The Chieti Agreement Encourages Catholic-Orthodox Unity

September 26 is the feast day of St. Nilo (Νεῖλος/Nilus) the Younger of Rossano otherwise known as St. Nilo of Grottaferrata. St. Nilo died in 1004, the year the Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata was founded. Grottaferrata is a monastic community of originally Greek monks coming from what was called the Greater Greece of the West—Calabria and Sicily; Italo-Albanians or Arbëreshë monks—Albanians who left Albania and Greece in the fifteenth century under Ottoman persecution; monks from Ukraine; and obviously Roman Catholic Italians who appreciated and espoused the Byzantine ritual. When St. Nilo arrived in Tusculum, a small hill town in the vicinity of Rome, his native Calabria similar to other parts of Southern Italy was under the Patriarch of Constantinople. Consequently, the liturgical tradition that St. Nilo and his brethren brought to Grottaferrata was Greek-Byzantine. St. Nilo in a prophetic way led his Greek community of monks to Grottaferrata near Rome and the tombs of the apostles, which he and other Greek monks from Southern Italy visited regularly. In fact, given that the monastery was built on a hill site, on clear days the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica can be noticed.

Grottaferrata was founded in 1004, exactly 50 years before what is known to be the schism between East and West, Catholic and Orthodox Churches. For more than a millennium and after many unfortunate events, including sometimes forced and sometimes desired Latinization, the monks have managed to retain the founder’s Byzantine tradition while remaining in full communion with the Church of Rome and the Pope, in whose territory the monks reside. The Monastery of Grottaferrata is not “uniate”; actually the monks would frown at any pilgrim who calls them “uniate” for not knowing enough the history of Southern Italy.

Last March, I brought a group of students to visit Grottaferrata. It was probably the first time that these millennials set foot in a monastery very different in appearance, liturgy and décor from everything monastic they might have known before. After we attended Mass, the question my students raised was if Roman Catholics could receive communion in a Greek church. The church was not a “regular” church for my students. They were highly surprised when the answer was yes. This question made me think about how much common Christian ground and sense of belonging to one Church has been lost over the centuries as well as about the once-united Christendom of the first millennium that Grottaferrata represents.

In September 2016 the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church concluded its 14th plenary session in the city of Chieti, Southern Italy. At the end of the deliberations the Catholic-Orthodox mixed commission produced what is known as the Chieti document (2016) Synodality and Primacy During the First Millennium: Towards a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church. This brought very much to my mind Grottaferrata, its founder who was a Greek by birth and origin, and the monastery which is a constant reminder of the first Christian millennium.

The Chieti document, in comparison to previous documents, is short but significant in the ecumenical relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Church. First, it was approved by all Orthodox Church representatives at the meeting. Only the Bulgarian Patriarchate was not present. Opposition to individual paragraphs was expressed by the representatives of the Georgian Patriarchate, but this, nonetheless, did not hinder its unanimous approval. Secondly, the previous 2010 Vienna and 2014 Amman Catholic-Orthodox joint commission meetings produced no agreement between the Churches. Thirdly, the Chieti agreement was reached nine years after Catholic-Orthodox meeting in Ravenna 2007, and was built in line with Ravenna agreement. The Ravenna document explored the three levels in the life of the Church: the local Church around its bishop; the regional Church made up of several local Churches around the metropolitan or patriarch; and the universal Church which embraces all local Churches represented within the five patriarchal sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, recognizing the bishop of Rome as protos—first among the patriarchs as proved by history in the first millennium.

The 2016 Chieti agreement determines two important points of convergence between the Catholics and Orthodox. The foundation of synodality or conciliarity in the Church, which is understood as the gathering of bishops under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, reflects on the Trinitarian mystery and that the Holy Trinity is at its foundation. This means that the three persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are at one and the same level of importance. Another fundamental agreement according to the Chieti document is how synodality and primacy are interconnected and interdependent. Primacy according to the document refers to first, protos or primus of the oikoumene—the whole inhabited earth—which embraces all local Churches. Most importantly, according to the agreement Rome is acknowledged as having universal primacy, but understood in the context of synodality as it was applied in the first Christian millennium, when Catholics and Orthodox were united.

What does the Chieti agreement say about the role of the bishop of Rome, his specific function as the bishop of the “first see,” and how this role was lived in the first millennium?

No doubt, the Chieti agreement built on the Ravenna 2007 document where both sides agreed that Rome, as the Church that “presides in love” according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch (To the Romans, Prologue), occupied the first place in the taxis (canonical order), and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs. However, there was disagreement between the parties in Ravenna on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the rights of the bishop of Rome as protos in the first millennium understood in the context of synodality and collegiality, something that the Chieti agreement makes clearer.

What does the Chieti agreement say about the role of the bishop of Rome in his specific function as the bishop of the “first see” as this was lived in the first millennium? The joint commission reached unanimous consensus on the following areas:

  • Beginning with the Council of Nicaea (325) fundamental theological and canonical questions were determined by ecumenical councils. Although the bishop of Rome neither convened nor was personally present at any of the ecumenical councils of the first millennium, it was always the case that either his legates or he accepted the decisions of the councils after the council’s deliberations. In other words, the bishop of Rome was part of the decision making of the councils, accepting the teachings post-factum.
  • The Chieti agreement recognized that over the centuries a number of appeals were made directly to the bishop of Rome also from the Eastern Churches regarding disciplinary matters, including deposition of bishops, although these bishops were not part of or under Rome’s jurisdiction. The Synod of Sardica (343) Canon V speaks specifically of a deposed bishop who can appeal and take refuge “with the most blessed bishop of the Roman Church.” This indicates that Rome and its bishop held a place of honor where bishops could appeal their cases, which indicates that in the first Christian millennium there was feeling of belonging to the same Church.
  • In the first millennium, as was the case with Grottaferrata, besides differences in interpretation and liturgical ritual, East and West were conscious of belonging to the one, united Church.

Thus, the Chieti meeting made a significant step in the right direction toward reviving the consciousness of a united Christendom. Still much remains to be accomplished on Orthodoxy’s hot button concerns. Orthodoxy rejects universal jurisdiction of the pope over other bishops. This concept is rejected by Orthodox ecclesiology. The pope for the Orthodox is first and foremost a bishop, and he exercises that authority sacramentally and ecclesiastically as the bishop of Rome. Any juridical or extra-sacramental exercise of authority without the consent of the synod is rejected by Orthodoxy. Additionally, Uniatism, and the problem of unia, continues to be a thorny matter in Catholic-Orthodox relations, especially in regard to the Greek Catholics of Ukraine. However, despite progress in Chieti, the major question for reflection is what would be the role of the Bishop of Rome in a reunited Catholic and Orthodox Church.

No doubt that in Chieti ecumenical progress was made and the dialogue process is moving slowly. As Msgr. Andrea Palmieri, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said, Chieti “opens the way to a new phase of the dialogue but does not clearly resolve all the issues on the table.” The Chieti agreement is still considered a working document, and this agreement will become legal if and when the pope and the Synods of Orthodox Churches recognize and approve them. Much remains to be resolved before Catholic and Orthodox will share fully in Eucharistic communion through recognizing and accepting each other as integral parts of the Church founded by Jesus Christ then not only Catholics but Orthodox faithful will be able to receive the Eucharist in Grottaferrata.

Ines A. Murzaku

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Ines A. Murzaku is Professor of Church History, Department of Religion, Seton Hall University in New Jersey and until June 2016 was the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies. She earned a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. Her research has been published in multiple articles and five books the most recent Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (2016).

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