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Century in the making meeting stumbles

VATICAN (SE): A meeting of all Orthodox Churches in the world that has been a century in the making stumbled at the last minute with the Russian Orthodox Church pulling out on June 13.

Hopes that a meeting would take place one day have been on the wish list of many leaders in Orthodox Churches for around 100 years and concrete discussion over making their dreams come true began in the 1960s.

A Pan-Orthodox Council was formed to organise a gathering to run under the name of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. It is scheduled to begin on June 19 and conclude on Pentecost Sunday on the Julian calendar, June 26, in Crete.

But, the arrangement has been on the edge of fragmentation with some Churches threatening a no-show and Russia pulling out.

The Pan-Orthodox Council is made up of 24 bishops from each of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches.

Six documents have been prepared for presentation at the gathering.

One is on the mission of the Orthodox Churches in the contemporary world, another on pastoral care of people living outside of their traditional homeland and a third on how the autonomy of individual Churches can be determined.

The three other documents are on marriage, the importance of fasting and relations with other Christians.

Bulgaria was the first to put a spanner in the works when it demanded on June 1 that the meeting be postponed for further discussion of the pre-prepared texts.

It expressed concern that there is very little room for negotiation over their content and CNS reported that it has reservations about non-Orthodox observers being present as well.

It said that it would not attend if these matters are not addressed.

Antioch has asked that the meeting be postponed so that some of these reservations can be cleared up and a request came from Russia on June 3 for a preparatory meeting to be held on June 10 to address these matters.

In addition, AsiaNews reported on June 8 that it had called an emergency synod meeting to decide whether or not to participate.

However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate Bartholomew, from Constantinople, issued a statement on June 6 saying that the procedure agreed to by the heads of the 14 Churches would not change.

He called upon the leaders of all the Churches “to rise to the occasion and participate on the pre-determined dates in the sessions of the Holy and Great Council.”

The chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, backed up his statement saying that attendance at the meeting is extremely important.

“We have always said that the decisions of the council must find consensus to be promulgated.”

He added, “We believe that consensus cannot mean the agreement of only those who are present, if others are absent. Consensus must mean the unanimous opinion of all local Orthodox Churches. If one is absent, we believe it means that there is no consensus.”

The withdrawal of Russia, which has actively promoted the gathering, means that there is now no possibility of this consensus being reached.

A press release from the Russian Synod cited Antioch’s failure to sign the paper on marriage and its impediments as destroying consensus and making the meeting meaningless.

The patriarch from Constantinople has also extended an invitation to the Catholic Church to attend as an observer.

CNS reported that Kurt Cardinal Koch and Bishop Brian Farrell, the president and secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will attend as a sign of respect, support and encouragement

Bishop Farrell said, “It is the Holy Father’s judgment that this is supremely important for the Orthodox, for our relationship with the Orthodox Church and, beyond that, it is supremely important for Christian witness in a world that is ever more confused about the role of religion.” 

The bishop explained that the decision by the Orthodox to open the meeting is not merely symbolic, but a spiritual affirmation that the meeting and its deliberations must be guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Catholic Church recognises the Orthodox as sister Churches, with apostolic succession of bishops, a valid priesthood and sacraments.

But some Orthodox Churches, or sectors within some of them, do not recognise the Catholic Church as a sister Church.

While the draft document on relations with other Christian Churches does not directly address this issue, it does insist that ecumenical dialogue is an imperative.

“In the Catholic view,” Bishop Farrell explained, “Orthodoxy is the eastern part of the Church and, as Pope John Paul often repeated, we long for the day that the Church can breathe with both lungs”—east and west. The council could be “a big step in the right direction.”

He concluded by saying the Catholic Church wants its presence to be a sign of support for unity rather than just for a variety of splintered Churches.

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