The 2016 Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church: Implications for Unity
by Fr. George Morelli
SSJC-WR President's Message Spring 20161
There are many serious challenges to the unity of the Churches, ecclesial communities and confessions and religious groups in today's world. Among these are: secularization, religious pluralism, fundamentalism and ethnophyletism. If the Orthodox Churches one of the Apostolic Churches tracing their succession to Christ Himself, in agreement on faith and morals can achieve agreement on approaching these issues confronting her today, God willing, this will be a witness and model for other Churches and religious communities to do the same. This would be a step toward healing the division among the Churches and communities.
Just such a witness was described in the document issued in January 2016 in Chambésy , Switzerland, by the Synaxis of Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches in preparation for the Holy and Great Council that is to be held on the Greek island of Crete during June 2016 - Pentecost as celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. This had been preceded by a draft document adopted by the 5th Pan-Orthodox Pre-Council in October 2015, also in Chambésy. Many ecumenical encounters between Eastern and Western Churches have occurred leading to these events.
Among the issues to be considered by the "Great Council" are ecclesiology, (primacy, autocephaly, autonomy), the diaspora (movement of Orthodox Christians from their original Patriarchates to non-Orthodox lands), nationalism and fundamentalism.
The split between East and West started sporadically in the first millennium, culminating with the Schism of 1054 AD and punctuated by the Crusader siege of Constantinople in 1204 AD. In recent times, various attempts have been made to heal the East-West divide. Notably, in 1965, Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, declared invalid the anathemas of 1054. Since then, both Churches have sent delegations to the liturgical celebrations of feasts significant to the other: e.g., the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul (29 June) for the Catholic Church and of St. Andrew (Nov 30) for the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Furthermore, numerous papal-patriarchal visitations have occurred. These events have been much welcomed by many in both the Eastern and the Western Church.
Recently an historic and unprecedented meeting took place between the Patriarch of Moscow, His Holiness Kirill, and Pope Francis I. The importance of this meeting from an ecumenical perspective, is that the Moscow Patriarchate has the largest (and wealthiest) number of Orthodox Christians under its jurisdiction, around two-thirds of the world's Orthodox Christians, which number 200 million adherents.2 Both hierarchs expressed favorable statements about the meeting. It was reported that Pope Francis said "We spoke as brothers. We share the same baptism. We are both bishops," Patriarch Kirill commented: "Yes, things are much easier now,"3 Both signed a joint declaration comprised of 30 sections. Part of the declaration is particularly relevant to the spirit of the Society of St. John Chrysostom: "We are pained by the loss of unity, the outcome of human weakness and of sin, which has occurred despite the priestly prayer of Christ the Savior: "So that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you ... so that they may be one, as we are one" (Jn 17:21).... May our meeting inspire Christians throughout the world..."4
May we join our prayers to those of all who are prayerfully hoping that the upcoming "Great Council" takes a significant step toward an implementing of ecclesial unity. And let us be encouraged by the hope of Pope Francis who has indicated: "there is no longer any impediment to Eucharistic communion which cannot be overcome through prayer, the purification of hearts, dialogue and the affirmation of truth".5
1 The Society of Saint John Chrysostom
The Society of St. John Chrysostom is an ecumenical group of clergy and lay people which promotes Eastern Christianity and Ecumenical Dialogue between the Eastern and Western Churches toward the healing of the sin of disunity. It has sponsored the Eastern Churches Journal and the annual Orientale Lumen & Light of the East Conferences. It has been in existence since 1997 in the United States and for over 70 years in England. (http://lightoftheeast.org...)
2 [http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la- fg-pope- cuba-20160212- story.html]
3 [http://www.religionnews.com/2016/02/12/pope-francis- russian-church- leader-hold- historic-meeting- in-cuba/]
5 [http://www.lastampa.it/2016/01/20/vaticaninsider/eng/world-news/the- future-of- the-panorthodox- council-is-to- be-decided- at-chambsy- DGOBGirf09sttqzbqEOvpO/pagina.html]