This coming Sunday, May 25, Pope Francis is scheduled to meet the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarch (EP) Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in order to commemorate the golden jubilee of the historic meeting between their respective predecessors, Paul VI and Athenagoras. According to the EP’s official website for the event, the occasion is “expected to be a strong symbolic confirmation of the commitment and determination to continue the path which the two great Church leaders inaugurated half a century ago.” Whether it will amount to anything more than that remains to be seen. In the interim, Orthodox Christians, including its minority contingent in America, are eyeing the event nervously.
Patrick Barnes, an Orthodox convert, author, and maintainer of the polemical website The Orthodox Information Center has come out swinging against the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America for promoting the meeting. Additionally, Barnes is directing his readers to a series of links condemning “false union” with Rome despite the fact Francis and Bartholomew’s get together won’t do anything of the sort. Don’t tell that to certain pockets of the online Orthodox community, however. A cursory Google or Bing search quickly reveals panicked blog and message board comments, many of which assume that “Black Bart” (the reactionaries’ uncharitable name for their spiritual leader) is going to “sellout” world Orthodoxy with a stroke of his pen. If only. More likely than not this Sunday will be the occasion for the issuing of some hortatory statements by both leaders about their shared patrimony; the crisis facing Christians worldwide; the need for peace; and so on, and so forth. In other words, it will be the same old positive claptrap that typically emanates from official Catholic/Orthodox engagements which, for better or worse, leads nowhere on the practical front. The Great Schism, much to the delight of many in the East, isn’t at risk of being mended anytime soon.
Of course, one can—and should—hope and pray that both Francis and Bartholomew might have some strong words for Western powers—including the United States—which have failed to properly support the Middle East’s historic Christian populations while sitting on the sidelines as the region descends into further turmoil. Then there is also the messy matter of Ukraine and the future of its four Apostolic churches—one Catholic and three Orthodox—which currently find themselves caught up in a showdown between a resurgent Russia and an understandably nervous Europe. The Moscow Patriarchate (MP) of the Russian Orthodox Church, which controls the largest body of Ukrainian Orthodox believers, has not been shy about blaming the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) for Ukraine’s woes. In a recent interview, the MP’s Chairman for External Relations and potential heir apparent to the Patriarchal throne, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev, had this to say:
The main problem that remains in our bilateral relations is the situation in Western Ukraine, relations between the Orthodox and Greek Catholics. These relations soured at the end of the 1980s, when Greek Catholics seized Orthodox churches. I do not want to get into the history now: views of history always differ between conflicting parties. But the conflict has not been overcome: in Western Ukraine there are many places where the Orthodox, as before, have been deprived of their churches, as we regularly remind our partners in the Roman Catholic Church.
What Alfayev omits from his narrative is any mention of the Soviet-backed MP’s seizure of UGCC properties in the 1940s and the fact that “good relations” with Ukrainian Catholics ended in the late 1980s only after Gorbachev, following a meeting with Pope St. John Paul II, agreed to let Catholics practice their faith without fear of violent persecution. In an earlier interview, Alfayev blasted the UGCC (“Uniates”) for being “people who wear Orthodox clothes, observe Orthodox rites while remaining Catholic,” as if holding fast to the Slavo-Byzantine Rite and the East’s spiritual and theological patrimony is somehow the exclusive province of the Orthodox, specifically the Russian Orthodox. These statements were issued against the backdrop of Catholics being persecuted in the recently annexed Crimea.
Will Francis or, more importantly, Bartholomew have anything to say about the MP’s ethno-nationalistic outlook concerning Ukrainian Catholics? Although he didn’t identify the MP by name, Bartholomew has recently gone on record criticizing what he sees as nationalist and racialist tendencies in some segments of the Orthodox Church. It’s important to bear in mind that the MP’s uncharitable attitude toward the UGCC—a body which has existed for more than 400 years—is not dissimilar to its negative appraisal of Ukraine’s two independent Orthodox churches, neither of which wants to find itself under the thumb of the Russian Orthodox Church nor part of a geographical-political “buffer zone” between Russia and the West. It is for the sake of both Catholics and Orthodox then that Francis and Bartholomew should consider speaking out against the aggression of the Russian state and its vassal church.
Beyond present political difficulties, it is hard to see what else might come out of the Jerusalem meeting. With the Orthodox in the midst of planning for a “Great and Holy Council” scheduled to take place in 2016, the EP knows that it cannot appear to draw too close to Rome without compromising its stature among the more insular regions of the Orthodox ecclesial confederacy. At the same time, Rome should be leery of taking any action, or issuing any statement, which would appear to “play favorites” among the Orthodox. The last time that happened, which occurred during the run-up to the Second Vatican Council when certain Catholic prelates wanted to secure limited participation from representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, the EP and other local Orthodox churches refused to participate. As Roberto de Mattei recounts in his The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, it was only the 1964 Paul VI/Athenagoras Jerusalem summit which ultimately smoothed the matter over.
At some point, of course, Rome will have to reach a decision about how it wishes to proceed in its relations with the Orthodox. Ever since the 1993 Balamand Declaration, the Catholic Church has steered clear of “Uniatism,” the often pejorative term used to describe the localized reunification efforts which began at the Union of Brest in 1596—the agreement which established both the UGCC and the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church. The Balamand Declaration was aspirational, not binding, and the present realities of world Orthodoxy ought to give even the most ecumenically minded Catholic pause concerning the prospects of “big bang” reunification. If the East/West rift is to be corrected, it will more likely than not have to be done stich by stich. We just shouldn’t expect the sewing to begin this Sunday.