Reunion: Within Our Lifetimes?


by Gjergji Evangjeli


I am firmly of the opinion that Christian reunification must remain a steadfast commitment for every serious and informed Christian. In a time when the Faith is being attacked on so many sides, it is necessary that the people of God join together to provide a unified response, or suffer the disadvantage of dealing with quarrels both between Christians themselves and those who would like to see Christianity be a footnote in history. Most near and dear to my heart is the reunion of East and West, not only because it is the oldest wound in the Church, but also because the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have—despite their near one-thousand-year divide—remained the closest doctrinally. It is also dear to me because I come from two generations of intermarried Catholics and Orthodox. Though it was fascinating and enriching for my spiritual formation that every Sunday when I was a child we’d have to trek from the Orthodox Church to the Catholic Church so that everyone could attend the Divine Liturgy and Mass, respectively, it was rather irregular.


A majority of those committed to reunification, however, are somewhat skeptical that it will occur within our lifetime. Somewhat ironically, I am part of the more optimistic group that believes that we are closer to reunification than most believe. The division that occurred in 1054 was both a long time in the making and very sudden and, likewise, the end of the division will occur both slowly and suddenly.


The division was slow because the cooling of relations between East and West can be traced back to as early as 381 with the Council of Constantinople. Canon 3 of the Council of Constantinople grants the Bishop of Constantinople honors and prerogative second only to Rome, “because Constantinople is New Rome.” The Roman Church was by no means pleased with this Canon, partly because it sidestepped Rome’s Petrine claim. This same reasoning was repeated in Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon and caused Pope Leo to delay accepting the decisions of the Council for a year.


Moreover, the raging filioque debate was inflamed by heated rhetoric on both sides. And yet, the eventual split between Rome and Constantinople—while certainly influenced by these more serious issues—was actually over the issue of whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, an issue which is seldom spoken about today because it is comparatively simpler to come to an agreement. Due to this, this wound was allowed to fester, since no one in 1055 expected that Rome and Constantinople would continue to be divided by 1155, never mind 2018. The two had had a few bouts of mutual excommunications before and—like warring brothers—were always able to kiss and make up. Due to external circumstances at the control of neither Rome nor Constantinople, however, the split in 1054 was unable to be resolved in a timely manner.


On the other hand, concrete steps for reunification were started in 1965, when Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople and Pope Paul VI respectively lifted the excommunications of 1054. In addition, since 1980, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church has put a lot of exemplary work toward addressing and coming to a common conclusion about theological and ecclesiastical differences between East and West. In 2013, Patriarch Bartholomew was the first Patriarch of Constantinople since 1054 to attend the installation of a pope.


Subtler moves have also begun to bind East and West together. In those places where Christians are in the minority and where persecution for the Faith was either a daily reality until recently or continues to be a daily reality, Catholics and Orthodox have been intermarrying and complicating neat divisions for some time. I am by far not the only Albanian Christian who has mixed Catholic and Orthodox ancestry and this is true for many other countries as well.


Martyrs will also continue to blur the neat distinctions between Church bodies. Watching the execution of those 21 Coptic Christians in Libya in 2015 caused a deep impact on most who were staggered both by the brutality of the execution and the heroic courage of the men who stood fast by their faith, even at the cost of their lives. They were quickly canonized by the Coptic Church, but their example lives in the hearts and minds of many Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and a genuine reverence for them extends beyond the bounds of the Coptic Church.


There are many other examples of Catholics and Orthodox suffering unjust persecution and even death for their confession of Christ side by side. The attempt to keep distinctions about who is to be revered in which Church will be both tedious and fruitless. Unsurprisingly, the blood of the martyrs which is the renewal of the Church has already begun to close the wound.


Of course, none of these things amount to reunification and none suggest that we are at the last stages of reunion. Much like the division, however, what ultimately ends up reuniting East and West will be as sudden and seemingly minor as what divided them. I cannot say what it will be, but I can say that looking back on it, people will marvel that it was that particular thing. Those who look at the reality of the division between East and West with a logical outlook are certainly correct to point out that we are not yet at the stage where we can claim reunion is imminent.


They, however, seem to miss one crucial factor. The Church is not merely a human institution, and we cannot expect it to act merely according to our logic. Our Lord made His position on Christian unity clear when He prayed “that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” (Jn. 17:24). His High Priestly prayer will be realized, no matter how much bumbling human hands make its fulfilment more difficult. The Holy Spirit—Who guides the Church—is at work even now and reunion between East and West will be His work at least as much as it is ours. Christ declares that “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Mt. 11:12). I do not think that the Lord meant that there was currently a siege on the gates of Heaven by those words. Rather, these words indicate that the Kingdom of Heaven, like its precursor here on earth, cannot be properly understood only according to our limited understanding. His grace moves His people to heroic acts of holiness and love in a way that remains so inexplicable from our perspective that we can only term it “violence,” in the more archaic sense. Ultimately, it is these “violent” men and women who will bring about reunification.

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