Orthodox-Roman Catholic Dialogue 1995

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Orthodox-Roman Catholic Dialogue
26 November to 6 December, 1995
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Spring 1996]

From 26 November to 6 December 1995, I participated in the annual meeting of the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Bishops, which is a committee made up of representatives of the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) and the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) of the USA. It was the second one of these meetings which I have attended, and it was different from their usual meetings (“usual” meaning three days). Besides the greatly extended length, this time the meeting was convened in Istanbul (Constantinople) at the invitation of His All-Holiness, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I (Archontónis).

We 14 bishops (7 Orthodox, 7 Roman Catholic) first assembled in Rome for some preparation, as well as “courtesy visits”. On Monday we met with two departments of the Vatican which affect the world dialogue with the Orthodox : first, the Undersecretary of State for Relations with States and member of the Permanent Interdicasterial Commission for the Church in Eastern Europe, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran ; and second, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy. We asked questions and were informed of current conditions in both departments, about matters relating to this dialogue. The comments were quite frank and forthright on both sides, and to some extent resulted in a clarification of the territory of the dialogue. In other words, points of agreement and disagreement were set out more clearly.

On Tuesday, we visited the Pontifical Oriental Institute, near the basilica of Saint Mary Major. The Institute is an important centre for graduate study and research in matters dealing with the so-called “eastern” Church (its library is very rich indeed). Then we were all received by Pope John Paul II, who encouraged us to keep talking. Afterward the bishops were taken through the excavations under Saint Peter's Basilica, archaeological digs about which I read a few years ago. The best part of this was that were taken as close as is possible without touching, to what are most probably the bones of the Apostle Peter. As always, at that time and other similar times, I carry all my beloved brothers and sisters with me in my heart. And if my heart does not deceive, I perceived the blessing of being at least near the Apostle.

On Wednesday we flew to Constantinople and were almost immediately received by Patriarch Bartholomew. He likewise encouraged the progress of the dialogue. Afterward, we attended Great Vespers at the Phanar (where the Patriarch's residence and offices are), and then on Thursday we attended the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Apostle Andrew, the patron of the Church of Constantinople. It has become customary for many years now for a delegation from Rome to attend this feast, and so Cardinal Cassidy with several other bishops were amongst those assembled. (On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Patriarch also sends a delegation to Rome). Later there was a state reception at the Patriarchate.

Finally on Friday, after this long introduction, we began the process of the official dialogue, which took place in several instalments. This session of the dialogue took place at the Phanar. Our dialogue consisted, as is the usual pattern with this committee, in hearing papers presented on appropriate topics by either side, and hearing also a formal response by the other side, and then discussion. The main aim at present is to see better where we agree, where we disagree, and to try to understand why. Resolving the differences is quite another matter.

After the first session of dialogue, we visited the Patriarch of the Armenians in Turkey, Karekin II (Nersessian), and over tea had a pleasant talk with him and some of his staff and faithful. After that we had the singular blessing of visiting the Monastery of the Life-giving Fountain (Zoodochos Pighi), and of drinking water from the spring. Within the confines of this monastery, which is not far from the Theodosian Walls, are the tombs of many of the Constantinopolitan patriarchs. It is also important to know that the sign of this Monastery's Spring is remembered every Bright Friday in Pascha week.

The dialogue resumed early Saturday morning at our hotel. Once again there were papers, responses and lively discussion. Then in the afternoon we were taken briefly to the Topkapi Museum (formerly a palace of the Sultan), and there saw relics of the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of the Lord, John. It was not pleasant seeing these relics on display in a secular museum. Then we went to the museum Church of Holy Peace (Saint Irene) where the Second Ecumenical Council met, and then the museum Cathedral of Holy Wisdom (Saint Sophia), which is truly awesome. But so is Saint Irene in a smaller way.

On Sunday, we attended the first Liturgy served by one of the new metropolitans, and later the Orthodox bishops met privately to discuss some matters. Then on Monday we all went by boat to the island of Halki (about one hour away in the Sea of Marmora) to visit the Holy Trinity Monastery, and the now closed famous seminary, and its library. We held our final session of dialogue on Halki.

On Tuesday, there was some free time, which I spent with our Father Pierre (Vachon) of our skete at Saint Eusebius in Québec, who is spending the winter on Mount Athos. He sends his love to all. Then in the evening the bishops went to the city of Chalcedon on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, and attended Vespers for the feast of Saint Nicholas. It was in Chalcedon, but in a church now destroyed, that the Fourth Ecumenical Council met. On Wednesday, 6 December, we attended Liturgy for the Feast of Saint Nicholas in a church on the Bosphorus, and then it was time to begin the trip home, with an overnight stay in Rome. It was certainly a long time to be away, and the trip was not without its difficulties. But as always, the Lord has ways of bestowing blessings in the midst of difficulties, and it is important to recognise them.

There are some who believe that I in particular and we in general should not participate in such dialogues as this. From time to time I hear about it, and there are also those who write about it. I want to respond by saying that not participating is more dangerous than participating. The reason I say this has to do with motivations. Why not participate ? The reasons given are usually that we Orthodox will either simply be eaten up, or the bishops will give everything away and sell us all. This is an attitude of fear and cynicism. What has this negative attitude to do with the Gospel ? The Gospel of Jesus Christ compels us toward unity in reconciliation. But it is not unity at any price, and it is not reconciliation by conquest, because that is neither unity nor reconciliation. Our participation in this dialogue hopes for both unity and reconciliation, but it must be found only in the Truth which is Jesus Christ, and therefore an honest and true unity and reconciliation.

Regardless of statements which are excessively generous and optimistic, the process will take time and care. The separation did not come instantly, and neither will reconciliation. And so we talk. We talk, so that we can hope to begin to understand each other. We talk, so that we can overcome the past mistakes of falling into the passions of hatred and retribution. We talk, so that we can begin in all honesty and without fear to discuss seriously and openly what separates us, and to find the honest and true ways according to the will of God which can bring us again to true unity in Christ. The very least we could do is to come to a better understanding. The very best would be to achieve true healing. And I ask you to pray for me that I will not make any mistakes !