Progress in dialogue with Catholics, says Ecumenical Patriarchate

Thanks be to God!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Metropolitan Ioannis, co-chairman of the joint commission, talks to AsiaNews about the importance of the discussion with regard to the Pope’s role in the Church. The row caused by the Moscow Patriarchate is an “expression of authoritarianism” so that the Russians are isolated once again.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – The results of the latest talks by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches held in Ravenna (Italy) were definitely positive, this according to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamon, one of Commission’s two co-chairs with Card Walter Kasper, expressed a similar opinion in talking to AsiaNews, thus confirming the positive assessment already made by the Holy See.

Ioannis’ statement comes on the eve of another meeting between Benedict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, scheduled for Naples (Italy) where the Pope will be on a pastoral visit and where the Patriarch will be receive an honorary degree and be made an honorary citizen of Amalfi.

Ioannis, who played a key role in all the activities according to everyone present at Ravenna, including Catholics, said that the final paper from that meeting on collegiality and authority in the Church was unanimously approved and will be the basis for future sessions of the Unity Commission.

Mgr Eleuterio Fortino, under-secretary at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Vatican Radio that the experts had started to discuss “an issue that is essential to the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, a difficult issue,” explaining that “we’re starting to study in detail the evolution of the role of the Bishop of Rome in the Church.”

According to Ioannis, removing any reference to Church unity in the first millennium, which defined the Pope’s role as that of ‘co-operator’ whilst that of the patriarchs as ‘consenting,’ was one of the most important decisions taken. This was done to avoid differing interpretations by the two ecclesiologies, Western and Eastern; the first centred on the fact that the Pope prevails over others; the second which focuses on greater equality” among Church leaders.

“In the Eastern Church, the primacy goes to Constantinople,” he said; “not in terms of power but in terms of initiative and coordination. For the first time, the term primus was used, the meaning it held in the tradition of the first millennium, always within the synodal context.”

For the Orthodox, the conclusions reached by the Commission “were so important that they overshadowed the pullout by the Russian delegation,” due to the presence of the Estonian Apostolic Church, which Moscow does not recognise.

“We should remember that the issue goes back to 1996 when the Ecumenical Patriarchate in response to a demand by the Estonian Church recognised its autonomy which it had in 1923 and which was forcibly suppressed in 1945 by the Soviet army,” Ioannis explained.

“Despite the agreement with Constantinople reached in 1996 in Zurich and Berlin, the Moscow Patriarchate refuses to acknowledge the autonomy of the Estonian Church until the latter returns property belonging to Russian parishes. Constantinople has tried to mediate, but the Estonian government has refused on constitutional grounds. Thus the issue remains unresolved.”

A statement by Bishop Hilarion to the Interfax news agency best illustrates how deep the cleavage is. In it he questions the “legitimacy” of the conclusions reached in Ravenna since his patriarchate was absent. He said that Moscow “alone has more members than all the other Orthodox Churches combined.”

“Hilarion’s tough stance should be seen as an expression of authoritarianism whose goal is to exhibit the influence of the Moscow Church,” said Ioannis. “But like last year in Belgrade, all Moscow achieved was to isolate itself once more since no other Orthodox Church followed its lead, remaining instead faithful to Constantinople.”


Thoughts on the Priesthood

S-P, faithful fan of this blog (also a good man and a friend from when I lived in California), has a very insightful comment in “Parish Life Redux.” The whole of what he, wrongly I think, describes as a rant is certainly worth reading and I reproduce it here:

Forgive my upcoming rant here, but my 36 years of experience with clergy of all Christian expressions has been that, while they view themselves as “leaders”, they are well defended emotionally and psychologically for all manner of reasons, and all of which amounts to they seek intimacy based on the illusion of connection to parishoners based on intellectual discussion and being perceived as a “guru” purely on the basis of the “grace of the collar” (translate that: authority , strength and honor) and not a true personal transparency and openness which they expect from their constituents in the confessional.

