Patriarch's remarks not so ecumenical

October 31, 1997|By Mike McManus

CARDINAL William H. Keeler could not have been more gracious in his welcome of the titular head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to the first Roman Catholic cathedral of America, the Basilica of the Assumption.

Baltimore's cardinal recalled participating in services in 1965 in Rome where the excommunications between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in the year 1054 were ''erased from the memory.''

And he noted the fruit of decades of dialogue -- many agreements between the two faiths on the Eucharist, the Holy Trinity, the sacraments and even on the structure of the church.

Bartholomew's response was curiously distant and vague: ''Our present spiritual situation is not yet perfected in a common faith.'' At Catholic Georgetown University, he was expected to respond to the pope's letter, ''Light of the East,'' in which John Paul expressed the hope that the world's two largest Christian bodies, which split 900 years ago, will reconcile by the year 2000.

The patriarch bluntly said the separation between Orthodox and Catholics was not simply geographic or organizational, but ''something deeper and more substantive.''

As faces wrinkled in puzzlement, he seemed to say that only Orthodox have the true faith ''propagated from generation to generation . . . like the circulation of the sap of life from the tree to the branch, from the body to the member, from the church to the believer.''

In a slap at papal infallibility, he said the Orthodox do not need ''a dogmatic description of the Lord and his Body the Church,'' because the church as a whole protects the Orthodox ''from deception,'' not by ''intellectual teachings'' of an ''evil opponent of man.'' The church, ''like a good shepherd, hurries to guide the faithful toward right glory.''

The patriarch claimed his position ''does not lend itself to systematic analysis,'' because it can ''be understood only spiritually.'' Western Christians won't get it.

And in a chilling sentence, he added, ''Concerning those that have freely chosen to shun the correct glory of God, the Orthodox Church follows the Apostle Paul's recommendation, which is, 'A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition, reject.' ''

It sounded as if he were calling Catholics heretics, which was shocking. Newsweek headlined its story, ''Friends, Brothers, Heretics.''

Embarrassed leaders

American Orthodox leaders were embarrassed. Prof. John Erickson of St. Vladimir's Seminary said Bartholomew's remarks were ''mystifying, rather hostile, magnifying the differences between the Orthodox and Catholics.''

In New York, the patriarch said he was proud of the Orthodox's ''rich association'' with the largely Protestant National Council of Churches, which has brought together many churches ''restoring not only our visible unity, but our spiritual communion.''

But he used the occasion to denounce ''so-called missionaries'' from the West who proselytize among the Russian Orthodox.

After suffering for generations of persecution from Russia's atheist leaders, Orthodox leaders ''had expected the prayers, the support and encouragement of their ecumenical partners,'' he said. ''These so-called 'missionaries' claim to be Christians, but they behave as wolves in sheep's clothing.''

Those words suggest why the ''Ecumenical Patriarch'' is not feeling ecumenical these days. Five thousand Protestant missionaries are in Russia, and there are now 300 Protestant churches in Moscow alone; there were only five before the Berlin Wall came down. While the Orthodox claim to have 50 million members, only about 1 percent attend church weekly, probably less than the number attending Protestant churches. Protestant seminaries and Bible institutes have skyrocketed from none in 1989 to 125 at present.

Even Catholics are evangelizing. They have taken back hundreds of churches in Ukraine which were forced under Stalin to become Orthodox. And the pope has appointed bishops in Russia.

This has fueled the Orthodox push for legislation signed recently by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin that outlaws any church which did not exist prior to 15 years ago. That law is now being challenged in the courts.

There is a distinct new Russian winter chill in Catholic-Orthodox relations.

Father Leonid Kishkovsky, the Orthodox former president of the National Council of Churches comments: ''Many Protestant and Catholic are sincere'' in their evangelizing Russia. ''But this is contradictory to building ecumenical relations.''

Mike McManus is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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