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Looking Eastward

by Charles A. Coulombe

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  • Description:
    Is there hope for a Catholic-Orthodox reunion? Charles Coulombe attempts an answer and expresses the hope that true unity will grow between genuine believers in the East and West as the world grows ever more secular.
  • Larger Work:
    New Oxford Review
  • Pages: 28-33
  • Publisher & Date:
    New Oxford Review Inc., November 2003

As related earlier ("An Anglo-Catholic Tale," NEW OXFORD REVIEW, Feb. 2003), much of my teenage years were spent in the San Fernando Valley of California, at that time (the mid-70s) a religious and cultural wasteland. Apart from the outlets described in that article, another appeared; I discovered the Easter Rites of the Church, and the Orthodox Churches.

My father, Guy, first stimulated my interest in this area, as in so many others. His tales of valiant Christians maintaining their faith and traditions under Muslim and Communist domination fired the imagination. My freshman year at Daniel Murphy High School (during our last year in Hollywood, before the move north to suburbia) resulted in the discovery, in that school's library, of Donald Attwater's classic two-volume study, The Christian Churches of the East. Up to this point, my knowledge of these matters was all theoretical.

This changed in 1976, when I discovered St. Andrew's Russian Catholic Church in El Segundo, Calif. Its pastor, Fr. Feodor Wilcock, SJ., came from an old Lancashire Recusant family. The last of his clan of gentry, Fr. Wilcock had answered the call of the Holy Father to enter the Russicum in 1922, when the supply of Russian Catholic priests ran out (thanks to Lenin's agents). Sent to Russia with an American companion, he was speedily seized; as a British subject, he was expelled - his colleague vanished into the gulag, never to return. Fr. Wilcock was then sent to run a school and parish in Shanghai, China, among the Russian refugees. He was interned with his flock by the Japanese during World War II; he then fled with them after the fall of the city to the Chinese Communists in 1949; successively they went to the Philippines and Brazil. In 1956 he was transferred to New York, where he founded the John XXIII Russian Center at Fordham University. In 1971 he had come to St. Andrew's to offer the Funeral Liturgy for its pastor; to his surprise, many of the parishioners were old members of his congregation from Shanghai. At their request he was reassigned, and remained there until his death in 1983.

This was the man who became my confessor after the incapacitation of James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, who had had that dubious honor up to that point. From Fr. Wilcock I learned firsthand the beauties of the Byzantine Rite; I also learned about the Episcopi Vagantes, but that is another story. At any rate, given the state of the Latin Rite, my visits to St. Andrew's were stops at an oasis. In subsequent years, thanks to the cosmopolitan nature of southern California, I've been able to assist at Ruthenian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian, Chaldean, Coptic, and Malankaran Catholic liturgies.

These experiences have left their trace on my prayer life: When I try to employ my five senses in meditating on the Blessed Sacrament, they come back vividly. Sight, of course, brings the elevation of the Host and pictures of the Holy Grail to mind; hearing evokes the strains of Panis Angelicus and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; smell conjures incense; and touch the feel of wooden pews. But taste will always be given over to the crouton-soaked-in-wine texture of Byzantine Communion.

So it is that matters Eastern will always claim my attention. I have spent my time with many an Eastern Catholic, and many an Orthodox. It has certainly struck me that ecumenism, properly defined, must have the reconciliation of the entire East with Rome as its aim. Whatever one thinks of the gatherings at Assisi and such like doings, one can only applaud John Paul II's efforts in this regard. Certainly, relations between Rome and certain of the Eastern Patriarchates have never been so warm. The handing over of churches in Rome and Ravenna to the Patriarch of Constantinople were noble gestures to be sure; certainly, the Pope's 1999 visit to Romania was an unmitigated triumph. (As a side note, on that occasion I was delivering a lecture at the National Art Museum in Bucharest, situated in that city's Royal Palace. At its conclusion, none of us was allowed to leave, because the Pope was offering the Mass immediately outside; since then it has been my boast that I was held prisoner by John Paul II in the Romanian Royal Palace!)

But one grave risk in this ecumenism is the apparent betrayal of the Eastern Catholics, best known in the West as "Uniates." The heirs of past partial reunions, these folk have withstood much oppression at the hands of Communists and Orthodox. In Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, they still face harassment.