He continues:

It is a rare pastor who truly leads through humility, vulnerability, struggle and a persona of compunction and repentance. This is not ONLY a clerical issue, but a human one. Unfortunately many men enter the priesthood to work out personal issues of “manhood”, acceptance, codependence, authority and control issues and these common male issues are magnified through the office of the priesthood. I know this sounds cynical, but it is the reality I’ve encountered (I must say here, even in myself as a protestant minister when I was a younger man). I do not despise the priests or the priesthood; I truly have a great deal of compassion and sadness for men who are trapped in themselves and for whom the priesthood ends up reinforcing their dysfunctions rather than being an arena for their healing and maturity. A priest who is perceived as vulnerable and humble will have a parish that will struggle WITH [him] as they struggle [together] to mature. If [priests] are merely sacramental dispensers, theological reference manuals, professional homilists, and confessional advisors they will have little compassion from their flock when they show any signs of weakness or failure. End of rant. I now return you to your regularly scheduled blogospherical programming.

Thank you for your observations, these are powerful, and true words. You are in the main correct I think.

Where I might have a slightly different thought is this: Even when men enter the priesthood from an authentic sense of vocation (and this is itself a problematic assumption), there remains the underlying psychological dynamics that you articulate. An indifference or ignorance of these darker, but very real, motivations is irresponsible. It is, I fear, very much the norm for the reasons you offer; we draw our seminary faculty from a group of men in which a fleeing from the self is common, if not the norm.

And you are correct, this is not simply a struggle for priests or clergy of other ranks and traditions. It is rather the common human struggle. “No tree,” Jung says, “reaches up to heaven, unless its roots first reach down to hell.” Too many people come to the Orthodox Church, and other religious traditions or political movements, to avoid the painful truth of their own lives. And if the priest himself is also so inclined, if he desire to submerge himself in the office of priest, well, he will like not only attract those who wish to do the same, he will actively promote this agenda.

This is certainly something I have seen in a number of parishes. It is so much easier to be “Greek,” or “Russian,” or “a convert,” then to be myself. Looking at the broad expanse of Orthodoxy in America, I can help but see those hyper-ethnic Orthodox Christians and super-correct Orthodox Christians, as simply two sides of the same coin.

We have turned Holy Tradition, and all those small “t” traditions, into ends in themselves.

And S-P you have diagnosed one major reason why we do so: We are fleeing from self-knowledge, and therefore repentance. In place of self-knowledge, we favor a purely formal attachment to Tradition (or traditions).

At the risk of showing my own psychoanalytic leanings, this attachment to externals is where people get all the energy the expend in defending “Holy Orthodoxy” or “How we’ve always done things.” Energy that should go to self-knowledge instead is channeled in defending the self from, well, the self. Puncture this feedback loop, which is often older than the person and represents generations of stagnation, and you risk an explosion.

S-P is correct, the priest must lead by the example of his own “humility, vulnerability, struggle and a persona of compunction and repentance.” Doing this will mean a crucifixion for the priest as it would for anyone who takes seriously Christ’s command to take up the Cross and follow Him.

For myself, I am troubled by how easy it is to write these words, or say them in a sermon, and how hard it is to actually live them day to day. And I am tempted to say that the crucifixion that these words announce should only be internal or come from the world and not be public and from other Christians.

But this of course is to perpetrate my own fraud.

Christ dies publicly and at the hands of His Own People. There was, and is, simply no one else to make His Cross, or mine, then the People of God. This being the case, I think the priest is called to be not only a man of prayer, but of courage, prudence and discernment. There will be times when the cross he is called to carry, the cross on which he is called to hang, is not one that he must passive acceptance, but rather is one he makes for himself as the result his active confrontation of human sinfulness.

In this confrontation the priest, must be mindful of his own sins and yet not paralyzed by this knowledge. He cannot hold back, he must identify the sins of others knowing full well that he has now joined a battle above all with his own sinfulness. And as he fights dethrone sin in the lives of those he is called to serve, he will find himself tempted to inaction by the memory of his own sinfulness. This is his real cross.

And here, S-P, is the heart of the matter, in the Church (ike the world in which we live and to which we have acquiesced) is held in the grip of false humility. Following from this is a falsification, or maybe more accurately, distortion, of the Christian virtues that ought to flow from humility.

