Ever-Elusive Christian Unity
A Personal Viewpoint
Traditionally on the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul (Gregorian calendar-June 29) a representation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople visits the papal celebration of the Feast at St. Peter's Basilica, where the Pope celebrates the Festal Mass. It provides a visibile hope for a reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches after a millennium of separation. While seemingly little more than an annual photo op, it can serve as an occasion for every Christian to ponder the realities of Christian unity or bettter, disunity.
Christian Unity is a theme which ebbs and flows in various circles of the Christian churches seemingly of late in a deep ebb cycle. In America, this is rather understandable given our stark individualism as persons and congregations - we’re really just worried about making it ourselves (whatever that means). Looking at the big picture, it's hard not to get discouraged looking at the Christian landscape in an attempt to gather together the now 25000+ distinct denominations (not local churches) - each of which standing firmly on the grounded understanding that they are THE authentic representation of the Church of Christ on earth at the moment. The grand spark of hope of the Ecumenical Movement from the 20th century has all but flamed out, quenched by the inevitable disagreements on doctrinal positions, deeply seated moral issues, political machinations of nations spiced with bitter realities of human brutality in every age.
This series will not be a critique of Church unity movements or churches – far be it from me to do that coherently, but to just to bring the disruptive forces of disunity to light as I have experienced them over my adult life. These forces fly in the face all that we (in all Christian communities) hold dear. This is only an attempt to see what really is happening and maybe in some small ways, can be done.
"Can't We All Just Get Along?" - Spoken by Rodney King during the LA riots of Spring 1992
For me the matter is very personal. One of the reasons I am Orthodox (among many), is through my encounter with Orthodox Christians in ecumenical/inter-church activities while I was yet serving in an Eastern Rite Catholic church context. I’ve also found spiritual edification in the faith, hope and love of non-Orthodox Christians who in countless contexts over six decades have born witness to the Resurrected Lord. These Christians have inspired me and challenged me – as probably anybody who’s heard a sermon from Billy Graham could attest. That’s what the Word of God does. But my personal faith history also has been deeply affected by my trajectory in ministry service, my own family life and faith context as well.
Called to Unity - What is That?
From my earliest days in ministry, the weeks at the end of the Paschal season and beginning of Pentecost became a spiritually meaningful time, and conued so year after year. This is due in no small part because I was ordained as an Eastern Rite Catholic priest on the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, which is the Sunday before Ascension. The following Sunday, commemorating the Holy Fathers of the First Nicean Council, I celebrated (as in the Latin custom) my ‘First Liturgy’ in a special celebratory way with a large gathering of family, friends, priests and seminarians as a kickoff to my ministry. At that Liturgy, the words of Christ would serve as an aspirational summit for me, filled with irony, as the Gospel is taken from John 17, the High Priestly prayer of Christ, offered to the Father at the Mystical Supper – “That they all be one.”
The Lord prayed for unity of His disciples and His Church. They needed to hear Him so pray.
The following week liturgically, we hear that those disciples had come together in prayer, after the Resurrection and Ascension, “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.” Acts. 2:1 They would receive the Holy Spirit, and in the words of the Kontakion of St. Romanos for the Day, “Once when the Most High descended and confused the tongues, he scattered the people. But when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all men to unity.”[i] The First Sunday After Pentecost is called the Synaxis of All the Saints and serves as a visible reminder of how the Spirit accomplishes this unity in the midst of the Church. It is a unity most profoundly realized sacramentally, where we are indeed One with Christ, united in His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, as we are further united in His Spirit through Pentecost.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
What I’ve come to believe in life is that the experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit is not always the expected 'fruits' delineated by St. Paul’s enumerated in the Epistle to the Galatians (Gal 5:22). For me, it’s often not as pleasant as love, joy, peace, etc. It’s best described as a nagging or knawing. Or in more ‘spiritual’ terms perhaps a longing. It seems to be more like the Lord’s experience on that night of eucharistic bliss and torturous betrayal. He longed for a unity for which He prayed and most deeply desired, with His disciples, with His Father – they in Us, But he knew bitterly it was not so in that moment in the person of Judas. His prayer is that this fullness of union would be realized – effectively in the Kingdom. And perhaps it can also be said, that as Long as the Kingdom has not yet come, and His Will not yet done, on earth as in heaven, unity will not be realized? But He instructed his disciples to so pray – in the words (and discomfort?) that He did.