But worse still is harassment at the hands of the clergy (something their Latin brothers are familiar with). In days gone by, this consisted of forced Latinization; so bad did this become that successive pontiffs, starting with Benedict XIV, forbade it under pain of excommunication. Today, however, hapless Eastern layfolk in many places face just as odious a forced "de-Latinization."

Part of this is a result (especially in North America) of sending candidates for the priesthood to Orthodox seminaries; other portions of this program stem from the desire of the highest authorities to prove to the Orthodox hierarchs that communion with Rome does not mean a loss of Byzantine heritage. But the problem here lies with lay sensibilities. Among Ukrainians, Ruthenians, and Romanians, for example, many Latin customs have been "inculturated"; thus, iconic Stations of the Cross, use of the Rosary, Latin-style altars (albeit behind iconostasises), devotion to certain Western saints, and the observance (in Byzantine fashion) of such feasts as Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart have sprung up. Since the liberation of the East from Communism, many Eastern Catholic clerics have given themselves over to purging these practices from the life of their churches.

The problem here is twofold. One is that often enough the practices under attack were adopted at lay insistence precisely to show their allegiance to Rome. More deeply, they answered a religious need in the given people. Corpus Christi became popular in the Latin West precisely because the devotion of the people and their realization of the Blessed Sacrament demanded it; so it has happened among those Byzantines who adopted it. To take it from them is clerical hubris of the worst sort. Moreover, the sharing of liturgical and devotional customs—when it is a natural process—inevitably happens among different rites that are in communion with one another. One thinks of how impoverished the Latin Rite would be if it disposed of the Kyrie and the Agios O Theos (of the Good Friday Service), and the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, purely because of their Eastern origins. Their incorporation into the religious life of the West came about because they answered a devotional need; so too Orthodox prize the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified, even though it was composed by Pope St. Gregory the Great.

So too, although the Holy See has permitted Easterners to dispense with the filioque so long as they believe in the doctrine it represents, many Eastern Catholic priests (especially among the Melkites) reject the belief as well as the word - a result of the aforementioned practice of sending them to Orthodox seminaries.

Most obnoxiously, however, there has been little outcry among Catholic "anti-Latinizers" against attempts in North American Byzantine circles to impose lay Eucharistic ministers, and female lectors and altar servers. To date these have foundered upon lay opposition, and little else. The turning around of altars in American Eastern Catholic churches can be placed in the same file.

One must not be too surprised that in Ukraine and elsewhere, a movement has arisen among Eastern Catholics which, rejecting such de-Latinizing alterations, has allied itself in many places with the Society of St. Pius X.

But what about the Orthodox themselves, for whom so much is being done? Well, it must be said of their clergy that a more argumentative bunch would be hard to find. As a rule, Orthodox clerics are quite ingenious for finding causes for battle. They will, inevitably, speak of a deep-seated unity among them which transcends the need for structural unity, as evidenced under the papal "tyranny." But their squabbles are dizzying: "Old Calendarists" versus "New Calendarists," ROCOR versus OCA, Constantinople versus Moscow (most recently over Estonia), to name a few. When one brings up questions of nationality, it gets frightening indeed: The Macedonian Orthodox are recognized by few other Orthodox Churches; the Greek Orthodox in Albania struggle against the Albanian Orthodox; in Ukraine and Belarus, one finds a three-sided struggle between Autonomists, Autocephalists, and Muscovites (and the existence of Ukrainian and Belarus Byzantine Catholics complicates things further).

The Orthodox clergy will claim an unchanging adherence to the Church Fathers, eschewing all post-schism doctrinal development in the West as "innovation." But many, if not most, tend now to equate Orthodoxy with the post-schism teachings of Gregory Palamas, a 14th-century theologian. His speculations on the nature of grace and the light of Mt. Tabor, as well as his system of "Hesychasm," have achieved quasi-dogmatic status in the East.

The Orthodox clergy's knowledge of the Church Fathers is often, to say the least, sketchy. Orthodox charges against the Latins of "legalism" as regards grace would be hard to maintain, for example, if they studied St. John Chrysostom. So too with their critiques of the papacy: The tendency of non-papal Christians to convert after making exhaustive studies of the question in pre-schism Conciliar decrees and Patristic writings is almost proverbial.