The priest, and the whole Church, would do well to listen to on this issue to G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

We have neglected the Truth of the Gospel, we have reduced its proclamation to a mere formality. And so, necessarily, we neglect to love each other in anything other than words. We have become so falsely humble that we can’t go forward.

And this leaves all of us, and especially priests, as you say, “trapped in themselves . . . the priesthood [merely] reinforcing their dysfunctions rather than being an arena for their healing and maturity.” But it doesn’t need to be this way.

Again thank you S-P and everyone who offers comments here.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Protoevangelium of Abbott & Costello

Back in the day, we could be funny without being crude, humiliating, or mean spirited. I think that, as part of the Church’s evangelistic work, it would be good to show folks Abbott & Costello and other entertainers (singers, comedians, etc.) and movies. While not always great art, and certainly not always morally uplifting, there is much from back in the day that gives us a sense of the dignity of the human person.

In their own way, I think Abbott & Costello represent a gentle, but real, Protoevangelium, a preparation for the Gospel that we need to recapture.

Hit tip: Suicide of the West.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thoughts on Parish Life-Redux

Thank you one and all for your comments. I find the feedback very helpful in clarifying my own thinking on the issues I post on.

Thinking about what has been said, I don’t disagree with anything that has been posted. Reading through the comments, as I said above, leads me to rephrase my thoughts this way:

Yes, people need to be called to repentance. The real question is not should the preacher call us to repentance, but how can he do so effectively? And for that matter, what is an effective call to repentance?

Simply offering a list of sins is, I think, less then helpful. First of all any such list will invariably fall short of being a complete catalogue of the moral failings of a significant portion of the congregation. As a result, these lists tend to “privilege” some sins as more important and other as less so. Typically this list works itself out as a list of sins that “they” have, but not “us.”

For myself, I see no value in my being convinced of your sinfulness but not convicted of my own.

Second, I think care needs to be taken least, in our willingness to condemn sin, we lay on a hearer a burden they cannot carry. Often real repentance requires understanding of not only the objective significance of my actions, but more importantly my own subjective motivations in participating in these behaviors, thoughts, or attitude. Especially in hearing confessions I have come to realize that the sin the person confesses is almost always only the symptom of the illness. Getting to the root of the symptom is what is necessary for real and lasting healing.

Third, a friend of mine is a Southern Baptist preacher (he offered to license me to preach in the Southern Baptist Convention, but I digress). He told me one time that Southern Baptists like nothing better than a sermon that makes them feel bad about themselves. The worse they feel about themselves, so he told me, the better they feel about Jesus. For myself I am loath to participate in this kind of dynamic–it is too much like sadomasochism for my comfort.

There are other reasons for avoiding a catalogue of since. But none of these reasons means that preachers ought not to offer the moral and spiritual guidance that leads to repentance. But a sermon is a limited and–owing to the need to reach a fairly diverse group of listeners–a clumsy tool for the delicate work of directly fostering a repentant heart.

Imagine if you will the response on a direct and frank sermon on sexual morality in the typical Orthodox congregation. Do you really want me preaching against masturbation, fornication, adultery, contraception, sodomy and divorce in the presence of your children?

Probably not.

Over the years I have begun to appreciate the strengths and limitations of the sermon as a tool for education, spiritual formation, and Christian discipleship. It is a rookie mistake, as the example above illustrates, to present in a sermon (which is essentially a monologue, even if it evokes reflection on the part of those who hear it) information or topics that are really best addressed in a dialog. Some topics require the give and take of conversation. A dialog for these topics is best since this allows for the asking and answering of and questions so that we can, together, grasp the Truth of the Gospel on this subject.

If I present one of these subjects in a sermon and the BEST I can hope for is to bore people. More probably I will simply upset and anger them.

Been there. Done that. Read the book. Saw the movie. Bought the T-shirt.

Taking into account the limits of the sermon, what are actual topics of moral and spiritual guidance that can be offered from the pulpit (or in my case, standing in the midst of the congregation–I don’t like pulpits, too much like hiding, but I again digress)?

