Taking Steps Toward Unity

by Rev. Arthur F. Gouthro, S.A.

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A new page was written in the long history of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox relations on May 29,1980, on the tiny Greek island of Patmos. Seventy representatives of these two great Christian traditions prayed together for unity in a ceremony inaugurating a new era of dialogue. They asked that God would help them to overcome divisions which began nine hundred years ago, when Rome and Constantinople hurled anathemas at one another in 1054. Although this date is generally given as the beginning of the schism between East and West, the definitive rupture came in 1204 with the sack of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders.

The seventy prelates and theologians who prayed on Patmos last year are members of the newly-established international Roman Catholic/Orthodox theological commission. Following the prayer service, they moved to the nearby Greek island of Rhodes, in the Aegean Sea off the west coast of Turkey. There they met for four days to begin discussions that will have great ecumenical significance for the entire Christian world. The gathering on Rhodes was the first formal meeting of the commission that was set up by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Dimitrios I during the papal visit to Turkey in November, 1979.

The goal of the commission is unity. Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon expressed the hope of all the participants when he stated that their purpose was to achieve the reconciliation of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and to carry the message of healing to the entire world.

“It must be a testimony of Jesus within and without Christendom,” he said, “to all nations, to the whole world, to the whole creation. This is not only the will of Our Lord, and the need of the Church, but also the requirement of the present times and the expectation of Christians and non-Christians.”

Dutch Cardinal Jan Willebrands, leader of the Roman Catholic delegation, added that unity must carefully preserve the authentic diversities among the Churches. The Cardinal, who is also President of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, remarked that the split between the two Churches was the result of sins and errors on both sides.

“If we eliminate some of the major differences and achieve complete unity,” he said, “this would increase the credibility and effectiveness of Christian preaching the world over.”

The members of the theological commission represent two ancient traditions of Christianity, and despite the centuries of separation, they share a rich heritage of doctrine and devotion. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism reminds Roman Catholics that basic dogmas of the Christian Faith were defined in Ecumenical Councils held in the East. The Decree also points out that the Churches of the East, in remaining faithful to the teachings of the apostles, have suffered much and continue to suffer.

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Tags: Unity Interreligious Greece Catholic-Orthodox relations