"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch


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Friday, 27 May 2016


On Idolatry – G.K. Chesterton
On Idolatry – G.K. Chesterton

“Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.” – G.K. Chesterton

I wrote on this phrase back in 2014, when the conversational climate was not as bad as it is today. Just two years ago, I wrote on this passage and related it to how we relate to and address believers with whom we disagree. I still clearly see that the issue needs to be addressed. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kyril met in Havana. Before they had even met, one could already see blogs and Facebook postings from Orthodox believers pontificating (pun intended) about how nothing could happen unless the Roman Catholic Church acquiesces to every one of their points. Notice that I did not say that the Romans would acquiesce to every one of the Orthodox Church points; I said to every one of their points. This is because this is actually their opinion. In some postings that I have read, I could not agree with what the posters blithely define as essential to be Orthodox. More than one poster would actually be excluding some of their fellow Orthodox by what they insist is essential, let alone Roman Catholics!

It would not be so bad if they pontificated about their opinion. But, they write as though there is somewhere a settled body of agreement among the Orthodox as to what it would take to allow the Roman Catholic Church to be one with us. There is no such body of settled doctrine or agreement. There are various canons that point in certain directions, and there are various doctrines to which the Orthodox unequivocally point and state are essential. But, there are other areas that are nowhere near settled. The issue of leavened and unleavened bread was never settled before the final split. Yes, the Orthodox state that the Quinisext Council is Ecumenical because the Sixth Ecumenical Council said so. The only problem is that the Patriarch of Rome and his bishops never agreed to all of the clauses. In fact, it is well recorded that when the three delegates returned, their signature was rejected by the Pope. And, bread is not the only issue. There is the issue of portraying Jesus as a Lamb, the issue of statues versus icons, etc. For those who think that those are issues on which Rome would yield, given that they neveryielded on those issues, I will simply say that they will not. More than that, despite what the Quinisext Council said, on those issues I will argue that, despite Orthodox claims, the failure of the Church of the West to accept those canons means that our claim that they are Ecumenical may be more wishful thinking than either historically or theologically accurate.

But, should there come to be an actual possibility of reunion, those are issues that will be settled by the Church through her bishops, and not by one or another bishop, or one or another website, or one or another blog post. Sadly, I fear that if such is ever the case, there would promptly be a split by those claiming to be “true” Orthodox while at the same time acting as though Orthodox ecclesiology means little to them. They will cite the saints: Athanasius and Valentine and Ignatius and John of Damascus, etc., while managing to ignore the fact that even the great warriors for truth did not leave the Church, but stayed faithful to her even when it seemed as though the majority were against them. That faithfulness worked, for the Holy Spirit was with them, and their enemies were not able to charge them with being schismatic. When sent into exile, they fled not but quietly went, while continuing to argue their point. Not so the various who are already writing about how they would leave the Church should there ever be rapprochement.

And it is here that G.K. Chesterton gives us a pointer. Idolatry uses fear as its weapon. All too often fear is invoked in various of the postings, oh, not all of them, but more than I would like to see. One of the major fear points is the word “ecumenism.” It is bandied about as though everyone knows that ecumenism must be wrong. But, of course, what they mean is that they fear that the Orthodox will give up all their beliefs for the sake of unity. Yet the recent Synod of the Russian Orthodox made it clear that ecumenism is a good thing because it allows us to have contact with those who most need to be exposed to the Truth. The Synod made clear that ecumenism does not mean that we will give up our beliefs, but rather that we will have a platform to engage others in order to communicate Truth. It is an evangelistic view of ecumenism. It is a convenient word for the fearful to use because there are groups who have “dumbed down” the faith in order to try to find an acceptable compromise that will allow everyone to be together. And, there are indeed liberal theologians who use ecumenism as a way to peddle old and discredited heresies, or even some types of paganism. But, the Russian Synod carefully defined ecumenism in such a way that it gave Patriarch Kyril the freedom to meet with Pope Francis without any fear that some unacceptable compromise would come of the meeting. Idolatry sets up ecumenism as a false devil.

