Last month Roman Catholic and Orthodox religious leaders and theologians met in Vienna for the 12th plenary session of the International Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. These talks are aimed at overcoming the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. and restoring holy communion among our churches. They met in Vienna, Austria, a city often associated with ecumenism, given its long history of being a meeting place for the East and West. Twenty-three Catholic members were present, under the new direction of Archbishop Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. On the Orthodox side the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as well as the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Georgia, along with the churches of Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, Czech Lands and Slovakia were present.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a message of prayer and a call to the faithful to a greater commitment to Christian unity at his Wednesday audience before the meeting. The “peace and harmony” of Christians, he said, shows the world an “authentic” witness to the Gospel message. The pope was well aware that one of the more important topics of examination at the meeting was to be “the role of the Bishop of Rome in the communion of the Universal Church,” particularly in the first millennium of Christianity. The pope said, “obedience to the will of the Lord Jesus and consideration for the great challenges facing Christianity today, oblige us to commit ourselves seriously to the cause of re-establishing full communion among the churches.” He added, “I exhort everyone to intense prayer for the work of the commission and for the ongoing development and consolidation of peace and harmony among the baptized, that we may show the world an increasingly authentic evangelical witness.”
Many of the experts and religious leaders who participated remarked that the final statement that emerged, “Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future,” is a momentous breakthrough in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. A good friend of mine and a brilliant scholar and ecumenist, Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, remarked to the press that he thought the conference and statements were “unprecedented.” He said the long sought out discussion of what a reunited church might look like has finally begun. “Obviously for that to happen Catholics would have to adjust and Orthodox would have to adjust,” he explained.
The two topics discussed were how the two churches could proclaim the resurrection of Christ at Easter on the same date and the role of the pope or Bishop of Rome in a unified church proved to be very interesting indeed. Archbishop Koch remarked that “Pope Benedict XVI already said in his famous lecture in Graz in 1976 that we cannot expect more from the Orthodox than what was practiced in the first millennium.” His Orthodox counterpart added, “We are studying the first millennium, we have not reached a conclusion yet… In other words there in the first millennium there was recognition of the special role that the Bishop of Rome played in the church. There was also the fact that the Bishop of Rome did not operate without consultation with other bishops in his own area as well as universal.”
Archbishop Koch added on the subject of the papacy that in the first millennium that the Churches “need the necessary free space and it needs patience… I know some people can be impatient but patience is an expression of love. People know from personal experience what it means when two people in a marriage drift apart — we have 1,000 years to work through. We must and we want to take new paths because Jesus gave us the mission to live together.”
As Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches we recognize the need to give a thorough examination of history in order to reach a harmonious unity and restoration of holy communion among our people. When this unification takes place, and it will because it is the will of Christ, it will be a spark to revivify Christianity in our world and bring about a great revival of faith in our time. It will be a sign to the world that Jesus’ prayer to the Father in John 17:21 “that all may be one” is being answered.