We might see this as a longing for some great ecclesiastical Moment when all the church leaders and jurisdictions will ‘come together’ in some grand ecumenical rally or even eucharistic celebration. That would be nice – and miracles do happen. Yet the pain of separation is born in all of us. Deep down, all Christians know that we are to be one – we just have no clue as to what that really means or how to get there. Or how bad we really want that, or even if we really want that.
For me, this is not just a theoretical thing. My family history is stamped by the rip between the Christian East and the Christian West, manifest through generations. The roots of the weeds of disunity are much, much deeper than our present age and reach back beyond 1054, the events of the Great Schism – that colossal blunder of ecclesiastical hubris (regardless of which side you’re on).
My father’s family and ethnic history is obscure, but what I recall from the ‘oral tradition’ is that his parents were firmly Orthodox as 'Lemko' residents of far southern Poland prior to their immigration to the US early in the 20th c. Their region was populated largely by the Greek Catholics who had abandoned Orthodoxy (and some strident Orthodox would say Christianity) in the 16th century to join the Unia[ii] that was fostered by the Roman Catholic principalities of the time (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later the Polish Commonwealth and the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had territorial claims in the Carpathian mountains) at the Union of Brest and the subsequent shift of other local subgroups to Catholicism in the Union of nearby Uzhorod. In these events, the Orthodox bishops crossed the ecclesial bridge to submit themselves to Catholic principalities and the papacy and set aside the direct link to their spiritual patrimony from the Eastern Orthodox Churches, notably the Churches of Constantinople and Russia.
At the time of the great immigration of the early 1900s, there was violent conflict between the three groups. The Greek Catholics were not treated well by the Latin Catholics and the Orthodox who remained tethered to the Russian Empire and Orthodoxy were treated even worse. The killing of the priest-martyr St. Maxim Sandovich (+1914) for his Orthodox ministry among the Lemko people in the Carpathian mountains took place in Gorlice – which was the city center of the locale from where my paternal grandmother emigrated. While not a woman of observable piety, it was well known that my grandmother(and hence the family) had little affinity for the Roman church and especially the Pope, and hence the Eastern Rite Catholics as well. The Lemko people from her region brought their religious disunity to the shores of America in tow, not only in the Orthodox/Catholic clashes, but also in the politics of the day, separating those who allied with a Ukrainian identity with those who allied with a Russian one, not to mention those who called themselves independent Rusyn or Ruthenians, but not Russian nor Ukrainian.[iii]
My mother’s family history is just as torn up, even if somewhat more intriguing. The mountainous region of mostly Catholic Croatia called ‘Zumberak,’ from which my maternal grandparents emmigrated, was populated primarily by displaced Serbian (Christian) warriors who were defenders of the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Ottoman invasion. In the seventeenth century, it was deemed advisable, for the sake of ‘unity’ in the Empire, to force these Serbs in the border frontier region into a Unia with the Roman Catholics. Those who resisted suffered the consequences. In one pathetic account, the monks from two Orthodox monasteries in Croatia were gathered together, the hegumen was shot at the doorstep, and the rest sold into forced slavery, rowing ships in Malta. (http://www.manastir-lepavina.htnet.hr/english.html) After a time, as with many converts it seems that the Croatian Greek Catholics became more zealous about their Catholicism than even the Roman Catholics and their undeniable Serbian Orthodox roots were forsaken.
