Rome (AsiaNews) – A great love for Catholic-Orthodox unity as the only way to face the challenges of the modern world and a profound sadness for the self-imposed isolation of the Russian Orthodox Church are the main points Ecumenical Greek-Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I raised in his address to the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. They are also the main thrust in Metropolitan of Pergamon Ioannis Zizioulas’ comments to AsiaNews about the patriarch’s speech. For the latter the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church is one of “conservatism,” showing an inability to meet “the challenges of the modern world.”
Bartholomew I was invited to Rome for the 90th anniversary of the Institute, an institution that includes the well-known Faculties of Eastern Church Studies and Eastern Canon Law.
The Patriarch spoke about what the Orthodox Church expects from this institution as service to the contemporary world. In his inaugural lecture titled Theology, Liturgy, and Silence – Fundamental Insights from the Eastern Fathers for the Modern World, he stressed the importance to the theology of the great Fathers of the Church, those of the united Church of the first millennium, whose spirit lives on as a solid basis for the document elaborated in Ravenna, which is the Sister Churches’ response to the challenges of the contemporary world.
What word of salvation can the Eastern Church’s theology bring to the modern world? To this initial question, Bartholomew answered by starting with Patristic theology, explaining that such a theology cannot be reduced to a structured system of truth, but is on the contrary the light and grace of the Holy Spirit which gives life to the whole Church and thus “rejuvenates the entire world.”
A theology that is cut off from Church and society is “a sterile study of doctrinal formulations, rather than a deifying vision of conviction and commitment, capable of transforming the whole world.”
During the Age of Byzantium, so reviled because misunderstood, when religious live encompassed every aspect of secular life, when “[t]heological culture embraced every aspect,” he said, every “manifestation, activity, institution, intuition, and literary achievement in Byzantine society [. . .] the Church Fathers were primarily pastors, not philosophers. They were concerned first with reforming the human heart and transforming society, not with refining concepts or resolving controversies.” For the patriarch the fundamental aspects of Patristic thought can enlighten theology in the modem age.
First of all, the Fathers of the Church never saw theology as a monopoly of the professional academic or the official hierarchy. Theology, Bartholomew I noted, was a communal experience or as St Paul put it, a way “to bring to light [for all] what is the plan of the mystery hidden from ages past in God” (Eph, 3:9). Again this background it is the Church which guarantees the Apostolic Age’s normative continuity, from Patristic times till now. And when the Church prays as a liturgical assembly it is truly itself.
Thanks to this liturgical aspect Eastern Christians were given courage under the Ottoman Empire and more recently under post-Revolutionary Russia. “This profound sense of community must, therefore, also characterize our theological perception of the world today. This means that no individual can ever exhaust the fullness of truth in isolation from others, outside the communion of saints.”
The Patriarch also spoke about Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. “With regard to fraternal relations among our Sister Churches, [if] the two lungs of the Eastern and Western Churches [. . .] must breathe in harmony, [n]either should assume provocative initiatives—whether unilaterally or universally—in its ministry to God’s people.”
Finally, “[w]e urge you to serve the theological word by breathing the air of theology and kneeling humbly before the living Creator”, Bartholomew said, invitng the Pontifical Oriental Institute to “play a decisive role in the rapprochement between the East and the West.”
Russian Orthodoxy’s insularity
The Metropolitan of Pergamon Ioannis Zizioulas, an eminent Orthodox theologian, spoke with AsiaNews about the difficult ecumenical path with the Russian Orthodox Church. This comes just a day after a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate advised Orthodox believers not to pray with members of other Christian confessions.
“In the Eastern Church, especially in the Russian Church, there is a degree of insularity that leads to conservatism. There is an inability to face the challenges of the modern world, with tradition as an excuse,” Metropolitan Ioannis said.
The prelate, who accompanied the Patriarch Bartholomew to Rome where he met Benedict XVI today, said that “the true value of tradition is only reached when we can reshape our tradition. Tradition as the Christian Church’s message does not mean doing nothing; instead it contains truth’s momentum and does not fear the challenge of the contemporary world.”
1. In Ravenna (Italy) last October the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church resumed its work even though there were no representatives from the Moscow Patriarchate. The latter chose not to attend because of the presence of representatives of the Estonian Orthodox Church which Moscow does not recognise.