“The Council, for its part, considered the Churches of the East with objectivity and deep affection, stressing their ecclesial nature and the real bonds of communion linking them with the Catholic Church. The Decree on Ecumenism points out: ‘Through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature’. It adds, as a consequence, that ‘although these Churches are separated from us, they possess true sacraments, above all—by apostolic succession—the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in a very close relationship.’” (Ut Unum Sint, 50)

The goal of this article is to take a few of the key points of advice St. Pope John Paul II gives in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint. We will both look at the document’s commentary on the work of healing the schism and how the advice can more broadly touch all inter-Christian interaction. This article is from a Catholic perspective primarily, but I believe the points the document makes are helpful for Catholics and Orthodox Christians alike. I will focus on how Pope John Paul II built out a helpful mindset for approaching the conversation between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. 

I would be remiss if I did not address, in a clear way, the goal of unity. As Ben addresses in his article Unity: God or the Church, the unity Christ prays for in John is first and fundamentally a unity of the heart of the Christian with God. I find this is a helpful starting point for Catholic and Orthodox conversations as well. Unity begins not by seeking to add another member to “my” Church or “my” theology but by walking with them in the journey toward unity with the Will of God.

My (ideal) personal method of seeking unity begins with Christ. We must first establish a foundation between all parties that our goal is to follow Christ and understand his instructions for us. Secondly, miscommunication must be addressed and cleared up where possible. Thirdly, any discussion and research into a difficult topic should prize truth above all else and be done communally (not just individually). Finally, we should always ground ourselves at the beginning, middle, and end of this process in prayer. Just as we begin with Christ, we want to make sure he guides us in the end.

The goal of Christianity, and all life if Christianity is true, is to live out God’s will in our own lives. For man, the heart of living out God’s will is loving him above all else and one another as ourselves. Therefore in any Christian conversation about doctrine and Christian living, we should all be able to agree that if Jesus came to us in person we would drop everything (including erroneous beliefs) and follow him. Even though Catholics and Orthodox differ on which Church Christ established, we can all reach down to the basic premise which is to follow Him. Having a foundation in Christ allows friendship to exist on the deepest level. This level of friendship allows further conversation to take place in an honest, though difficult, manner.

Once the foundation in Christ is established it is important to clear up miscommunication. I intend to write an article on some of the biggest misconceptions between Catholics and Orthodox, but such misconceptions exist between all denominations. As Saint Pope John Paul II writes:

“In the first place, with regard to doctrinal formulations which differ from those normally in use in the community to which one belongs, it is certainly right to determine whether the words involved say the same thing.” (Ut Unum Sint, 38)

Differences in beliefs naturally translate into differences in the words used. One example I see is the angst over purgatory and purification after death. Below I have what the Catechism references and a quote from OrthodoxWiki on the topic. They do not seem incompatible!

Purgatory (CCC 1030) Damascus
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but are still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death, they undergo purification, to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The soul’s journey toward God, I explained to Emily that day, must go through three identifiable and distinct stages. At first there is the state of catharsis, or the purification of the soul from egotistical passions[.] It is then followed by the state of fotisis, or the enlightenment of the soul, a gift of the Holy Spirit once the soul has undergone its purification. Finally comes the stage of Theosis, union with God, as the final destination and ultimate home of the human soul. The last two stages are impossible to attain without having the soul first pass through the fires of catharsis from egotistical passions.

It becomes essential for groups to approach these differences with the truth as the goal above all else, and involve the community. While pursuing truth seems agreeable enough, I do not think doing so outside of a community context will bear much fruit. Rationalization of our positions is a human specialty. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Even if the person we are speaking with is incorrect (which they probably are in some way), another person can look with more critical eyes than our own. The more they disagree with us the better! If they are correct we approach truth and if I am correct they approach it. For Catholic and Orthodox Christians, we don’t have to only rely on those living mentors, priests, and bishops; we can allow those who have gone before us to speak into our lives.

“Finally, dialogue puts before the participants genuine disagreements in matters of faith. Above all, these disagreements should be faced in a sincere spirit of fraternal charity, of respect for the demands of one’s conscience and the conscience of the other party, with profound humility and love for the truth. The examination of such disagreements has two essential points of reference: Sacred Scripture and the great Tradition of the Church.” (Ut Unum Sint, 38)

Ultimately who is the best person to go to with our questions and disagreements? Jesus himself! Doctrine is important but prayer is how we grow after Christ’s own heart. Coming to Christ and trusting all of our struggles with him is just as valid in religious disagreement as it is with personal sin. The hardness of heart is one of the most common sins in scripture, and the scariest part of this sin is that most of those who commit it do not realize what they are doing! Prayer and a willingness to allow God’s correction in our life act as an antidote to our hardness of heart.

“Let anyone thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this, he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39)


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