When my mother and father married, the Catholic side prevailed, and my father was rebaptized[iv] in order to ‘convert’ to Catholicism and marry. He was not one to introduce the angst of religion division into the household, but some weeds were inevitably growing. Being raised as Eastern Rite Catholic, the Catholic perspective is that the ‘schismatic’ Orthodox were a small, inferior subgroup of infidels who spoke a strange language and had strange rituals. While this was a less-than-official position it persisted even though the ecumenical spirit of the 1960s and Vatican II began to change things a bit, calling for more understanding and even tolerance. By the time I got to seminary in the 1970s, the curriculum included reading Orthodox writers and patristic texts and even Orthodox liturgical practices. This cracked open an awareness of Orthodoxy, but it was cloaked in a veneer of Catholic ecclesiology and terminology – effectively calling the Eastern Rite Catholic churches and their members, ‘Orthodox’ but in ‘communion with the Pope.’[v]
While my personal path led me to walk across bridge to Orthodoxy (or maybe better, swim the raging rapids), my purpose is not to foster the polemics between these to Church entities, or their spiritual patrimony. I have met and admired saintly members of both Orthodox and Catholic churches – and these fine Christians have taught and edified me in countless ways in my spiritual life. Denying that I would commit effectively ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’ (Mt.12:31) - denying what God has been doing or trying to inspire, in my life, from the spiritual fountain of each that He provided. In fact, my goal and desire is nothing less than that of Christ explicitly expressed within earshot of his earliest churchmen – “that they might one.” (Jn. 17)
As I blessed the graves of the members of both sides of my family a few weekends ago I could feel this 'rooted' division very powerfully, all the while trying to stand and pray for something.
About the Series
This series will be a collection of reflections, mostly triggered from personal experience, but in a real effort to understand and discern what I believe to be the horrific price of Christian
divisions. In expressing these thoughts, I hope that they prompt the same longing within readers and reflection on their own experiences, accompanied by a spirit of openness to the One Holy
Spirit who will accomplish the unity for which we long - first in our own hearts, perhaps only when we long for it, in the fulness of the Kingdom. In the meantime, we
must love one another as Christ has loved us for that is always the path to unity.
I will include scripture and ecclesiastical reflections, 'lite' history reviews, but maybe most importantly an attempt to draw out the Why of where we are today in the matter of Christian unity and the utter lack thereof.
Note: These reflections are offered in Christian charity and I take responsibility for any errors, omissions, etc. I will be happy to correct such if I am so informed. The Truth alone sets us free.
[i] Underlined text denotes added emphasis
by the author.
[ii] The term Unia (and its adherents
'Uniates') is a reference to the formation of a hybrid church type in certain small areas of Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East where Orthodox Christians and churches fell
under the control of Roman Catholic civic principalities who deemed it advantageous to their benefit to incorporate them into the Latin Church structure, but allow them limited practice of their
ancient Orthodox liturgy and practices. At first glance these churches (often called ‘Byzantine Rite’) are a mix of Orthodox – Eastern praxis and that of the Latin Church. The term is often
considered pejorative among Eastern Rite Catholics but it is really just based on the idea of a ‘unification’ with the Church of Rome. It's occasional use is made intending no offience. The
intention at the time was union with Rome as the highest ecclesial priority.
[iii] This is mirrored even in the unified
jurisdictional Churches of Orthodoxy in America, where there is now the Russian leaning Orthodox Church of America (OCA) distinct from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA (UOC of USA), which
have resolved many disputes over the decades only through civil litigation. The Eastern Catholic Churches mirrors this – with the Polish and Slovak Roman Catholic churches all under the
Roman Catholic US bishops, juxtaposed to the Ruthenian Rusyn Byzantine Catholic Churches and the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the US. The Melkite (Syrian) parallels plus other smaller groups reflect
the same ecclesial family tree.
[iv] Such an action denies any efficacy of his
original Orthodox baptism, and faith.
[v] This phrase is problematic in so many ways, which
cannot be addressed here.