Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians reported promising progress on Friday in talks on overcoming their Great Schism of 1054 and bringing the two largest denominations in Christianity back to full communion. Experts meeting in Vienna this week agreed the two could eventually become “sister churches” that recognize the Roman pope as their titular head but retain many church structures, liturgy and customs that developed over the past millennium. (Photo: Metropolitan John Zizioulas (L) and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in Vienna, 24 Sept 2010/Leonhard Foeger)
The delegation heads for the international commission for Catholic-Orthodox dialogue stressed that unity was still far off, but their upbeat report reflected growing cooperation between Rome and the Orthodox churches traditionally centred in Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
“There are no clouds of mistrust between our two churches,” Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon told a news conference. “If we continue like that, God will find a way to overcome all the difficulties that remain.” Archbishop Kurt Koch, the top Vatican official for Christian unity, said the joint dialogue must continue “intensively” so that “we see each other fully as sister churches.” (Photo: Pope Benedict XVI (L) with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel, October 18, 2008/Osservatore Romano)
The rapprochement of the Catholic and Orthodox churches must be the slowest “big story” on the religion beat. About 30 theologians meet in a joint Catholic-Orthodox commission about once every year or so to see how far they have come in reassessing Christian history so that the Great Schism can be laid to rest and the two churches can move forward to full communion. These talks produced their first joint declaration back in 1982 and have had ups and downs since then. The push towards unity has clearly gained momentum since Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill took office on February, 2009. The goal is still far off – hey, they have 1,000 years of division to get over — but they’re getting close enough now that an agreement now looks increasingly possible.
Kirill and Pope Benedict are both conservative theologians keen to work together to have Christianity’s voice heard in Europe, a continent they both think should return to its Christian roots. They’ve met in the past, including when Kirill visited Benedict at the Vatican in his former role as “foreign minister” of the Russian church. They haven’t yet held a summit meeting, so to speak, but religion reporters in Europe keep waiting for signs they will finally set a date for their first top-level talks. The Russians aren’t the only Orthodox in the game, but their size gives them a kind of veto power that has to be considered in this equation. The Vatican has good relations with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul and the new Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej has invited the pope to Belgrade.