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Eastern Theology Has Enriched the Whole Church

by Pope John Paul II

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    Pope John Paul II's Angelus Message, August 11, 1996.
  • Larger Work:
    L'Osservatore Romano
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican Press, August 21, 1996

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

1. Continuing my reflection on Eastern Christianity, today I would like to focus attention on the development of Eastern theology, which, even in the centuries that followed the age of the Fathers and the sad division with the Apostolic See, led to profound and stimulating perspectives at which the whole Church looks with interest. Although there is still disagreement on this point or that, we must not forget that what unites us is greater than what divides us.

An important doctrinal development occurred between the eighth and ninth centuries after the "iconoclast" crisis unleashed by several Byzantine emperors, who decided radically to suppress the veneration of sacred images. Many were forced to suffer for resisting this absurd imposition. St John Damascene and St Theodore the Studite come to mind in particular. The victorious outcome of their resistance proved decisive not only for devotion and sacred art, but also for a deeper understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation. Indeed, in the final analysis the defense of images was based on the fact that God truly became man in Jesus of Nazareth. It is therefore legitimate for the artist to endeavour to portray his face, not only with the aid of his talent, but especially by interior docility to God's Spirit. The images refer to the Mystery that surpasses them, and they help us feel its presence in our life.

2. The hesychast controversy marked another distinctive moment in Eastern theology. In the East, hesychasm means a method of prayer characterized by a deep tranquillity of the spirit, which is engaged in constant contemplation of God by invoking the name of Jesus. There was no lack of tension with the Catholic viewpoint on certain aspects of this practice. However, we should acknowledge the good intentions which guided the defense of this spiritual method, that is, to emphasize the concrete possibility that man is given to unite himself with the Triune God in the intimacy of his heart, in that deep union of grace which Eastern theology likes to describe with the particularly powerful term of "theosis", "divinization".

Precisely in this regard Eastern spirituality has amassed a very rich experience which was vigorously presented in the famous collection of texts significantly entitled Philokalia (love of beauty") and gathered by Nicodemus the Hagiorite at the end of the 18th century. Down the centuries until our day, Eastern theological reflection has undergone interesting developments, not only in the classical areas of the Byzantine and Russian tradition, but also in the Orthodox communities scattered throughout the world. One need only recall, among the many studies worthy of mention, the Theology of Beauty elaborated by Pavel Nikolaievich Evdokimov, which is based on the Eastern art of the icon, and the study of the doctrine of "divinization" by the Orthodox scholar, Loth Borovine.

How many things we have in common! It is time for Catholics and Orthodox to make an extra effort to understand each other better and to recognize with the renewed wonder of brotherhood what the Spirit is accomplishing in their respective traditions towards a new Christian springtime.

3. Let us ask Mary, Mother of Wisdom, to teach us to recognize promptly the infinite expressions of God's presence in the history of mankind. May she help us to concentrate on the positive rather than the negative, and to use all the creativity of mutual understanding for engaging in fruitful dialogue, even on points where differences remain. For this reason, may the Holy Spirit grant us the wisdom of heart so dear to Eastern spirituality and essential to any genuinely Christian experience.

I am pleased to welcome all the English-speaking visitors who have joined us for this Angelus prayer. May these summer holidays be a time of relaxation and spiritual renewal for you and your families.

Today, as we remember St Clare of Assisi, my thoughts turn to the Poor Clares and to all cloistered nuns. I express to them the loftiest esteem which the Christian community has for this kind of life, "a sign of the exclusive union of the Church as Bride with her Lord, whom she loves above all things" (Apostolic Exhortation Vita consecrata, n. 59). By offering themselves to Jesus for the world's salvation, they represent "a joyful proclamation and prophetic anticipation of the possibility offered to every person and to the whole of humanity to live solely for God in Christ Jesus" (ibid.). They therefore deserve my gratitude and that of the whole Church, and an encouragement to persevere faithfully in the cloistered life according to their specific charism.

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