But, the hardest proposition for idolatry to accept is the reality that rapprochement with the Catholic Church must include the possibility that we may be shown to be wrong on one point or another. It is true that, as the Church, the Holy Spirit will keep us in the Truth. But, that does not mean that at every minute there is no untruth in the Church. The recent break in communion between the Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem forms a clear example of untruth in the Church. One or the other of the Patriarchates must be wrong, or both may be wrong. But, it is impossible that both are walking in Truth. I had earlier mentioned the Quinisext Council, and the refusal of the West to accept its canons. We cannot so hold a view of the Church that anything and everything that the East has done must be 100% Truth. There are hierarchs, writers, and bloggers whose view is that the Roman Church must completely change itself into an Orthodox Church. But, if we think in human terms, that is as unrealistic a viewpoint as a husband expecting that his wife will admit that she was wrong on every issue before he will forgive her. Anyone counseling the couple will clearly say to them that they both have committed sin against the other, and that there will be no resolution until both parties admit their sin. I am convinced that the same is true between the Orthodox and the Catholic. There has been sin on both sides. We cannot progress until we are willing to admit that possibility. We cannot heal the rift unless all sides come to the table in a spirit of humility.

I agree with the Russian Synod. Properly handled, ecumenism is a force for good. I agree that we are not giving up on our essential doctrines. But, at the same time I agree with the Russian Synod and G.K. Chesterton that all who call upon the name of Jesus are called to be One. There is no other acceptable option save what the Patriarch and the Pope have done, met together and spoken about what may be in the future, and on what things we may work together.

History of a Dialogue
Christiaan Kappes*
Towards a theological reconciliation between East and West

In the annals of history, theological dialogue has been a fairly regular occurrence between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. It is worthwhile to recall that bishops and theologians were often sent from both Rome and Byzantium to enter into theological discussions, especially following the cause célèbre, known as the "Schism of 1054". From that period until present it is true that there were only two "success" stories of a corporate reunion between the two Churches as recorded in the annals of the Catholic Church's biographers. Yet, the principle of the theological dialogue with the Orthodox Church was never in question.

 The first "successful" reunion of Churches was accomplished at the Second Council of Lyons (1274). Tragically, St Thomas Aquinas died on his way to the Council, despite his invitation to attend as a theologian. His fellow doctor, St Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, was perhaps the most notable theologian present. Due to a minimal Greek presence and over-reliance on the will of the Byzantine Emperor, the Union effected by the Council has been commonly described as a "dead letter". No sooner had Emperor Michael VIII returned to Constantinople, than the Greek Church refused en masse to make the Union effectual.

More serious theological debates and overtures were subsequently sponsored by the Byzantine Court at various times following the ineffectual Council of Lyons. These public debates and theological discussions familiarized Latins with Greek Fathers and Synods. The theological exchange was also an occasion for some erudite Greeks to become familiar with and even translate Latin Fathers and Scholastic authors into the Greek idiom. Especially following the translation of St Augustine (De Trinitate) and St Thomas Aquinas (Summa contra Gentiles), Greek theologians began to absorb Latin patristic insights and even Scholastic ideas into their own corpus theologicum during the Palaeologian dynasty. Even famous authors like Gregory Palamas and Mark Eugenicus (two of the three "Pillars of Orthodoxy") employed Latin learning within their own works. Many of these discoveries have escaped even specialists' notice until recent times. At present, there is a burgeoning group of scholars who have dedicated themselves to exploring Latin and Scholastic influences in 14th and 15th century Byzantine theology.

In the early 20th century, Cardinal Joseph Dyčlovskyj wrote an inspiring article noting that — even in the East — the study of St Thomas Aquinas in se has always tended toward Catholic unity. Undoubtedly, there are both philosophical and theological reasons for the Cardinal's thesis. Due to the natural exposition of the universal principles of reasoning and correct thinking as espoused by St Thomas, the Doctor Communis secured for himself the perennial value of his works. Each person, insofar as he is rational, can grasp the fundamental ideas and loci upon which Scholasticism bases its arguments. Secondly, due to St Thomas' profound grasp of Christian doctrine, he was able to reflect the mens Ecclesiae in nearly every major area of importance to the Roman Magisterium. The vast majority of the theological propositions explained and promoted by St Thomas were held in common with Byzantine Orthodoxy. On this score, a former Patriarch of Constantinople, the hand-picked successor of Mark of Ephesus to oppose Florence, wrote: 
"O excellent Thomas would that you had not been born in the West such that you would have need to advocate the differences of that [Roman] Church! You were influenced by it with regard to both the procession of the Holy Spirit as well as by the difference with respect to the divine essence and energy. For surely, then, you would have been infallible in your theological doctrines, just as you are so too inerrant in these matters of ethics (S. Th. Prol., 17-19)"!1
Following Thomas' sweeping influence in Byzantium, a sort of "first Scholasticism" penetrated the confines of the Byzantine East. The list of admirers and imitators of both St Thomas and/or Scholastic method (vel in parte vel in toto) continues to grow as Byzantine theologians of the Medieval and Renaissance period are studied and their sources are uncovered.

