Spyridon... The Legacy

Address by Metropolitan Spyridon of Italy,
Delegate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate,
to the Extraordinary Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops of Europe
dedicated to the re-evangelization of Europe
( The Vatican, December 2, 1991 )

Your Holiness,
Reverend Fathers of the Synod,
Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

The invitation of “fraternal representatives” —Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant— to this Synod of the Roman Catholic Bishops of Europe, is undeniably another positive step on our long, arduous path towards unity, as the Lord of the Church and all his true followers would wish. Therefore I could not but be pleased with the opportunity given us, not only to attend the proceedings of such an important Roman Catholic Synod, but also, for the first time, to take part in both the plenary sessions and the workshops.

Of course, we would have liked all Orthodox Churches to accept the invitation and to be present here through their “fraternal representatives.” Then we would have been able to hear the voices of those Churches. Most of them are confronting the intense re-evangelization of their faithful and thus take particular interest in this issue.

Unfortunately, it was not possible for representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Serbia, the Rumanian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria or the Orthodox Church of Greece to be present. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, in fulfilling its responsibility for coordinating the whole of Orthodoxy, while expressing its sympathy for and understanding of the reasons that dictated the decision by these Orthodox Churches, sent its “fraternal representative” to this venerable Synod to explain the reasons and to describe the current state of relations between our two Churches as they are observed in most of the countries of Orthodox tradition that have been recently freed from the Communist yoke.

*  *  *

The reasons for the absence of “fraternal representatives” from these Churches may be complex and diverse. Coincidentally perhaps in their ancient and traditional canonical jurisdiction we are now called upon to jointly undertake the important task of evangelism in a renewed spirit of ecumenical co-operation. Yet, the reasons can be summed up as follows: the recent heightened tension in relations between most of the aforementioned Orthodox Churches and the local Roman Catholic communities.

This tension can be ascribed:

  • both to the revival of Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite, also known as the “Uniate Churches,” often accompanied by violent behavior, especially in regard to the ownership of places of worship and parish houses, for example in Western Ukraine, where the Orthodox Church has practically ceased to exist, or in Rumania, where relations between the Orthodox and Uniate faithful are deteriorating daily.
  • and to the creation of ecclesiastical structures parallel to those Orthodox structures in existence for centuries, mainly by establishing new dioceses in regions where they did not previously exist and where the pastoral needs of a small number of Roman Catholic believers do not necessitate such a move, as for example the foundation of new bishoprics in the traditionally Orthodox territory of the Russian Church: Moscow, Novosbirsk and Karaganda.

The Orthodox Church of Serbia had originally appointed a “fraternal representative.” However, she reconsidered this decision, taking into account, she officially announced, both the positions adopted by the Holy See concerning the bloody conflict between Serbia and Croatia that the Serbian Church considers directed against herself as well, and the revival of Uniatism and the proselytism generally conducted at the expense of Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria chose not to send a “fraternal representative” because she too complains of repeated incidents of aggression by the local Roman Catholic community, and by Radio Vatican, which several months ago, accused the Orthodox Hierarchy of collusion with the former Communist regime and invited Orthodox believers to abandon their Church and return “to the fold of the only true Church.” The Bulgarian Orthodox Church is currently obliged to confront an increasing Uniate presence, which appears to be more menacing day by day.

As for the Orthodox Church of Greece, she too decided not to send a “fraternal representative,” out of solidarity not only with the above-mentioned Churches, but also with the Orthodox Churches of Czechoslovakia and of Poland, which have long been fighting literally for their survival against Uniatism.

*  *  *

Understandably, the entire situation has caused considerable discomfort not only among those Orthodox Churches who were invited and are not present, but throughout the whole of Orthodoxy. By now there is a sense among Orthodox, that the departure from both the spirit and the letter of the Second Vatican Council is becoming increasingly pronounced and that the traditionally Orthodox countries recently freed from former Communist regimes are considered “terra missionis” by our Roman Catholic brothers.

