Unity and Reconciliation

by V. Fr. Vasile Axinia (Orthodox)


Due to the historical, social and ethical context of each people, the ecumenical attitude of Orthodoxy varies from one country to the other, from one Church to the other. There are however certain common criteria resulting from permanent contact within the sister Churches concerning ecumenism.


The Orthodox Church has already entered the ecumenical movement in an irreversible manner. Orthodox theology has always stressed the necessity of achieving unity within Christianity based on the Divine Revelation found in Holy Scripture.


Orthodoxy, as a member of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, has contributed significantly to the ecumenical movement founded on the Holy Trinity, i.e. the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Orthodoxy has always maintained that the unity of the churches can be found only in love in Christ, between people, and in the reconciliation of the Churches sustained by the unity of the Holy Trinity.


Restoration of the visible unity of Christian Churches has been a constant concern with Orthodoxy. In this context, let us only recall Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III’s encyclical of May 30, 1902 as well as the same patriarchate’s synodal encyclical of May 18, 1921.


In the following text, I will introduce briefly the question of unity and reconciliation, and I am convinced that the other brothers and sisters in Christ, present here, share the same vision on those two subjects. I shall insist a little on a unique event in the bimillenary history of the Orthodox church of Romania, that is, the first visit of a Polish Pope to a sister Orthodox Church in the Spirit of unity and reconciliation.


The Christian faith shows that the Church of Christ is one. Our Lord Jesus Christ has stressed his unity with his Apostles: "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am." (Jean 17.24).

Unity in the Holy Spirit is recommended by St. Paul so that peace and unity within the Church may be achieved. "Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together" (Ephesians 4.3)... Therefore the unity of the Church is preserved as long as the unity of the Spirit is preserved. The result of this unity is a single faith. God offers gifts to the faithful in the Church in view of the unity of faith: "In the Church, God has given the first place to apostles, the second to prophets, the third to teachers; after them, miracles, and after them the gift of healing; helpers, good leaders, those with many languages." (I Corinthians 12. 28-29).


Unity of faith is the guarantee of the presence of Christ in the Church. The attributes of the Church of Christ are: One, Holy, Catholic — which Orthodoxy translates as soborny — and Apostolic.


The unity of the Church of Christ is founded on the communion of fullness because Orthodox ecclesiology is Trinitarian; it is also a theology of the communion of the Church which can be defined as a mystery of the communion of the Holy Trinity in the world.


According to Ephesians 4.5-6 : "There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is Father of all, over all, through all and within all." Divine Revelation ensures the unity of faith and the salvation of the faithful: "No one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me" (John 6.44).


The Holy Sacraments are necessary for human salvation and there is unity of charism between faith and sacraments; when one receives the sacrament of Baptism, one becomes a member of the mystical body of Christ and of the Church.


In all the texts of Holy Scripture we find a unity of love between all the faithful who have received baptism as well as a unity of love in God. Love of God and love of people complement each other and lead to unity, for as St. Paul says in I Corinthians 13 : "Love does not come to an end."... The New Testament also speaks clearly of the unity of the Holy Trinity: "The Father and I are one" (John 10.30). "The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you" (John 14.26), and of the unity of faith and of the Church: "Just as each of our bodies has several parts and each part has a separate function, so all of us, in union with Christ form one body, and as parts of it we belong to each other" (Romans 12. 4-5).




In the New Testament the word is used in the religious sense of reconciliation of man with God through Jesus Christ : "We are filled with joyful trust in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have already gained our reconciliation" (Romans 5.11). "It is all God’s work. It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation" (II Corinthians 5.18) "…to unite them both in a single Body and reconcile them with God. In his own person he killed the hostility" (Ephesians 2.16) "and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when he made peace by his death on the cross" (Colossians 1.20).


Reconciliation is entirely the work of God and is considered to be as a new creation transmitted through baptism: "When we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead, we too might live a new life" (Romans 6.4) "In other words, God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding men’s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled" (II Corinthians 5.19).


