A Proposal of Common Work for Peace among Catholics and Orthodox
“I believe, Mary, that in Egypt your heart remained humble and always filled with joy. Is not Jesus the most beautiful homeland? What did exile matter to you if you possessed Heaven? But when you returned to Jerusalem, a great sorrow awaited you, your heart was flooded with an immense sorrow: Jesus withdrew himself from your tender care for three days, and this alone became for you a true and harsh exile.” —St. Therese of the Child Jesus (to whom Pope Francis has a particular devotion). This reflection will be part of the Prayer Vigil for Peace tomorrow evening in St. Peter’s Square.
The only true exile
The loss of Jesus is the only true exile, the only ultimate sorrow.
The loss of the hope of redemption from sin, of healing from fallenness, which Jesus in his holiness offers, is the only despair that can plunge souls into impenetrable night.
He is the true “Promised Land.” The “land promised” where humans can be at home.
That is what we learn from these lines of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, which will be cited tomorrow in Rome during the prayer vigil for peace called by Pope Francis.
The disappearance of Christians
And that is why the suffering and looming disappearance of Christians, of believers in Christ, in the Middle East, is something all Christians ought to feel as a painful wound that needs to stop bleeding so healing can start.
All Christians — Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike.
In yesterday’s email, I noted that a small village in Syria, where the Christians still speak a version of Aramaic, is now under attack by rebel forces.
This village should be protected.
The day of prayer and fasting
We are now on the eve of September 7, the Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace called for by Pope Francis.
Francis is moving earth and heaven to try to bring about a ceasefire in the terrible civil war which has killed many innocent women and children in Syria.
Francis will be present in St. Peter’s Square tomorrow evening, starting at 7 p.m., to lead the prayers for peace in a special service designed for the occasion, which has just been released by the Vatican.
The vigil will be televised live on EWTN. It is not clear how the rest of the world’s media will cover this extraordinary initiative. Will it be passed over in near silence?
The sorrow of Mary
Significantly, this vigil comes on the eve of the birthday of the Virgin Mary.
It also comes five weeks before the Pope will celebrate on October 12 and 13, in Rome, with great solemnity, the 96th anniversary of the astonishing “Miracle of the Sun” which occurred in Fatima, Portugal, on October 13, 1917, in the presence of 70,000 witnesses.
In this “Marian” context, the reflection of St. Therese of the Child Jesus cited above takes on special significance.
For, in the midst of war, in the midst of the helplessness and despair which comes with the snuffing out of innocent human lives — especially the lives of children and all the promise those lives contain — the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who herself suffered such great sorrow, both at the disappearance of her son for three days in Jerusalem when he was 12, and at his death on the cross when he was 33, returns to offer comfort.
On the path of sorrow, we do not go anywhere Mary has not been before us.
And in our brokenheartedness, she whose heart was pierced can comfort us.
In this “Marian comfort” is a basis for hope that human beings, fallen as we are, wounded as we are, limited as we are, may yet find the hard and painful way toward building that just peace, even if imperfect, which can be a powerful eschatological sign of the final divine promise of eternal life, even in this fallen world.
In Mary and her witness, we have the hope of finding peace, even in war-torn Syria, where 110,000 people have been killed in the past two years, even in the Middle East, where armed forces have been preparing for, and sometimes waging, war for many decades, and likewise throughout the world, where peace is often fragile and elusive.
Mary can be a central figure of hope and comfort for all because she represents all. She was a child of the people of Israel, a Jew, trained in the Jewish law, delighting in the Jewish holy days. Yet, as the mother of Jesus, she is of course revered by all Christians as the Mother of the Church, the “new Eve” for the “new Israel.” At the same time, she is also revered, as Miriam, by all Muslims, as the Virgin Mother of Jesus.
And, in particular, she is revered in Damascus, the capital of Syria.
There, in a certain house, lives a woman named Myrna. In that house, for more than two decades, a mysterious icon of Mary and the child Jesus has been weeping, inexplicably.
Mary of Damascus, Mary of Kazan
The icon is an inexpensive copy of the famous Russian icon of Our Lady of Kazan — the most sacred of all the holy icons of Russia, sometimes called “The Protection of Russia.”
That original of that icon is now in Kazan again, after having been lost for decades. It only came back after being protected in Fatima in the 1970s, and then in Rome, in the very apartment of Pope John Paul II, where I myself saw it in the year 2000, after traveling to Kazan and learning that it had been lost.
It was that experience which led me to decide to try to do something to bring about a reconciliation between Catholics and Orthodox, despite nearly 1,000 years of separation, after 1,000 years of unity.
And so we established the “Urbi et Orbi Foundation,” to try to work in modest ways with the Orthodox to build the presuppositions for closer communion.
Those presuppositions are friendship and trust. And to build friendship and trust requires talking and working together, on common projects.