It is true that St Thomas' doctrine was a fertile soil that ultimately paved the way for the Council of Florence, but it must also be admitted that he was cause for polemics in Byzantium. The question of St Thomas' intrinsic value vis-à-vis Greek Orthodoxy is a hotly debated issue. Historically, Orthodox of the late 14th century often psychologically associated Aquinas with anti-Palamism, i.e. a theology tending to reject the mystical theology of Gregory Palamas. Gregory's distinctions between the essence and energy of God, the notion of the "uncreated light" seen by saints, and his understanding of divinization were all subject to scrutiny by the very first Byzantine Thomists, Demetrius and Prochorus Cydones. Their opposition to Gregory Palamas and their "Latin-minded" way of theologizing sealed a negative fate of "first Scholasticism (c. 1398)" in Byzantium.

The question of St Thomas' intrinsic value in East-West dialogue remains. He was understood and utilized positively and negatively by many celebrated Byzantine divines (e.g. Macarius Makres and Gennadius Scholarius). Perhaps the most learned theologian of his time, Gennadius Scholarius (d. c. 1472), was able to give a balanced and philosophically well-founded presentation of Catholic and Orthodox differences because of his sound knowledge of Latin theology and Scholastic philosophy. Ultimately, both Churches have adopted their champions from this period. Therefore, it is only fitting and proper that these theological giants should be understood before any serious attempt is made to speak about "commonalities" and "divergencies" between East and West.

 Following Florence (1439), additional theological developments have increased the points of discussion between the two Churches at present. Nonetheless, any history of theology should be deemed questionable if it does not recognize what Aquinas, Palamas, and Mark of Ephesus recognized as real doctrinal stumbling blocks towards unity. If these (and other "doctors" of both respective Churches) are not read as the foundational sources for understanding East-West divisions theologically, one risks positing too many or too few points of disharmony between the two Churches.

This fundamental importance of understanding the classic and perennial theology of each Church is incumbent on both Eastern and Western theologians. Taking the example of both St Thomas and (St) Mark of Ephesus, both were willing to be in theological dialogue with their opponents. Thomas' very educational system depended on the professor being a skilled debater. Holding quodlibetal disputations required a thick skin and willingness to work through each objection from one's interlocutor. The professorial task was to reconcile the areas of substantial agreement and focus on the areas of fundamental irreconcilability of any proposition with Christian doctrine. Mark was on friendly terms with Latins aiding the scholarly pursuits of men like Nicholas of Cusa. He did not refuse to enter into dialogue with the Latins and came freely to Florence. His addresses to the Pontiff in Italy were respectful and sincere. He asked the members of the Council to remember that debates sometimes contain strong language. He apprized his Roman interlocutors that anything that sounded harsh was said in charity and that such mishaps should be excused as peculiarities of cultural expression.

This traditional task of theological dialogue and mutual theological understanding has not ceased. Following Blessed John XXIII's establishment of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity In 1960 and his Successors' emphasis on Christian unity, scholars are still attempting to understand better all aspects of the traditional Catholic-Orthodox debate. This summer, an opportunity for better mutual understanding will take place in London. The Institute of Classical Studies 2012 Byzantine Colloquium "When East met West: the Reception of Latin Theological and Philosophical Thought in Late Byzantium", to be held in Senate House, University of London, between 11-12 June 2012, will explore some important aspects of the theological dialogue between the two sides.2 The contributors, both eminent and younger scholars, hope to present a scholarly and objective look at Latin patristic and Scholastic influence on Byzantine theology. An exciting part of this colloquium will be devoted to reports on the progress and utilization of texts of "Thomas de Aquino Byzantinus",3 an international research project aiming at providing new critical editions of translations of, and commentaries on, Thomas Aquinas' opera omnia by Byzantine authors.4 The influence of Thomas on Byzantine writers and saints is only gradually coming to light. These editions will help the theological world secure Thomas' factual place within Byzantine theology. In order to illustrate the depth of influence that Thomas graecus exercised, presentations will focus on the sources used by Byzantine theologians like Matthaios Blastares, Demetrios Chrysoloras, and Gennadios Scholarios. There will also be presentations on the role of Augustine in Eastern theology and the Latin authorities employed for discussions at the Council of Florence. Contributors come from both Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds (inter alia). Also, in small part, the conference represents a happy result of efforts initiated under the Vatican's Secretary for the Holy See's Relations with States. Among the contributors will be a participant under the auspices of the Holy See's venture with the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs.5 The joint venture is a scholarship program to provide Catholics with an opportunity to study Orthodox theology in Greece in order to increase mutual understanding between Orthodox and Catholic theologians.6
*Fr Kappes holds a licentiate in philosophy and a doctorate in Sacred Liturgy