By his blood our Lord Jesus Christ has reconciled humankind with God and brought peace to the whole universe: "Since their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world, do you know what their admission will mean? Nothing less than a resurrection from the dead!" (Romans 11.15).


Reconciliation would be transmitted through the centuries to all peoples through his Church, his servants the bishops, the priests and the faithful. Back to the present, the two sister churches, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, after the division of 1054, have worked toward reconciliation.


For the Orthodox Church, the problem of dialogue and reconciliation has been brought up especially after World War II, within the World Council of Churches, but at the Rhodes Conference in 1961 and at others that have taken place since, the two Churches, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, have decided to foster relations in an ecumenical spirit in the love of Christ.


The Second Vatican Council affirmed for the first time the authority of the episcopal college and decided to initiate a theological dialogue between the two sister Churches on an equal footing. Subsequently, in January 1964, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople met Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem. Then, on December 7, 1965, in the cathedrals Saint George in Constantinople and Saint Peter in Rome, the reciprocal anathemas of 1054 were lifted simultaneously. In 1967, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople met at the Phanar (the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul) and then Patriarch Athenagoras visited Rome. On August 28, 1968, in Chambésy, Switzerland, an Orthodox Commission was formed to begin the dialogue with the Church of Rome. Parallel commissions were created at the same time to prepare the dialogue between the sister Churches. Pope John Paul II visited the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a joint declaration was signed 'not only in view of the progress toward re-establishing full communion between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, but also in view of the contribution of the dialogues to its unity' (L'Osservatore Romano N/49, dJc, 1979).


In December 1987 the Ecumenical Patriarch visited Rome. One of the highlights of the meeting was the reading of the Nicene Creed without the Filioque. The present Patriarch of Constantinople, His All Holiness Bartholomew 1, visited Rome in July 1995.


As for the relations between the Orthodox Church of Romania and the Roman Catholic Church, they have been excellent over the years. But May 7 to May 9, 1999 was the first time since 1054 that a Pope of Rome was visiting a mainly Orthodox country.


The visit took place under the sign of the work of the Holy Spirit. The meeting was a historic gesture of reconciliation. Allow me to quote a few excerpts from the official declarations of the spiritual leaders of both Churches:


"I wish to express my special gratitude to His Beatitude Patriarch Teoctist" said His Holiness Pope John Paul II, "for the brotherly expressions which you so kindly addressed to me and for your kind invitation to visit the Romanian Orthodox Church, the majority Church in Romania. It is the first time Divine Providence offers me the opportunity to dedicate an apostolic visit to a mainly Orthodox nation, and this could not have happened without the brotherly availability of the Holy Synod and the Venerable Romanian Orthodox Church.


I cannot, at this historic moment, omit to mention Your Beatitude’s visit to the Vatican ten years ago, which showed a firm desire to freely establish friendly ecclesiastical relations for the benefit of the members of both Churches. I am convinced that my visit to Bucharest will contribute to the healing of the wounds in the relations between our Churches and give birth to mutual trustful cooperation.


Your Beatitude, brother bishops, let us give back visible unity to the Church... I have sought unity with all my strength, and I shall keep giving myself completely until it becomes one of the principal concerns of the Churches and is supported by apostolic work... This desire for brotherly cooperation, sustained by prayer and mutual esteem and respect, must be supported and promoted because peace builds while conflict destroys. In the name of this great ecumenical inspiration I appeal to all the believers in Christ who are living in Romania. I have come to you inspired only by the desire for true unity and the will to exercise the ministry of Peter entrusted to me by God, among brothers and sisters in the same faith. It is my earnest wish that the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper "that they may be one like us" (John 17.11) never ceases to be alive in your hearts."


The Holy Father delivered most of his speeches in Romanian and called the Romanian soil 'the garden of the Most Blessed Virgin' an expression that has characterized the Orthodox Romanian nation since long ago because of its apostolic faith in Christ, since the Holy Apostle Andrew preached the Gospel on the Romanian territory 2000 years ago.


