Alaska Orthodox praise pope’s efforts for unity

Alaska’s Orthodox Christian leaders praised Pope Francis and applauded a series of recent high profile meetings between him and Orthodox Patriarch on Constantinople Bartholomew, but they also expressed guarded enthusiasm about whether the encounters constitute significant progress toward uniting the long-divided churches.

“There’s been many efforts to reunite, but we haven’t seen it happen yet,” said Father Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Anchorage. “However, the dialogue is great. It’s great to see the intent that Christendom be one voice. The more we can unite, the more powerful our message will be.”


A growing rift, born of church differences and theological disagreements, between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy came to a head in 1054. Disputes about whether to use unleavened or leavened bread during the Mass and the Catholic understanding of the pope as the universal head of the church played a role in the churches formally separating nearly 1,000 years ago.

That’s when a cardinal representing Pope Leo IX excommunicated Byzantine Patriarch Cerularius. Celarius countered by excommunicating the cardinal and two additional papal representatives. The sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 profoundly exacerbated the Great Schism. Tensions festered for more than 900 years before Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople rescinded the mutual excommunications in 1964, bringing Eastern Orthodoxy into partial communion with Roman Catholicism.

“As far as solving the matters that keep us separated [from full] communion, that’s a lot of history, a lot to deal with and overcome,” said Father Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River.


In May, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew convened in Jerusalem to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 reconciliation. They met four times there, most notably at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus was crucified and buried, and where their predecessors forged a commitment to strive for unity.

Even mainstream secular media noted the historic collaboration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew. When they rendezvoused again only weeks later for a prayer summit with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents at the Vatican, Religion News Service heralded a widely publicized budding friendship.


“It’s been pretty amazing,” Father Hillhouse acknowledged. “Both of these leaders are serious about the areas where we can be on the same side and work toward the common good for all of humanity. If nothing else comes of it, that’s still a wonderful thing. If this leads to serious theological discussion, that’s a huge joy.”

Throughout a thousand years of separation, theological differences mounted. In addition to discord over papal infallibility, a primary contention surrounds the Catholic Church’s addition of “filioque” to the Nicene Creed, essentially clarifying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son.” Eastern and Western perspectives also clash regarding doctrines of original sin and immaculate conception, as well as mandates such as priestly celibacy.

The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople is the “first among equals” in Eastern Orthodoxy, meaning he serves as figurehead of the patriarchates but does not have overriding authority. So while local Orthodox clergy concur that dialogue between pope and patriarch is encouraging, they believe the groundwork that is critical to achieve full communion must occur among theologians.

“Until all these weighty issues are at least part of a discussion, it’s a problem,” said Bishop David Mahaffey of the Alaska diocese of the Orthodox Church in America. “We can’t have unity until they’re resolved.”


“Unity for unity’s sake is empty,” Father Hillhouse said. “We need to strive for truth. Christ is one body. Let’s not find out how we can get together; let’s find out what is true. If we’re looking for truth, then unity is going to happen whether we strive for it or not.”

Father Leo Walsh, director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage, emphasizes that Eastern Orthodox churches also maintain valid apostolic succession, tracing their leaders back to the Apostle Andrew, rather than Apostles Peter and Paul as do the Roman Catholics.

“We’re all ‘true’ churches because of apostolic succession,” Father Walsh said. “We have a real but imperfect communion. We certainly recognize their sacraments. There’s a lot of things we can collaborate on together.”


Bishop Mahaffey emphasized the importance of working on the local level.

“At the local level, I see our job as being respectful of each other’s traditions at all times, not trying to prove [apologetics],” he said. “We’re about showing we can have a unity at our level that doesn’t require of one a sacrifice that we wouldn’t want them to make anyway. Where we can cooperate, we cooperate. Where we can help each other, we help each other.”

Father Walsh said a mutually respectful coexistence has prevailed in Alaska since Spanish Catholic and Russian Orthodox missionaries converged on the Yukon River in the 1870s.

“Alaska is like a microcosm,” he said. “The initiatives and the unity that we’re able to achieve here can have implications for Catholic/Orthodox relations throughout the world, up to the pope and the patriarchs.”

Pope John Paul II — who himself met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on several occasions and in 2004 officially apologized for the sacking of Constantinople and returned sacred Orthodox relics — compared Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to a pair of lungs within one body.

“It will never breathe easily until it uses both of them,” the pope famously said.

Bishop Mahaffey uses an analogy of red and white blood cells.

“When they aren’t in harmony, it causes sickness in the body,” he said. “If we understood it that way, we’d be more serious about getting together to understand our differences.”

Bishop Mahaffey held high hopes for Pope Benedict XVI, an esteemed theologian, to advance ecumenical unity. As the pope emeritus said in 2005 in his first papal message, “Nourished and sustained by the Eucharist, Catholics cannot but feel encouraged to strive for the full unity for which Christ expressed so ardent a desire.”

The Gospel of St. John (17:21) typically is cited as Jesus’ call for unity, “that they all may be one as we are one.”

“That’s what Christ intended for his church,” Father Walsh said. “Disunity is absolutely contrary to the will of Christ.”

He added: “The divisions are not going to go away overnight, but they will go away, because that’s the will of God.”


Whatever the impact of the recent meetings, Bishop Mahaffey said, “I don’t ever want [this dialogue] to stop. I want the ecumenical patriarch to continue as best he can in dialogue with the pope.”

“It’s delightful because the last three popes have had a great relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew,” Father Walsh noted. “To come together in prayer is one of the most important things we can do. We learned very early on that we can’t legislate unity but that it is a gift from the Spirit. The more we pray for that unity, the more we will be ready to receive it when the gift is opportune.”

'Alaska Orthodox praise pope’s efforts for unity'
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