocate newspaper, and his wife Dathel, both members of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Father Maximos spoke on “St. Maximus The Confessor, A Bridge Between the Churches.” St. Maximus, who lived from 580-662, is venerated as a saint in both churches.

“Father Maximos came to help reveal the bridges that remain, that both unite and separate us,” said Dr. Tom Neal, professor and dean of intellectual formation at Notre Dame Seminary.

In a strained relationship, sometimes just showing up to the discussion table is more important than the message you bring. No matter how beneficial it was for Father Maximos to point to the theology of St. Maximus as a way of reconciling the two churches, his presence on campus for three days was more valuable, as he laughed, ate and exchanged ideas with us.

Father Maximos said a bridge “is a place of passage, not rest” and stressed that “we don’t want these bridges to be an empty gesture,” intimating that our efforts are union should not be limp, mediocre or indifferent, content with separation as we pass the task of reunion down the generational line. He also said “bridges are fraught with danger.”

Father Maximos braved danger by reminding a room full of Catholics that they sacked the Eastern Orthodox city of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, killing many people and imposing a Latin patriarch. Father Maximos also shone a light on how his church leaders embraced the heresy of Monothelitism – that Jesus had two natures but only one will – which St. Maximus fought against, aligning himself with the bishop of Rome with his profession of two natures and two wills.

Father Maximos said heroes of his who helped to retrieve the genius of St. Maximus included Roman Catholic theologians such as Jean Daniélou, S.J.; Henri de Lubac, S.J.; and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Father Maximos suggested that both churches utilize charismatic gifts in harmony with hierarchical gifts. A document written in 2016 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – “Iuvenescit Ecclesia” (“The Church Rejuvenates”) – stresses the sometimes under-acknowledged complementarity of hierarchical and charismatic gifts, pointing to the Holy Spirit as the giver of both. Hierarchical gifts are given through holy orders, while charismatic gifts such as prophecy, service, teaching and speaking in tongues, are given to the faithful by God, depending on the need of the church.

He said ecclesial offices or charisms should not be ends in themselves but always point to serving God and the faithful. Father Maximos stressed open, dialogical realities over closed, static structures or systems.

In his encyclical on ecumenism, “Ut Unim Sint” (“That They May All Be One”), St. Pope John Paul II said that ecumenism is a “duty of the Christian conscience enlightened by faith and guided by love. … Just as he did then, today, too, Christ calls everyone to renew their commitment to work for full and visible communion.”

In a seminary class taught by Dr. Neal – “Dialogue With The World” – we are reading “The Difference God Makes” by the late Cardinal Francis George, who was the mentor of Bishop Robert Barron. Cardinal George writes about inter-religious dialogue, ecclesial communion and encounter. I was able to see these concepts come to life in the lecture.

When I asked Dr. Neal how we begin to reach out, he said, “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. … The churches must continue to build trust, seek common ground and face differences through dialogue at the level of scholars and hierarchs, and at the level of local faith communities. We must, in real time, pray together, walk together, learn together, serve together, witness together, suffer together, love together, beg God for unity, which is a gift of the Spirit.”

There is no way forward if we live in a spirit of paranoia or defensiveness. If we are to unify, we must be ready to suffer. We must be ready to die to self and pride through dialogue. In the name of union, we must ask ourselves if we’re willing to be less attached. In other words, “Do I love Jesus enough in order to hurt?”

In order to stretch myself by putting in work on the ground floor, I will be going to the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral and meeting our neighbors in Christ. They have a Bible study on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Jason Songe, a seminarian of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, is in his second year of theological studies at Notre Dame Seminary.

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