The sermon needs to be basically positive in content. The preacher is most effective in calling people to repentance by presenting a compelling, and obtainable, vision of the Christian life. It is within this context that he can present personally challenging information to his listeners. He does so not in terms of blame, but in gently but firmly pointing out that certain behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes undermine our living the vision he’s outlined while other behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes making that way possible or at least more likely.

Approached this way the sermon or homily becomes a “light in the darkness,” rather than a simple, and pointless, condemnation of human sinfulness. In my own spiritual life at least I have come to realize that simply looking at my own sinfulness and shortcomings cause me to give up and tempts me to despair. Likewise a vision too exalted, too far beyond my grasp, cause me to give up. Again, to despair.

The challenge for the preacher is to hold out to his listeners the next step on the ladder of divine ascent. “Moses went no faster,” or so I have been told, “then the slowest Israelite.”

It requires a fair amount of practice and knowledge of human nature in general and of the congregation in particular for the preacher to strike the right balance. This is why the effective preacher, is an the effective pastor in my view who focuses his time and energy in getting to know the people in his congregation. He can do this by hearing confessions, conversations with people at coffee hour, leading discussion groups rather than using a lecture format, and visiting people in their homes.

Focusing on a positive vision for Christian living I think is a better plan for success then any I’ve found. Pastors need to get out of the pulpit and get to know the men, women and children in their congregation. It is also good to get to know the wider community within which the congregation is situated–but that will have to wait for another day.

Again, thank you for your comments. As always your observations, questions and criticism are most welcome and always helpful.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

My ESBVM Paper

I have uploaded my recent presentation to the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a pdf. You can download it by clicking here:

My hope is to submit this for publication and so I retain the copy write for the work whole and in part. If you are interested in reproducing some or all of the paper, please ask my permission before you do so. Thank you.

As always, your comments are actively sought and most welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

How Vulnerable is Your Life?

I especially like the quote from Hank William’s at the end.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

From Fr Stephen’s most excellent blog, Glory to God for All Things:

Young parents quickly discover a level of vulnerability they had not known before a child came into their world. With the birth of a child, under most normal circumstances, your heart becomes extremely vulnerable. You discover that you’ve never loved anything so much and the fragility of their lives becomes, sometimes, all too obvious. I’m not certain that this sense of fragility stops even after their grown and no longer fit the description of “child” any longer.

The vulnerability, of course, is that of love. We live in a dangerous world. I can recall standing at a bus stop every morning of my youngest daughter’s early school years because the idea of letting a beautiful young child stand next to a busy street seemed insane to me. Some mornings it was awfully cold. But we’d play games and wait for the bus and I would watch my heart pull away in that large yellow vehicle. Happy again, that we had warded off so many dangers.

That this same daughter, as a teen, today drives an old Volvo, doubtless has much to do with her father’s vulnerability. It’s my heart.

Most of the things that are truly precious to us have a characteristic vulnerability: a child, an aging parent, a spouse, etc. It is also properly true of the Church. Though its existence is underwritten by the promise of heaven, its dependence on love makes it daily vulnerable to all of man’s worst instincts. On any given day we either love each other and take up our cross, or the Church, that marvelous Bride of God, is wounded and hurt. Something fails and hearts are wounded, and disappointed. God has not made us immune to the Cross but has required it of us in our journey into the Kingdom.

But neither you nor I need drive the nails that bind one another to the Cross. We need not speak ill words or offer harsh judgments or crush dimly burning wicks. Today, be St. John the Theologian who stood by the Cross (as did the Mother of God). Offer words of encouragement to brothers and sisters. Offer no word of offence or gloat at another’s suffering.

There is a line from an old Hank Williams song, that always makes me weep (I’m from the South, you know). It reads:

He was Mary’s own darlin’, he was God’s chosen Son
Once He was fair and once He was young
Mary, she rocked Him, her darlin’ to sleep
But they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.

That same darlin’ dwells in each brother and sister you meet today. Let your heart be vulnerable to them. Don’t leave them like a tramp on the street.