In his turn, His Beatitude Teoctist, Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, addressed himself to His Holiness John Paul II, primate of the Roman Catholic Church:


"Your Holiness, it is our conviction that our Lord Jesus Christ is among us and today’s meeting is the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit. We hope that Your Holiness’s visit will be a positive exhortation for the dialogue which has begun between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Greek-Catholic Church of Romania, because our Church today has a great responsibility toward the moral and spiritual renewal of Romanian society. Regarding the Churches and Christian denominations in Romania, we have resumed the practice of interdenominational theological conferences; and as for ecumenism, we want to bring to the ecumenical movement the experience of our particular mission. Every local Church enjoys specific charisms. The symbiosis between our language, of Latin origin, and the Orthodox faith which comes from our Church’s identity, has constituted a strong link between West and East. The charism and responsibility of the Romanian Orthodox Church with that of the Universal Orthodox Church has been to keep and witness throughout history "the faith which has been once and for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 1.3), as it has taken shape in the patristic tradition and the dogmatic confession of the Ecumenical Synods through the consensus of the Universal Church. That is why we are convinced that the energies of the Church must be directed toward common missionary and ecumenical work.


Your Holiness, today is a holy moment where we find ourselves together before God, before the world, before history and before people. We think that all the Christian Churches must focus all their energies on the work of man’s salvation, because the world today has more need than ever of God and His Divine Grace.


I thank you in the name of the Romanian Orthodox Church for your presence at the Holy Orthodox Liturgy for which you show so much appreciation in your pastoral letter Orientale Lumen."


The visit of His Holiness John Paul II to Romania has been looked upon very favourably by all members of the Holy Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The most interesting opinion was that of the archbishop of Cluj, His Eminence Bartholomew, who said: "Christendom is taking its first great step toward the norm of the first millennium."


At the end of his visit, His Holiness Pope John Paul II invited His Beatitude Patriarch Teoctist to visit Rome. The invitation was accepted with pleasure. The Romanian people showed great joy on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to Bucharest. Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants participated in this great event with great hopes for reconciliation, because the Romanian Orthodox Church has succeeded on this occasion in presenting the image of reconciliation in Christ.


The Pope’s historic visit to Bucharest, in a mainly Orthodox country, is part of the larger context of the dialogue between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The road to the Church’s unity is a difficult one but not an impossible one. Centuries of division between them have given rise to difficulties which man cannot overcome by himself and the solution can only come from God and his servants.


Let us recall that at the end of the Holy Orthodox Liturgy, as a sign of unity and reconciliation, His Holiness Pope John Paul II and His Beatitude Teoctist, Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, exchanged gold chalices representing the desire to partake together of the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.


After exposing briefly the Orthodox viewpoint on the question of unity and reconciliation, we may conclude that their basis remains the Holy Trinity and Jesus Christ. In spite of the doctrinal differences that have occurred between Christian Churches they remain united in Christ beyond denominational barriers.

The goal of contemporary ecumenism is that the spiritual unity of the Churches in Christ be also a visible unity, "so that they may be one like us" (John 17.11); also, as St. Paul says in Colossians 1.16-20 : "For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth; everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers — all things were created through him and for him. Before anything was created, he existed, and he holds all things in unity. Now the Church is his body, he is its head. As he is the Beginning, he was first to be born from the dead, so that he should be first in every way; because God wanted all perfection to be found in him and all things reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when he made peace by his death on the cross."


We also find a model of the unity and love of all Christians in the Holy Orthodox Liturgy, before witnessing to our faith in the Credo, when the priest exhorts the faithful to love one another: "Let us love one another, so that with one mind we may profess" to which the congregation responds: "The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit - the Trinity, one in substance and undivided."


Last year, 2001, all Christian Churches celebrated 2000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ, "so that they may be one" (John 17.11) in his One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, that is to say the Universal, Communal, Ecumenical and Apostolic Church.