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Vol. 2 No. 6 - Nativity 2007

Letter From Ravenna:
Reunion in the Trenches

"What is essential is invisible to the eye. It is only with the heart that one sees clearly."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

After years of flirtation with the Orthodox, the Vatican last fall achieved a meeting with representatives of Patriarch Bartholomew, at which a framework was drafted for the establishment of communion between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics.

The move painted a picture of Church life that looked very much like something drafted by government bureaucrats, rather than the Body of Christ. Much of the document pays attention to historical realities: the conciliarity of the Church, the equal apostolic authority of all bishops and their autonomy within their respective dioceses, as well as the recognition of an Orthodox-confessing Pope as the first among equals of the bishops worldwide.

For some - certainly, for those at the Ravenna meeting - the document is seen as a solid basis for the re-establishment of communion between the Orthodox Church and Rome. Yet Ravenna is a long way from Jerusalem, Antioch, or Moscow. It is even further - geographically, culturally, and perhaps spiritually - from Saskatoon, Sudbury, Montreal, or Edmonton. Say what they might, the ecclesiastics who author such documents must know that the realities of a reestablished communion do not prove themselves on paper, but rather in the living reality of the Church: in parish life, and in the day-to-day living out of the Faith of pious people.

For those who were raised Orthodox and who take the Orthodox Faith seriously, the gaps between the Church and the life of Roman Catholicism are well known. For those who came to Orthodoxy in adulthood, the differences are vividly understood: conversion represents not simply the embracing of a new faith, but the rejection of an former one, as the renunciations of a new catechumen declare.

For all faithful, the gaps between Rome and the Orthodox Church are much more than statements about the Creed or the authority of the Papacy: they reflect the concrete experiences of individuals, handed down from Apostolic times. Practically speaking, traditional practices such as fasting have all but disappeared among the average Roman Catholic attending Mass on Sunday. The approach to spiritual education illustrates another fundamental division. While Roman Catholic schools have gained worldwide notoriety for their intellectual dedication to religious and secular studies, the spiritual life they offer differs markedly from the education in the spiritual life offered in the Orthodox tradition of the last twenty centuries. For those Orthodox who are eager to emulate the social success of such Roman Catholic programs, the cooperation that could arise through intercommunion is tantalizing. Yet such co-operation comes at the cost of the patristic theology of the spiritual heart, and however appealing it may be to construct or join prominent and recognized academies, the price - the heart of the Orthodox inheritance - is simply too high.

The spiritual life of the faithful is most essential to the life of the Church, and it is in this critical area that reconciliation is most remote. The growth of Protestant-style theatrical Masses in Roman Catholic parishes and schools in recent decades marked a shift from liturgical worship to liturgical entertainment. Holy relics have been purged from many places, and those that remain are viewed with curiosity more often than reverence. As things stand, one or two entire generations of Roman Catholics have been spiritually formed by a liturgical life that is completely foreign to the historic Church, both east and west. Until Roman Catholics themselves rediscover the intercessions of the saints, fasting, the Jesus Prayer, and the veneration of holy relics - the full inheritance of the Orthodox West - the hopes of the Ravenna meeting are simple fantasy. It is not reasonable to believe that a single spiritual life can be cobbled together out of two that bear so many profound and fundamental differences.

Just as it is tempting to look to externals (such as liturgy, the veneration of saints, bishops and a priesthood) to find similarities between the Orthodox Church and Rome, it is also tempting to look at mere externals (such as scandals, celibacy, and modernization) to try to find differences. Yet this is a mistake. Critics of a union between Rome and the Orthodox sometimes fail to go deeper into the fundamental spiritual differences between the two groups: the interior life of inner stillness, the Holy Mysteries, and what Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos calls the spiritual therapy of the Orthodox Church. These are the fundamental differences that keep us divided, whatever official documents might say, now or in the future. For Roman Catholics who are not familiar with these key elements of the heart of Orthodox life and faith, the search must begin at the heart of Church life, within the Orthodox tradition. For Orthodox who are not familiar, or who have forgotten these spiritual truths that serve as navigators in rough spiritual waters, the search must begin not in the strange islands of academia or the ecclesiastic diplomatic core, but in the harbour of the human heart, living the life of the saints.

The last two decades have seen a number of tragic schisms among the Orthodox over questions much less fundamental than those which divide us from Rome. Who in their right mind would wish to duplicate, around the Orthodox world, scores of more complex and spiritually profound fractures in the fabric of the Orthodox? Such schisms - hundreds of them - would doubtlessly be an inevitable byproduct of an Orthodox-Catholic union based not on common faith, worship, and spiritual life, but rather on political ambitions and utopian dreams. May the Lord deliver us.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Nativity, 2007)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.