The North American Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops
Orthodox Academy of Crete, Chania, Greece
October 4, 2000
Our Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops was founded in 1981 as a forum where Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs from the United States and Canada could discuss pastoral matters of concern to both our churches. Gathered together now at our 17th meeting, we wish to take stock of our Joint Committee's work, and to affirm the importance of continued and intensified dialogue between our two communions.
We look back with joy on the dramatic events of the 1960s that brought an end to the many centuries of hostility that kept us apart from one another. The meeting between Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem in 1964 was followed by the formal lifting of the 1054 anathemas on December 7, 1965. Those excommunications were reversed, to be replaced by relationships of love -- they were "erased from the memory of the Church" and "consigned to oblivion." The growing dialogue of charity between Catholics and Orthodox led finally to the establishment of an official International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church by Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I and Pope John Paul II when the Pope visited Istanbul in November 1979. This renewed relationship has been symbolized by the semiannual exchange of delegations between the sister churches of Rome and Constantinople on their respective feast days, and a rejection among our faithful of "every form of proselytism, every attitude which would or could be perceived as a lack of respect" (Common Declaration of Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I, December 7, 1987).
With gratitude we note that this theological dialogue was anticipated by almost 15 years in the United States. Prior to the establishment of our Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops in 1981, an official Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation had been meeting since September 9, 1965, even before the excommunications were lifted. In North America, where Catholics and Orthodox live side by side in a place that is to a large extent free of the political and religious tension that has often been present in our countries of origin, our theological dialogue has been able to make much progress and to address various theological and pastoral questions touching upon our relationship. At its June 2000 meeting, our North American Theological Consultation issued a document entitled, "Sharing the Ministry of Reconciliation: Statement on the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue and the Ecumenical Movement." We wish to express our satisfaction with this important text, and we recommend it warmly to our faithful. We make our own its evaluation of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and the broader ecumenical movement as rooted in the very actions of God who "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. 2:4).
The fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe and the establishment of religious freedom in those countries ten years ago now is a source of deep joy for all people of faith. But these profound changes also unleashed hostilities between our communities there that had remained under the surface, unaddressed during the long years of persecution, isolation, and silence. These problems focused on the status of the Eastern Catholic Churches and questions of property. At the same time, strident currents emerged in both our churches in those areas, fueled in part by the suspicion that ecumenism was a betrayal of the true faith, and that it had been manipulated by the communist authorities for their own ends in an attempt to weaken authentic Christian witness. This points to the urgent need to present the true nature of ecumenical dialogue, not as a betrayal of anyone's faith, but as an effort to understand what we truly have in common at a level deeper than our divisions and theological formulae.
All this has had a negative impact on the international dialogue which for the past ten years has been struggling to deal in a satisfactory way with the question of the status of the Eastern Catholic Churches. We regret that the Eighth Plenary Session of the international dialogue, held in July 2000 at Emmitsburg, Maryland, was unable to make progress on this and other significant issues.
The difficulties that have recently beset the international dialogue do not alter our conviction that continued dialogue in love is the only way that our churches can be faithful to Our Lord's command to love one another, and to be reconciled. Indeed, when difficulties arise the need for dialogue becomes even greater. As we look back on our experience of dialoguing with one another as bishops of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, we realize that through an honest and well informed exchange of views a solution to even the most persistent disagreements can be perceived. Our Joint Committee of Bishops has issued statements dealing with Ordination, Mixed Marriages and the recent tensions in Eastern and Central Europe, and we are confident that much more progress can be made on these and other issues. We encourage our Orthodox and Catholic faithful everywhere to engage one another in an exchange of views in a spirit of openness and humility so that the Spirit's work of reconciliation might continue, for the glory of God.
Our Joint Committee is meeting on the island of Crete, whose soil has been fed by the blood of a host of martyrs, and whose history has not been unaffected by our sad divisions. We take this opportunity to give thanks to God for the great strides that have been made to overcome what divides us. As the new millennium dawns, we join our prayer to those of Orthodox and Catholic faithful around the world that our churches may continue to set aside the animosities of the past and look forward in hope to that blessed day when we shall once again be united around the common table of our Lord.