It is no longer a secret that the arduous efforts in recent decades to achieve reconciliation and gradual rapprochement between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches is now seriously endangered. It has also become apparent that our Theological Dialogue with its wonderful and truly historical accomplishments for the Christian world is unfortunately in danger of being indefinitely suspended, the consequences of which cannot be predicted. It may even be permanently canceled, due to the extremely tense situation which has arisen between the Uniate Churches and the local Orthodox Churches that represent the ancient and traditional Christian faith in those regions.

*  *  *

The absence of the Orthodox Churches who were invited to this important Synod, is indicative of the manner in which Orthodoxy perceives the common undertaking of a new evangelization of new or returning believers.

The memorable text drafted in Freising about a year ago (June 1990) by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches dealt clearly with the above-mentioned issues, which are causing so much uneasiness and difficulty in the relations between the two Churches.

Given that after the Second Vatican Council “our Churches meet on the ecclesiological basis of communion” between true “sister-Churches” (6d), the Joint Commission “rejected ‘Uniatism’ as a method of seeking unity because it is opposed to the common tradition of our Churches” (6b), since “where ‘Uniatism’ has been employed as a method… it provoked new divisions” (6c), and “it would be regretful to destroy the important work accomplished in our Dialogue for the unity of the Churches, by going back to the method of ‘Uniatism’ ” (6d).

In this text the commission speaks of the problems of “proselytism,” stressing that “every effort aimed at pulling in believers of another Church, commonly called ‘proselytism,’ should be excluded as a distortion of pastoral action” (7c). It also contends that the “the pastor of a community should not interfere in a community entrusted to another pastor, but rather should consult with this other pastor and with all others, in order that all communities progress towards the same goal, that of a common witness given to the world in which they live” (ibid).

Finally the Joint Commission observes that, “the way in which they [the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches] will be able to search out a solution [to this problem] together will test the solidity of the theological foundation which has already been laid and which it will be necessary to develop” (5).

*  *  *

Of course, the agreement reached a year ago in Freising is still valid today as far as the Orthodox Church is concerned. She is firmly convinced that her relations with her sister Church of Rome can and must develop on the basis of the ecclesiology of communion, a wish also expressed by the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, the Orthodox Church believes that difficulties in the relations between Churches must never become a reason for breaking off dialogue. On the contrary, dialogue becomes even more essential when problems arise that can be solved only through sincere discussion and a will to overcome differences.

Therefore it is precisely in this spirit and on the basis of this ecclesiology of “sister Churches” that the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches are now called, together with their Protestant brothers, to undertake the formidable task of re-evangelizing the believers in the new, united Europe. There is a unique opportunity to bear common witness in the face of critics ready to take advantage of every indication of antagonism between our Churches. Orthodoxy believes that we have a golden opportunity to prove to the doubting world that —despite the “mistakes that have been made,” referred to recently in Santiago de Compostella, as well as in this very room this morning— there is no intention of re-establishing past structures, inspired by an old “sotiriological exclusiveness,” that confessionalism has been overcome, and that we are not “sister Churches” in name only, but that in fact we act as such, always seeking the road of dialogue and co-operation.

The Orthodox sincerely believe that this common witness can be achieved through love and mutual trust, respect for the ecclesiastical structures, sensitivity and pastoral priorities of each Church, as well as through mutual support so as to achieve a dynamic and more effective common preaching of the Bible to European peoples, preaching which will address the great historical challenges posed by the rapid changes and new conditions in Europe.

The impasse of contemporary European civilization now presents a problem common to all European Churches. It is the ultimate reality that truly unites the Churches in the common and humble fulfillment of their responsibilities. Only through a joint ecumenical effort will the Churches be able to proclaim the truth of ecclesial universality, which is the only answer capable of unifying the fragmented life of today’s European. Only through such an effort can the Churches integrate the image of the “Kingdom” and “the true way of being” into personal lives and into the deeply secularized social life of contemporary Europe. Only through that effort will they inform the new European politics and economics with their dynamic understanding of history, and their answers to the challenge of the uses and abuses pertaining to creation.

The Orthodox believe that unity and common action are the great symbols with which we are to undertake the new evangelization of Europe.

[ Translated from the Italian original ]

[ Spyridon, Archbishop of America (1996-1999), The Legacy,
  Athens (Ellinika Grammata), 2005, pp. 269-273 ]