The next post on this topic will have two Orthodox articles against ecumenism and my reply.

1 Gennadius Scholarius, "Résumé de la Prima Secundae de la Somme théologique de sanit Thomas d'Aquin", in Oeuvres Completes de Georges Scholarios 5, ed. L. Petit -X. Siderides -M. Jugie, Paris, Maison de la Bonne Presse 1933, 1.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

IN ALL THINGS: GOD CHOOSES THE DESPISED: An Interview with 2015 Templeton Prize Laureate Jean Vanier by Sean Salai S.J.

Jean Vanier, seen in this file photo, met Pope Francis at the Vatican March 21, 2014, during a trip to Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of L'Arche, the international federation of communities he founded where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Jean Vanier is a French Canadian Catholic philosopher and humanitarian who founded L'Arche, an international network of 147 communities (35 countries, five continents) for mentally disabled persons and their caregivers. With Marie-Hélène Mathieu, Mr. Vanier also founded Faith and Light, a network of 1,500 support groups in 82 countries that similarly urges solidarity among people with and without disabilities. He is the current (2015) winner of the Templeton Prize, a $1.7 million award honoring his affirmation of the spiritual dimensions of life. Mr. Vanier, 87, has said he intends to give this money to developmentally disabled persons in the L’Arche network.

While Mr. Vanier was visiting France late in 1963, he had his first encounter with intellectually disabled men living in government-sponsored psychiatric hospitals, and he quickly understood them to be “the most oppressed people on the planet.” The first L’Arche community began a few months later when he invited two men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave their institution and live with him at a house in Trosly-Breuil, a small village north of Paris where he continues to reside today. Mr. Vanier named his new home “L’Arche” after Noah’s Ark, gradually establishing similar communities in other countries.
Mr. Vanier holds a PhD in philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris, where he wrote his dissertation on Aristotle’s notion of happiness. He is the author of more than 30 books, including most recently The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Relationship (2015) and the upcoming Life’s Great Questions (due in English from Franciscan Media on August 21). In 2014, Franciscan Media produced a 14-part video series on The Gospel of John (“Into the Heart of God”) hosted by Mr. Vanier in the Holy Land. His previous humanitarian awards include the French Legion of Honour (2002) and the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award (2013).
On May 12, I emailed a set of interview questions for Mr. Vanier to Isabelle Aumont, director of the Jean Vanier Association in France. Ms. Aumont visited Mr. Vanier at his home in Trosly-Breuil, recorded his answers and sent them back to me on Aug. 3. The following transcript of Mr. Vanier’s responses to my questions about his work is unabridged.

On March 15, we learned that you are the 2015 winner of the Templeton Prize. Why are you giving the $1.7 million cash award from this prize to developmentally disabled people?

Well, it’s very simple: It’s because of them that I won the prize. The prize was awarded because L’Arche and Faith and Light have grown across the world and because people with disabilities have changed other people. So it’s obvious that if it’s because of them I received the prize, the prize must go back to them. In this way, they can continue their work of changing the hearts of people and leading them to Jesus.

What gifts do mentally handicapped persons bring to society?

They have beautiful hearts, they don’t have big heads, they’re not people who want to know things. What they want to know is: “Do you love me?” Maybe that is what we all want to know: “Do you love me?” Maybe that is the heart of the Christian message: that Jesus loves us and therein is our joy. That is what people with disabilities reveal to us. That is the only one important thing; that it be revealed that Jesus loves me.

What is love?