Married to this poor theological background is even poorer historical knowledge. Every Orthodox priest I have ever contended with has brought up the sack of Constantinople by Western Crusaders in 1203; almost to a man, however, they have been ignorant of the subsequent excommunication of the leaders of that expedition by Innocent III. No Catholic will deny the grievances suffered by Easterners at the hands of Latins; but amnesia engulfs the Orthodox mind with regard to the reverse. None, for example, seems to remember the kidnapping and abuse of two popes by Emperor Justinian I (a saint in their calendar); by the same token, they do not remember that monarch's seeking forgiveness and subscribing to papal primacy. Equally glossed over is the bloody, forced incorporation of Byzantine Catholics into the Orthodox Church by Tsar Nicholas I and Stalin (the Orthodox, despite their professed hatred of the latter, have been extremely reluctant to return the churches Stalin stole). Nor (although they have canonized him) do they recall the acceptance of that primacy by Constantine XII, last Emperor of the East, or the part papal opponents played in weakening Constantine's position, in the face of the Turkish menace. One recalls the Grand Admiral of the Empire, Lukas Notaras, who declared that he "preferred the turban of the Sultan to the tiara of the Pope." He must have recalled his words bitterly when the conquering Sultan Mohammed ordered him to present his sons as concubines; refusing, Notaras was forced to watch their execution before being put to death himself. One cannot resist contrasting this with the action of Paul VI, who, in hopes of safeguarding Greek lives and property in Turkey during the 1965 Cyprus crisis, returned the banners captured from the Sultan's fleet at Lepanto. For that matter, the same Pontiff gave the head of St. Andrew back to the Orthodox Diocese of Patras.

That same Turkish Sultan, anxious to break the union with Rome, appointed Gennadios II as Patriarch. From that time until 1922, the patriarchs were appointed by the sultans. Our current schism dates not from 1054, but from 1456; it owes its origin not to Pope St. Leo IX and Michael Caerularius, but to the Turks.

Yet this background undergirds the combative spirit earlier referred to. Orthodox controversialists will justify the continuance of the schism, understandably, not by appeal to the authority of the Sultan, but by manufacturing causes. They will cite cultural differences (such as the wearing of beards by clergy, or the use of unleavened bread) as though they were doctrinal. Filioque is of course trumpeted, ignoring past accords on the question. Despite the Eastern origins of the liturgical feasts of the Assumption and Immaculate Conception, because Rome has defined them as dogmas many Eastern theologians have denied them. But the major cathedral in Moscow retains its title of "Cathedral of the Assumption." In recent years, some Orthodox theologians have begun to question the seven-fold number of the Sacraments, claiming that it is a "Western innovation." If the aversion of any respected Orthodox writer to these points is brought up, it will be asserted that said writer was at best "not a theologian," at worst "not truly Orthodox."

My best Russian Orthodox friend (an educated layman) and I were discussing the difference between our two Churches, when he said, "your Church is too intrusive in personal lives." My rejoinder was that, "I suppose you mean about sexual morality. But apart from divorce, there is nothing my Church forbids that yours condones. If you ask any of your priests if abortion, artificial contraception, fornication, or homosexuality is not a sin, they will assert that it is. But they will not preach it to you publicly, out of what can only be called cowardice." To be fair, much the same could be said for many Catholic priests, but even so the average Catholic layman knows the Church's teaching on these points better than his Orthodox brother.

