Divisions of the Orthodox cause delays
is becoming increasingly clear that the reason why dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches has been proceeding at baby step pace with long stand-by phases is to be found in the Orthodox playing field, characterised by reservations and divisions. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations confirmed this yet again in a recent interview with KNA news agency. During the interview, Metropolitan Hilarion clearly aired his dissatisfaction at the work being done by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church – the body in charge of appeasing the two Churches on the pressing question of primacy and the exercise of authority in the Church. Metropolitan Hilarion is the top representative of the Patriarchate of Moscow in the commission and yet the tone of distance he has got across in some statements, has not gone unnoticed. “We are wrong to try to present the theological traditions of our Churches as united at the highest level,” he said. Theological dialogue must not conceal but highlight the differences between Christian denominations.

Hilarion’s remarks are further proof of the low opinion Moscow has of the joint Commission for theological dialogue. In the first plenary assembly he attended on the subject of primacy and authority in the Church, held in Ravenna in 2007, the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church walked out in protest against the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople’s decision to invite representatives of the Estonian Church to join the Orthodox delegation. The Estonian Church left Moscow’s jurisdiction after the fall of the Soviet Union. Last November a meeting held by the Commission’s small committee in Paris, ended without an agreement being reached, after representatives of the Patriarchate of Moscow refused to sign a document that dealt with the issue of primacy in a more theological and less historical–ecclesiological light.

The current adversities in theological dialogue are largely a side-effect of underlying conflicts that have always existed in the Orthodox Church. The politically and numerically preponderant Patriarchate of Moscow has persistently encouraged an alliance with the Catholic Church on ethical issues but has shown little interest in engaging in dialogue over theological questions. According to the Russians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, would like to play Orthodox “pope”, gaining jurisdictional powers that are not in line with the ecclesiological concept of Eastern Christianity. Meanwhile, Russia’s revival as a super power is reigniting “imperialist” sentiment in the Patriarchate of Moscow.

But the dispute within the Orthodox Church  will have to face the new season of change introduced by Francis’ Catholic Church sooner or later. Bartholomew I’s presence at the Bishop of Rome’s inauguration mass and his invitation to Francis to visit Jerusalem in memory of Paul VI’s visit to Patriarch Athenagoras 50 years ago were highly symbolic gestures. The modus operandi of Peter’s current successor could help heal a mistrust that goes back generations. Francis’ reference to Russia’s literary great, Dostoevkij on the flight back from Rio did not go unnoticed in Russia. “When one reads Dostoevskij, you get a feel for Russia’s spirit, the Eastern spirit. This will do us a lot of good. We need this renewal, this breath of fresh air from the East, this light from the East,” The Pope had said. With his sensus Ecclesiae and his seductive apostolic fervour, Pope Francis could find new words to speak to the hearts of the Catholic Church’s Eastern brothers. In doing so he would bring primacy issues into perspective and show everyone that the only way to achieve unity is to embrace the mission Christ entrusted his Church with, as brothers.


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