Love is to reveal to someone: “you are beautiful and you have value.” That is the secret of love. It’s not primarily to do things for people, because then we find our glory in doing things. The secret of love is to reveal to someone that “you are precious,” that “you are beautiful.”

You’ve talked a lot about the “tyranny of the normal” and the “religion of success.” What do you mean by those comments?

We live in a culture of success and winning, a culture of power, and a culture of knowledge. When we are caught up in the knowledge that we must win and must have individual success, we very often leave behind those who are weaker. The gospels reveal something really very new, that the mission of Jesus is to announce a good news to the poor. What is that good news? It’s not just that “God loves you,” but that “I love you!” The whole of the message of Jesus is to reveal to the poor that they are precious, whereas we live in societies where so frequently they are put aside.

You were a philosophy professor at St. Michael’s College in Toronto before you started L’Arche, but you gave up a comfortable academic career to live with the mentally handicapped. What moved you to do this?

I think it was simply because I felt that Jesus wanted me to do it. I felt attracted to the mystery of people with disabilities particularly when I found out how crushed they have been. In the United States we can all remember the hundreds of institutions where they were locked up. Thank God that there were people like Wolf Wolfensberger and others whose mission was to open up the big institutions and to help others to discover that men and women with intellectual disabilities are beautiful. We have to remember what Saint Paul said: “God has chosen the weak and the foolish to confound those who are caught up in intellectuality and in power.” God had chosen the most despised, so if God had chosen them, then Jesus wanted me to be with them!

What is the philosophy of L’Arche?

The philosophy of L’Arche is very simple. The important thing is that people who have been pushed aside and humiliated, need to be shown that they are precious. So it’s living together in community that we reveal to each other that “you’re precious.” The wonderful thing is that when we live with people with disabilities, not only are they transformed because they discover they’re loved, but we also are transformed. That is the secret of the philosophy of L’Arche: that we transform each other in helping each other to become more human and more like Jesus.

What role does the Catholic faith play at L’Arche?

L’Arche's first seeds were planted in the soil of the Catholic Church. However, L’Arche quickly became ecumenical and interreligious as it welcomed men and women with disabilities who belonged to different denominations and different religions. L'Arche has often used the ritual of the washing of the feet as a universal symbol of servant leadership, unity and communion across difference. Catholic means universal, and Jesus teaches us a universal love. Faith, religion, and culture find their deepest meaning, as they become a way to permit us to be bonded to God, the God of love and compassion, which give us the wisdom to meet others who are different as persons. Every person—whatever his culture, religion, values, abilities or disabilities—is important and precious to God.

Who are your role models in the Catholic faith, either living or dead?

The real role model is Jesus and he is revealed to us in the Gospels. We see how he lived, and the parables he told. For example, take the parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus says: “do what he did,” that’s to say be compassionate. Jesus is an incredible role model and he teaches us to love each other as he loves. We only have to look at Jesus through the Gospel message to see how we are called to live.

What have you learned from living with the intellectually handicapped?

I have learned that the message of Jesus is really a question of humility. The incredible thing about Jesus is that he was with God, he was God, and he descended and became a human being. Not only did he become a human being, but he accepted to be rejected and crucified. The incredible thing is that these little people teach us how to grow in humility, and humility is to enter into a relationship with people who have been humiliated. It’s a beautiful way to learn how to live the Gospel message.

How do you pray?

It is a strange question! “How do you pray?” means “what is your relationship with Jesus?” because that is what prayer is. It’s a relationship, it’s sitting hand in hand with Jesus. John the beloved disciple rested on the heart of Jesus. So to pray is just to be with Jesus, to rest with Him. There are times when it’s really important to be alone with Jesus, and to take time to listen to Him. Listen to the words of the Apocalypse: “The Lord says ‘I stand and I knock at the door, if somebody hears me and opens the door, I will enter and eat with that person and that person will with me.’” So, to pray is somehow to call out to Jesus and to accept his invitation, or rather to invite Jesus into our hearts so that we can become his friends. So to pray is to be a friend of Jesus.

You named your community “L’Arche” after Noah’s Ark in the Book of Genesis. What is your favorite scripture passage and why?

I think that every day my favorite scripture passage is different. I don’t know how there could be one favorite scripture passage because the heart of the Gospel message is when Jesus says: “abide in my love.” I can’t say this scripture passage is the favorite one because every passage is the favorite one. Of course there are some days that draw me more into the heart and other days may be less. Maybe the one that centers everything is “to remain in the love of Jesus.”