We have therefore supported the work of Constantine Sigov in Kiev, Ukraine, who heads the important St. Clement Center there; the work of Orthodox priests and laypeople in Kharkiv, Ukraine, who are attempting to help handicapped children live fuller lives; and a conference between Catholic and Orthodox theologians in November in Minsk, Belarus, under the patronage of Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret.
The Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity recommended all of these projects to us, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of that Council, has sent us a letter thanking us for our support of these projects.
A Concert in Honor of Pope Francis
Moreover, we are also co-sponsoring, with a Russian Orthodox foundation, a Catholic-Orthodox concert in Rome on November 12, with music from both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, in honor of Pope Francis, the Pope of Mary and the Pope of the poor.
We are looking for funding support for this concert.
All members of our Foundation will be invited to Rome to attend the concert.
If you would like to join the Foundation and receive an invitation to this concert in Rome, please click here.
In the context of the increasing tension over the situation in Syria, which may lead toward a confrontation between the United States and Russia, our work of bringing together Catholics and Orthodox — Americans, Western Europeans and Russians — seems all the more important.
On February 11 in Rome, at 6 in the evening, next to St. Peter’s Square, at the precise time that the lightning bolts struck the dome of St. Peter’s, I was meeting in a Roman cafe with Stephen Klimczuk, who was soaked from head to foot from the cold February rain. We discussed all these matters, on the very day of Pope Benedict’s resignation.
Stephen has now prepared a “modest proposal” for Catholic-Orthodox work which will serve as a partial guideline for the work of our Foundation in the months and years ahead. This proposal is printed below.
Please consider joining with us by becoming members of our Foundation. Simply reply to this email for further information by clicking here. I will answer each email personally.
The Right Hour: A Case for Intensified Catholic-Orthodox Cooperation
by Stephen Klimczuk
A key theme of Inside the Vatican’s apostolate is the importance — and indeed urgency — of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation.
In an increasingly post-Christian world where Christian faith and life are under pressure as never before, or even under literal attack, the need for unity has never been greater.
Despite its historic wariness of the Vatican, the roughly 150 million member Russian Orthodox Church has extended a hand of cooperation to Rome in recent years, sending its young Metropolitan Hilarion to explore practical ways of working together — in Europe, in the Holy Land and beyond.
The worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East only adds to the timeliness of this undertaking.
However, to date only a relatively few enthusiasts on both sides have taken much notice or interest.
The Greek word Kairos comes to mind: this may finally be the right or opportune hour for Catholics and Orthodox to join forces in new and practical ways.
A return to Communion is beyond our earthly means
Symbolic gestures and theological dialogue have their place, but can only take us so far.
We should regard our aspiration not so much as reunion, but as a return to communion — and we must acknowledge that this is a task beyond human means, given the better part of a thousand years of separation and divergence.
No committee can engineer it. Both sides must pray for God to intervene or inspire us in some new way, and for the help and intercession of Our Lady and all the saints. In the meantime, Catholics and Orthodox can begin cooperating much more closely to push back against the tide of a post-Christian future.
So near, yet still so far
Facing the hard facts of separation is a good starting point. The points of doctrine which keep us apart may be few, but they remain immovable despite recent decades of dialogue that have improved mutual understanding.
To over-simplify the details, the Orthodox do not accept the Filioque in the Creed and the Catholic understanding of the Petrine office; they also regard Rome as having been too influenced, for too many centuries, by a dry Roman legalism and neo-Scholasticism.
For our part, we find some Orthodox doctrine and practice as being rather vague on one level, while being too willing to operate as a national department of state on another level – for example, in Russia where the dividing line between government policy and Church policy is often hard to see, and where hardball tactics are not unknown.
Given Our Lord’s seemingly rather clear words about the indissolubility of marriage, we also have difficulty understanding how Orthodoxy can permit divorce and second (or even third) Church-sanctioned “non-sacramental” remarriages. (Though some Catholic theologians wish to explore this to see if any Eastern insight can help the plight of those whose marriages seemingly have failed.)
Taking stock of the baggage of history
The Second Vatican Council, with its theme of episcopal collegiality, appeared to provide a new opening for a warming of relations. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople symbolically lifted the mutual anathemas of 1054 AD.
While formal dialogue was initiated, one cannot point to any breakthroughs.
The first Slav Pope, Blessed John Paul II, brought new energy and interest to the matter, given his greater insight into (and appreciation for) the riches of Orthodox mysticism, patristics, liturgy, sacred music and iconography. He felt that both sides were impoverished by the separation, and had much to learn from one another.
Blessed John Paul’s powerful metaphor of a Church “breathing with two lungs again” resonated with many Catholics, but with fewer Orthodox.
Russians in particular doubted that a patriotic Pole firmly rooted in Western culture and Latin Europe could gain the confidence of Eastern Orthodoxy.
When the Pope wished to travel to Russia to return a holy icon of Our Lady of Kazan, lost in the Bolshevik Revolution, he was rebuffed. In 2004, it was sent back to Russia generously and unconditionally.