This touches upon a point that is very important for understanding Eastern Orthodoxy. The gap between a primarily schismatic clergy and their laity (despite such noble exceptions as the martyred Fr. Alexander Men) is enormous. Palamasism and the various other delights of the Orthodox theologians are unknown to the majority of Orthodox laity. The words of the Russian Orthodox Vladimir Soloviev a century ago are still true today:

This difficulty [what "Orthodoxy" really is] does not exist for those folk who are really Orthodox in all good conscience and in the simplicity of their heart. When questioned intelligently about their religion, they will tell you that to be Orthodox is to be baptized a Christian, to wear a cross or some holy image on your breast, to worship Christ, to pray to the Blessed Virgin most immaculate and to all the saints represented by images and relics, to rest from work on all festivals and to fast in accordance with traditional custom, to venerate the sacred office of bishops and priests, and to participate in the holy sacraments and divine worship. That is the true Orthodoxy of the Russian people, and it is ours also. But it is not that of our militant patriots. It is obvious that true Orthodoxy contains nothing particularist and can in no way form a national or local attribute separating us in any sense from the Western peoples; for the greater part of these peoples, the Catholic part, has precisely the same religious basis that we have. Whatever is holy and sacred for us is also holy and sacred for them. To indicate only one essential point: not only is devotion to the Blessed Virgin one of the characteristic features of Catholicism - generally practiced by Russian Orthodoxy, but there are even special miraculous images venerated in common by Roman Catholics and Russian Orthodox (for example, the holy Virgin of Czestochowa in Poland). If "piety" is indeed the distinctive characteristic of our national genius, the fact that the chief emblems of that piety are common to us and the Westerns compels us to recognize our oneness with them in what we regard as the most essential thing of all. As regards the profound contrast between the contemplative piety of the East and the active religion of the Westerns, this contrast being purely human and subjective has nothing to do with the divine objects of our faith and worship; so far from being a good reason for schism it should rather bring the two great parts of the Christian world into a closer and mutually complementary union. (Russia and the Universal Church., p. 47)

The truth of this assertion can be seen in the recent flap over the Pope's visit to Greece. At first, the Archbishop of Athens's refusal to accept a papal trip was couched in terms all too drearily familiar to those versed in Orthodox controversy. But, after repeated polls showed that the vast majority of Greeks saw little difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the Archbishop was forced to relent, and co-hosted John Paul II with the Greek government.

Still ringing in my ears as I write this is the conversation I had several years ago with an old Serbian lady. Upon discovering my identity, she posed me several questions. "Mr. Coulombe," she asserted, "when I was a little girl in Serbia, the priests [pronounced with disdainful relish] told us that the Pope was Antichrist. But in the Liturgy, it said that [Pope] St. Leo the Great was head of Church. If he was," she asked, "how could his successor not be?" She continued, "And another thing! The priests say there is no such place as Purgatory! But they pray for the dead! If there is no Purgatory, who are they praying for? The saints in Heaven? They don't need it! The damned in Hell? Don't do them no good! So who are they praying for?"

Here, then, is an important point. The mutual excommunications between pope and patriarch covered only those hierarchs, not their followers; in any case, these were lifted in 1964, when Paul VI met Athenagoras II on the Mount of Olives. So where does that leave us now? It would seem to me that many an Orthodox layman is Catholic in all but name. It would behoove us as Catholics to get to know our long lost Eastern family, both Catholic and Orthodox, as well as we possibly can. Not simply does charity demand this, but our own situation. For a non-schismatically minded Orthodox layman is as much a prisoner of his clergy as many of us Latins are of our own more or less heretically minded clergy. In what way, I wonder, does a Vladimir Soloviev, living under a Russian hierarchy which hated the pope, differ from a Catholic whose cardinal denies Transubstantiation? It is here, perhaps, that real ecumenism may one day take its root.

It could be said that the Great Schism (and for that matter the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies which produced the Lesser Eastern Churches - Nestorian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Indian) owes its roots to clerical pride and jealousy, both Eastern and Western. Hardship and persecution have brought Catholics and the Lesser Churches just named very close in today's Middle East; the same is true to a degree of Eastern Orthodox in those areas. Communism and Islam have done much to break down Eastern pride—certainly the presence of so many KGB or local equivalent personnel among their clergy has made its mark. But without a doubt, neo-Modernism has done the same for the Latins. As the world grows ever more secular and anti-Christian, we may hope that true believers in the East and West will grow ever closer—and from that closeness shall result true unity.


Charles A. Coulombe is a former Contributing Editor of the National Catholic Register. He has written extensively on a wide variety of topics for the Catholic and secular press. He is editor of the book The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers on the Joys of Drinking (Citadel Press, 2002) and author of the newly released book Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes (Citadel Press, 2003).

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