Where do you find Jesus Christ in your life?

It’s in my heart. This extraordinary text we find in the 14th chapter of Saint John: “If somebody loves me, he’ll keep my word and my father will love him and we shall come and make our home in him.” So, the gift is to find Jesus in my own heart. That connection and presence need to be nourished daily, finding Jesus in the Word of God, in the Eucharist and in the Church, to discover that the essential is that Jesus lives in me and I live in Him.

There was an English-language documentary about you in the 1980s called “The Heart Has Its Reasons.” What is the greatest desire of your heart today?

Just to be faithful to Jesus and to live the essential, which is to remain in His love. I need His help just to be faithful and to continue on this road. This is particularly true as I become more fragile, as I’m 87 today and tomorrow I’ll be a little bit older, and then I’ll be a little bit older, etc. I need His help just to live what I’m called to live in the Spirit of Jesus and to give me the strength to be what He wants me to be, every day.

What message do you hope people will take away from L’Arche?

Really I hope that people discover that people with disabilities are beautiful people. It’s not a question of doing things for them but it’s really about becoming their friend. Maybe that is the heart of the message of the Gospel: become a friend of Jesus. The heart of the message of L’Arche is to become a friend with people with disabilities. As we become a friend with them we are changed, we open up and we discover that every person is precious.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?

Thank you!

What are your hopes for the future?

For myself the future is to grow gently into weakness and to discover that in the heart of weakness there is the presence of God. And after that, growing in weakness, we grow in the greater weakness which is eventually to fall in the arms of God when we die.

Any final thoughts?

May God bless us all!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

UNITY, THE ONE CUP AND THE FIRE OF GOD by Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest

Ecumenism is back in the news and with it comes a deluge of misunderstanding and theological confusion. For while “unity” and the very concept of “one” are actually inherently mystical, most who write about and discuss the topic substitute a merely human, political and administrative notion. Two key verses are frequently drawn from the 17th chapter of St. John’s gospel:

Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. (Jn 17:11-12)


I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (Jn 17:20-21)

Often overlooked in discussions is the fact that these statements come in the context of a prayer. It is not a commandment, nor is it a plea that Christ is offering to those who believe in Him. It is Christ’s prayer to the Father, part of what is often called the “High Priestly Prayer.” It is important to note that the unity referenced in this text is that of the Father and the Son and further, that the unity is described by the mystery of participation: “…one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us.”

The unity referenced in discussions (ecumenical or administrative) is rarely more than political or organizational. Schism is indeed a frightful thing, but not because it creates organizational and administrative problems. Schism risks a diminished participation in the life of God (at the very least), and the establishing of an alternative notion of salvation itself.

That God Himself is one is not a description of “how many Gods exist.” It is, instead, a reference to the very mode of God’s existing. As such, it is also a description of the mode of the life of salvation. To be saved, to live the life that is being saved “from day to day in fear and trembling” is nothing other than a mystical participation in the one life of the one God. Indeed, there is no other true existence. Christ’s prayer for us is not a plea for our future well-being, but a priestly prayer for our true participation and continuation in the One Life that is the only life.

This differs greatly from the usual content of ecumenical conversations. In those conversations, ecclesiology (the doctrine of Church) is separated from soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) – the Church is somehow considered as existing separate from salvation itself. But, the Church is salvation or it is nothing. It is not an organization that exists to promote salvation, or to represent the interests of Christians. Individuals are not saved as individuals, per se: they are saved within the life of the Church and as Church or they are not saved at all. The Church is what salvation looks like. For this reason, the New Testament can describe Baptism as a union with the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4) as well as a union with the Church:

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body [the Church]– whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free– and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. (1Co 12:13)

Such statements are possible because the Church is the death and resurrection of Christ in this world. It is salvation. The Church does not, and cannot exist apart from salvation itself. They are not two things!

This understanding can be upsetting for many. Repeated schisms have destroyed the proper understanding of the Church and created a false notion of institutional and organizational entities. Affirmation of the Scriptural account of the Church and salvation are easily mistaken for a claim that only Orthodox Christians can be saved. What they do not hear, apparently, is a statement about the actual content of salvation. Salvation is not the answer to the question: “Who goes to heaven?” That idea is essentially a pagan concept and a distortion of the Christian gospel. Salvation is true participation in the life of God – “as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us…”

The sacramental expression of that one life is primarily found in the Eucharist, the Common Cup. Of course, “Common Cup” is itself an interesting expression, poorly understood. “Common” relates to “Communion.” But “Communion” is often simply a synonym for the Eucharist, i.e., nothing more than a word for a Church ritual. It is from the Greek, koinoniaor “participation.” The Common Cup is the Cup of Participation in the one life of Christ. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in them.”

And it is precisely in the aspect of “One” that the Cup seems to be problematic for us. As we draw near to the Cup, our proper desire should be to be one with Christ – that He may dwell in us and we in Him. We cannot approach the Cup with reservations – “I want to be One with Christ, but I reserve the right to my own opinions and actions.” It is simply a contradiction in terms. By the same token, we do not approach the Cup with reservations towards one another: “I want to be one with Christ but not one with him.” It is a sacrament of love which can never be a private moment between us and Christ alone.

This highlights the fragmentation that exists among Christians. For many, the Common Cup is, at best, a sign of the hope that someday we all might be one, or, at worst, only the expression of their private devotion. The refusal to extend the Common Cup on such a basis becomes a scandal for many. But for the Orthodox, the Cup is not a sign of hope, nor a private expression. It is the full and true reality of our present communion and participation in the One life of Christ.

The pain and scandal we experience when the Cup is refused to us, or when we must refuse the Cup ourselves, is nothing less than the judgment of God in the face of the one life of Christ. And the shame (and anger) we feel should be rightly directed – not towards a change of doctrine and practice, but towards a change within ourselves. When the conversation turns outward, and we seek to find a solution outside of ourselves, the entire reality of true union is shattered.

The Rich Young Ruler came to Christ and wanted to know what he could do to “inherit eternal life.” This is the question of true participation in the life of Christ. He is directed towards the commandments. Embracing them (or so he thinks), he wonders what more he can do (he recognizes that something is lacking). He is told to sell everything, give it to the poor and follow Christ. He goes away sad. Could he have protested that Christ was asking too much? Could he have pointed to others who had been asked less? Could he have discussed Christ’s implied economic theory and its unworkable demands? None of these things would have gained him true participation in Christ.

None of our own protestations regarding the Common Cup make any difference. True, most groups of Christians have dropped most requirements surrounding the Cup. Rich Young Rulers are now welcome. They are very often elected to governing boards and are considered to be important members of the community. They are often asked to speak and share the secrets of their success. Whatever is found in the Cup today, for most, it is not a true participation in the one life of Christ.

Christ’s High Priestly Prayer, is the declared intention of God to invite us into the life of true salvation. That life is nothing other than and nothing less than the very life of God Himself. It is not a fellowship of those who are fond of Jesus. It is not a token of membership. It is not a hope for something that will happen at a later time. It is not a sacrament of goodwill.

St. Simeon the Translator offers these thoughts before communion:

Stand in fear, O soul, as you look upon the deifying Blood for it is fire and burns the unworthy. May the divine Body sanctify and nourish me. May it deify my soul and wondrously feed my mind.
You have sweetened my longing for You, O Christ and transfigured me with Your love. Let my sins be consumed in the immaterial fire and grant me to be filled with Your joy, that I may rejoice in both and glorify Your coming, O good One.

Any union that is not fire, any union that cannot burn, is not our union in Christ. Put aside shame and anger and consider the true Cup of Christ. St. Symeon the Theologian offers this:

These things give me courage, rejoicing and trembling, they give me wings, my Christ, and I place my hope in the abundance of Your grace to us. I partake of the fire though I am dry grass. O wonder! – I am refreshed and not burned, as the bush of long ago, which was in flames but not consumed. Therefore, thankful in mind, heart and to the depths of my soul and body, I bow before You in worship and glorify You, my God, who are truly blessed now and in all ages. Amen.

Contemporary Christianity has taken the fire out of communion. As such, it becomes not the Common Cup, but merely a common cup. No fire. No God.

The One True God burns.

Fr. Stephen Freeman

Glory to God for All Things

I am working on an article on the Vatican II doctrine of unity that escapes the charges that he makes against ecumenism, accepts all he has to say about the essential nature of Christian Unity, yet is without the all or nothing approach that he adopts.  Paradoxically, it gives an even greater strength to the call for full unity.  We'll see. - Fr David

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