Admittedly, the 1990s were not a good time for Catholic-Orthodox relations, given how tensions (and even violence and war) erupted after the crack-up of the Soviet bloc. Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs fought each other in the former Yugoslavia, and in Ukraine there was much sparring over Church property between Eastern-rite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.
There remains some difficulty with the Russian Orthodox over the rebuilding of Latin-rite churches and structures to serve the several hundred thousand Catholics (mainly ethnic Poles, Germans and Lithuanians) who remain in the Russian Federation and in Kazakhstan.
However, the biggest sore point continues to be the existence of Eastern-rite Catholicism, which many Orthodox regard with hostility.
The late 16th century “Union of Brest” allowed Orthodox in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to accept the primacy of Rome, while retaining their Byzantine Rite liturgy, married parish priesthood and other Eastern practices. (If Byzantine Rite Catholicism among the Slavs has been a lightning-rod, the existence of other Oriental churches in communion with Rome — for example the Maronites of Lebanon — has been less contentious.)
We have to admit that the Union of Brest was not a great success, at least insofar as it sought to restore communion between East and West, and it only turned most Orthodox further against Rome. Disliked by the Orthodox, misunderstood by Latin-rite Catholics and often persecuted by Orthodox (and later Communist) states, these “Uniates” (historically a term of abuse) often showed immense courage and perseverance.
But many Eastern-rite Catholics who emigrated to the United States found themselves adrift and cold-shouldered by their fellow Roman Catholics, and not a few of their descendants belong instead today to the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Curiously, despite Orthodoxy’s official disapproval of Eastern-rite Catholicism, they themselves have sponsored something analogous: a modest-sized “Western Rite Orthodox” movement, where Orthodox may practice their faith according to Western, Latin traditions.
A series of visible, practical steps to cooperate and form a common front for Christian life in a hostile world
Despite the dashed hopes and points of friction, there is new impetus for Catholic and Orthodox collaboration. Pope Benedict worked very hard to make relations warmer, and today the freshness and humility of Pope Francis’ pontificate provides a new opening for still greater things. In my opinion, the following might be a suitable “wish list” of action steps:
1. Launch a new joint standing committee of Catholic & Orthodox bishops in Europe: its first objective would be to have a positive, Christian influence on the public policy environment in a not altogether friendly European Union. A second, and no less important, objective would be to work together to help the suffering and beleaguered Christians of the Middle East and Near East. Helsinki, Finland might provide an appropriately neutral meeting place (and permanent secretariat location) for such a joint standing committee, with the symbolism of being at an important historic border of East and West. The Monastery of St. Catherine of Sinai might also be a suitable and inspiring occasional meeting site. Should this model prove useful, similar committees could be formed in some other parts of the world to pursue specific, tangible common objectives, with bishops delegated to serve by their respective Churches.
2. Develop new monastic and grassroots exchanges: Among the Orthodox, monastic life remains central, and bishops are generally drawn from the ranks of monks. Why not arrange for formal exchanges of monks from Greece, Russia, Serbia, the Holy Land and elsewhere with their Catholic counterparts, and vice versa? And why not create exchanges of young people where Orthodox may be invited to foot pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela and Chartres?
3. Create a series of major concerts highlighting the glories of Catholic & Orthodox sacred music — in major cities of the world.
4. Let the bells toll for Catholic-Orthodox cooperation: The Western (Gregorian) and Julian calendars coincide some years at Easter, and this will happen again next year on April 20, 2014 (in the Western calendar). What better way to signal cooperation than to have all Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals and churches throughout the world pray for unity and ring their bells at noon local time wherever they may be as a sign of their common hopes? If 2014 is too soon to organize this, the next opportunities will be in 2017 and, much later, in 2034.
5. Leverage bonds of interest and affection where they exist: The Sovereign Order of Malta is one the few Catholic institutions for which the Russians (and the Russian Orthodox Church) have a real affection, and the Order can provide a unique bridge between Catholics and Orthodox. The Knights of Malta today have diplomatic relations with some nine majority Orthodox population countries, including Russia and Serbia. In 2012, the Moscow Kremlin Museums hosted a successful major exhibition on artistic and culture treasures from the Order of Malta’s 900 year history, which also intertwines with Russian history. (After Napoleon’s capture of Malta, Tsar Paul I of Russia irregularly assumed the headship of this Catholic order in order to save it from extinction — and Russians have been fascinated ever since.)
I realize these are the mere musings of a Catholic layman, though I grew up with a strong awareness of my paternal line Orthodox ancestors. There is much to do, starting with prayer and confidence-building steps both large and small.
Last year I donated a painting to St. Juliana of Lazarevo Russian Orthodox Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico — a very traditional parish with a unique Southwestern adobe structure capped with a blue onion dome. The parish priest graciously accepted my gift, which now hangs in the parish hall. It was a small gesture. We must now do much more.
Stephen Klimczuk is a corporate strategist, foundation director, author and sometime Oxford University fellow. He is a Trustee of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.