Christian Unity Through Saints Peter and Paul
I am a Roman Catholic who loves Orthodoxy. In addition to the historical figures of Orthodoxy, more recent Orthodox Christians have had a profound influence on me.
Orthodox clergy including His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Elpidophoros, and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom have fed my spirit. Mother Maria of Paris, Saint Sophrony, and the countless faithful persecuted under Soviet regimes are among the Orthodox saints, mystics, and martyrs who inspire me to live holier and more faithfully to the gospel.
Orthodox scholars such as Kallistos Ware, John McGuckin, John Behr, and John Chryssavgis challenge my intellect. Orthodox media ranging from Ancient Faith Radio to Public Orthodoxy to Byzantium and Friends accompany me, while musicians rooted in Orthodoxy (like Cappella Romana and the Men’s Choir of the Valaam Singing Culture Institute) enrich my inner life.
Although there are plenty of toxic “Orthobros” on social media, kind Orthodox folks like Summer Kinard, John Fotopoulos, and Sister Vassa Larin represent Orthodoxy gracefully in cyberspace.
For all the Eastern Orthodox people I have named, there are nearly as many Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox believers who have built my faith. Through its theology, spirituality, and art, the various expressions of Eastern Christianity have made me a better Christian by shaping my mind, heart, and life into the image of Christ.
Many Catholics have a deep respect for Orthodoxy, and numerous Orthodox Christians have similar feelings toward Catholicism. Subsequently, Orthodox and Catholics of good will can agree that our official division is shameful. Perhaps the greatest scandal in Christianity is Christians not embodying Jesus’ prayer in John 17: “That they all be one so that the world believe you sent me.”
Schisms began long before there was a distinction between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Whether it was the Corinthians, Galatians, or Romans, St. Paul addressed divisions amongst Christians throughout his epistles.
The presence of early disharmony, though, is no excuse for our ongoing state. Centuries of split serve as a counter-witness to Christian faith, liturgy, and service. Both Orthodox and Catholics can find “good reasons” to remain separated. We can point to the filioque, papal supremacy, liturgical differences, the calendar, or dozens of other issues that Catholics and Orthodox have debated over the years.
Leading figures from both sides have pointed toward unity. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras recognized each other as Christian brothers and embraced one another in fraternal affection. Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill gathered in 2016, marking the first time a pope and Russian patriarch had ever met. In 2014, Pope Francis sought and received Patriarch Bartholomew’s apostolic blessing.
Official efforts fostering unity like The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have performed significant work in bringing about understanding between churches.
Despite the important gestures and necessary steps, Catholics and Orthodox remain officially divided. As theologians and hierarchs continue to resolve the specifics of institutional communion, I believe a major impediment to full communion between East and West is holy desire. Unity will come about when enough ordinary people want it.
Currently, Orthodox-Catholic unity does not appear to be a high priority for most Christians. No one is clamoring for it, nor do most of us demonstrate a sense of urgency to bring it about. Maybe we are afraid of what unity might mean, worried about losing our identity, or are just too comfortable in the way things have been since 1054.
Of course, unity is more difficult to achieve in some places than others; there are likely fewer impediments to unity in Colorado than in (say) Ukraine or Poland. Furthermore, Catholics and Orthodox have their own internal divisions to address, but that does not mean Orthodox-Catholic unity is impossible.
I am writing on June 29, after watching the Mass on the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Saints Peter and Paul held in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Bishop of Rome addressed the delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarch, “Your welcome presence is a precious sign of unity on our journey of freedom from the distances that scandalously separate believers in Christ.” The two great saints, Peter and Paul, show us the path toward unity in two interconnected ways.
First, both saints have integral relationships to Eastern and Western churches. St. Peter served as bishop of Antioch before he became bishop of Rome. St. Paul established churches throughout Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Macedonia; he also wrote to the church in Rome and underwent martyrdom there. Neither apostle belongs exclusively to east or west.
Second, there are several holy icons of Saints Peter and Paul together. One shows them as pillars supporting the church. Another has them standing next to each other with their hands raised in blessing. A third shows the apostles embracing one another. As we gaze into the icons, we find these two apostles and martyrs—who lived and ministered in east and west—holding and teaching the entire church, not just half of it.
Hierarchs and theologians will address specific issues, but I believe in the unity that our Lord prayed for and that we ostensibly say we believe in every time we recite our common Creed. Wanting unity is not sufficient to bring it about, but it is necessary. How could we expect to receive the gift of unity in Christ if we have not prepared ourselves to accept it? Meanwhile, to realize the full unity that Jesus prayed for on the night he was betrayed and crucified we must start wanting it. If we want unity enough, maybe we can experience it by 2054 and mend a thousand years of separation and start a new age of unity.
Kevin Beck is a retired teacher who lives in Colorado Springs.