Fifth Sunday of Luke (Luke 16:19-31)

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell[a] from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'”

[ Editor’s note: St John Chrysostom preached with great frequency on the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Selections from these sermons have been published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press in the book On Wealth and Poverty. Given the wealth of insight from Chrysostom on the parable, I am disinclined to try my hand at even beginning to summarize what he says abou the Gospel text. The Acton Institute has published selections from Chrysostom’s sermons available on their blog page: Readings on Church and Poverty. Just scroll down to Week 2 to find St John’s work. These quotations do a much better job then I could of explicating the economic implications of this parable. Read St John Chrysostom, and he will explain to you the thorny questions surrounding wealth and poverty. My own concern here is more modest.]

At any given moment of my life I am either Lazarus, sitting in need at my neighbor’s door, or the rich man who ignores my needy neighbor. Mark my words carefully: I am not Lazarus, I am not the rich man. Rather I am both of them and so I vacillate between acknowledging my need and the illusion of my own abundance. In the parable, Jesus Who sees more clearly then I do, is able to make these men distinct from one another. And by that very clarity He reveals me to myself as both men.

For this reason I war within myself as St Paul says:

Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin (Romans 17: 13-25).

Unlike Lazarus, I do not accept my own poverty, my own need. I imagine myself to be the rich man, the man who is sufficient in himself and in need of no one.

But when I do that I condemn myself twice over.

First, I am condemned because I deny that my life is not mine, but the gift of God that makes me possible. I do not own my own life, my own existence. It comes to me from outside and in fact it is only that Which is outside of me that makes me possible. Try as I might, I can never grasp my own life, it comes to me, as it does to everyone, as a free gift from God or not at all.

When I refuse to acknowledge that my life is a gift, that I am a needy being who owns nothing not even himself, and imagine that I am sufficient, that what I possess is really and truly mine, I condemn myself again.

If what I own is really mine, if nothing external to my own will and desire constrains me, what excuse do I have for my lack of generosity, my unwillingness to sacrifice or to care for my needy neighbor? If I really believe that I am rich, if I really believe that am self-sufficient, and yet still do nothing, I reveal myself to be a rather miserable and petty little godling.

If I really possess myself fully, then I possess all things and nothing I give away can ever diminish me. And this makes me much worse then the rich man in the parable. He at least would suffer a small loss in caring for Lazarus. But if I am really self-sufficient, if I am really wholly independent of God, my neighbor and possessions, if I am really never in need, then, unlike the widow in the Gospel, I can never give from my substance–anything I give, I give will always be from my abundance since abundance is all that I have.

And so I find myself much worse then the rich man in the parable. He at least had the lame excuse of fear, what excuse do I have who imagine himself to need nothingthing from my neighbor?

In the Gospel, the rich man could look at Lazarus and see himself if only faintly. Even if he never did anything with his sympathy, even if that weak communion with Lazarus never moved him to action, he at least made that stillborn movement toward his neighbor. He compassion is ineffectual both for Lazarus and his brothers who he leaves in this life. But while the compassion is fruitless, it is at least there.

The rich man in the parable is a barren fig tree. but I am even less than that when I deny my own poverty. I am Lazarus laying at not only the Gate of Heaven, but at my neighbor’s gate as well, begging for the scraps that fall from the heavenly and earthly tables. Poor and needy Lazarus is taken by angels to Heaven to which he always reached. His need was denied again and again by the rich man, but Lazarus never despairs of Heaven’s mercy. His neighbor’s indifference never makes Lazarus bitter or indifferent to whatever small mercy he might receive in this life. He is even willing to accept the ministrations of dogs and in this he becomes for us a distressing figure of Christ Who nourishes us with His own Body and Blood.

The whole of the parable, like the whole of the Christian life, revolves around mercy.

Do I offer mercy?

Or am I, like the rich man, unwilling to give even from my surplus?

Will I accept mercy?

Lazarus in his humility did, even if the only mercy he received in this life was from dogs licked his sores.

The rich man within me, as St Paul suggests, war against my ever acknowledging that I am Lazarus, that I am poor and in need. My need is so great that even the Infinite God cannot it seems fill me. Or maybe more accurately, my need is so great that God, in His mercy and humility, allows me to take comfort not simply in Him, but in my neighbor as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory