The importance of the Eastern churches, and the need to be united with the Roman Catholic Church, is not something just discovered but the very being of the Church. Whatever our steps towards unity, they are but a going back to the beauty of the true image of the Church before made ugly by history. Besides, the universal Church has an indelible mark of the East especially in formulating, developing and defending the Christian doctrine.
For our understanding of Jesus as divine as God the Father we owe to Athanasius from the Church of Alexandria; our attempt to understand three Divine Persons in one Godhead, we owe to the Cappadocian Fathers: St Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nanziuzus; for profound study in understanding the Bible we owe a lot to Origen of Alexandria; what a huge contribution of the East!
Liturgically, the East has always had a variety of rites and liturgical traditions; rites developed according to the culture and language of the people. In the West despite the different liturgies that have mushroomed over history there has been a tendency to narrow to one -uniformity. Even the Eucharistic prayer for long time has been only one. Talking of inculturation, the East always remains source of inspiration not only for the variety but also for the beauty of the people expressing the worship and piety in symbols that are truly theirs and proper to them.
Monasticism is another child of the Eastern Church. And special in the East, monastic life is not simply for few enclosed professionals but an inspiration to the daily life of every faithful.
With such common stock, the division is violence to the very identity of the Church. Only we can understand the attempts of the various popes toward unity of East-Western Churches.
During the pontificate of Leo XIII whose dedication earned him the name Oriental Pope the 1893 Eucharistic Congress took place in Jerusalem where respect and acceptance of oriental rights were the major issues. His consequent Encyclical Orientalium Dignitas sanctioned the works and proposals made at the congress. He exhorted Catholics to be familiar and be nourished by the ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches. Why? “…in that part of the world that the first action for the redemption of the human race began….”
In order to promote the study of Eastern churches, Benedict XV created the Pontifical Oriental Institute in 1917. He also founded the Sacred Congregation of the Oriental Churches as Eastern Catholics resented being considered mission territory when under Propaganda Fide.
In 1959, John XXIII had announced the Second Vatican Council, in which unity of Christians would be one of the top issues, leading churches from hostility to friendly relations. The spirit of the council was expressed in his new approach that “the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity”. That was true! Vatican II would in fact be the council without condemnations. Later, John XXIII founded the Secretariat for promoting Christian Unity, the mentality of Latinising and absorbing was over and there was recognition of Eastern Churches.
Since Vatican II there has been a new understanding that the union of the Catholic Churches of the East and the Roman Catholic Church must not be at the cost of those oriental churches losing what is properly eastern. The council called on these churches to renew their rites; getting back to the disciplines, customs that really speak to the people. And so many catholic Eastern churches have undergone some renewal –getting back to their original rites.
Considering the earlier Latinising mentality, listening to the words of the Decree on Eastern Churches, Orientalium Ecclesiarum; one simply cannot but marvel at such revolutionary yet beautiful change of heart: “There exists an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual church or Rite should retain its traditions….” The Vatican II refuted the false impression of one rite appearing superior to others. All the churches, East and West, are all equal and have the same rights and obligations in proclaiming the Good news in communion with the Pope.
For John Paul II unity implied restoring the Church to its full health, which was a priority in his pontificate; “so that the Church might breathe again with both its lungs.” That was the point of his Ut Unum Sint (that they may be one), the first encyclical ever on Ecumenism.
Knowing that this division has been largely due to selfish interests, John Paul II struck the right cord when he called for both personal and ecclesial conversion of heart, and therefore, the need for self-emptying like Christ did. John Paul II was aware of how limited the Church had been in its dealings and self-understanding; whatever attempts made in the past for unity were determined by the mentality of the times and the self-conception of the Church.
Like what Charles Lavigerie, founder of the Missionaries of Africa, had said a century before; John Paul saw unity that lay first in the total respect for the other’s dignity without the superiority complex of seeing the Latin rite as being more complete and better expression of the fullness of doctrine.
I’m marked by the viewpoint of John Paul II that unity will not be a mere agreement of leaders but the very awareness of the communion, the very nature of the Church. Indeed, history testifies: when leaders met and signed documents of agreement for re-union the whole thing was a flop when the people at the grassroots were not involved. This gives me confidence in the little an ordinary Christian can do. There is power that can order the change of history and restore the church to the beauty of its true image. But no one will work for what he doesn’t know. Yes, we know but often only the half. We should be interested in the other part as well. Our commitment is a matter of our faith. We declare: I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; yet, the church is divided and there are parts of this Apostolic Church we simply ignore or know very little about. This can render the declaration of our belief superficial. However, it’s not too late to live what we profess.