Monday, October 23, 2023

“Where to look for genuine ecumenism?” — Guest Article by Eastern Orthodox Theologian

NLM is grateful to Bishop Athanasius Schneider for giving us permission to publish this English translation of the following essay, written by a theologian with whom he is in friendly contact. It goes without saying that we do not endorse some of the ecclesiological claims contained herein, but the perspective is one that NLM is broadly sympathetic with. —PAK

“Where to look for genuine ecumenism?”
A reflection on the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical reforms in an ecumenical perspective

Alexander Adomenas, Master of Theology

“That they may all be one” (John 17, 21)—these words of our Divine Teacher have been resounding with pain in the hearts of Christians for many centuries. Unfortunately, we did not fulfill the commandment of our Lord and were divided. The twentieth century showed that it is now the time, according to the word of Ecclesiastes, to “gather stones” (3, 5), the stones we Christians have scattered for twenty centuries. The holy Pope Gregory the Great (who in the East bears the name Dialogos) explains these words as follows: “The more the end of the world approaches, the more necessary it is that living stones be gathered for a heavenly building, until the building of our Jerusalem reaches its measure.” [1] For St. Gregory, “gathering stones” means gathering the people into the one Church of Christ.

However, we are well aware that one can “gather stones” in different ways, and, by trying to take up everything, one can be overburdened by their weight and lose even what one has collected. This article in the form of a reflection is a modest attempt by an Orthodox theologian to think about what path can be chosen for this “gathering of stones.”

The history of relations between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, unfortunately, is very sad. Mutual accusations, divergence at times in petty issues—all this happened. I will not give a theological assessment of these disagreements and centuries-old disputes. Let me just say that what unites us is much more than what divides us. And now is precisely the time when, in the face of the ever-increasing secularization of mankind and the challenges the modern world poses to believers, we must find common ground so that everyone knows that we are disciples of Christ—Love Incarnate (cf. John 13, 35).

Over the past one hundred years, this attempt to reconcile Orthodoxy and Catholicism has received the name of the “ecumenical movement.” Many models of dialogue within this movement have been proposed, but all of them, unfortunately, have either reached or are reaching a dead end. The problem, in my opinion, is the wrong approach to the problem as such. Or rather, there is no core around which a dialogue can be built. And it seems to me that the ideal solution here is to appeal to a common heritage: the living history of the Church in the Holy Spirit.

Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have a common root: the teaching of Christ and the Apostles. We have preserved the image of the Church established by the Apostles and their successors: the apostolic succession in the priesthood, the hierarchical structure of the Church, the holy sacraments, our way of church life. That is exactly what can and should unite us; it is not for nothing that we recognize almost all of each other’s sacraments, [2] including the sacrament of the priesthood, which also speaks of the recognition of each other’s hierarchy.

Thus, the way to “gather stones” can and should be our connection with what, in both the Orthodox Church and in the Catholic Church, is called Sacred Tradition. The age-old heritage, the heritage of the Church, is really what unites us and makes it possible to realize unity. The Second Vatican Council emphasized: “The teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on.…  It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.” [3]

However, my many years of acquaintance with Catholicism, with the current situation in the Catholic Church, suggests that, unfortunately, the Catholicism of our day does not want to choose the path of following the Sacred Tradition. I don’t mean to say that the Catholic Church does this deliberately. Not at all. But by many of her actions, she really pushes away a possible unity with the Orthodox churches. For some reason, dialogue with various Protestant denominations is more important for the Catholic Church, although they deliberately oppose themselves to the historical Churches that have preserved the Sacred Tradition. In no way do I want to offend Protestants, but both Orthodox and Catholic teachings say that Orthodoxy and Catholicism are much closer to each other than either is to Protestantism. Moreover, we must state that most Protestant denominations consciously oppose themselves to the historic churches with apostolic succession; they say that their theology is different from ours in everything, and our adherence to Sacred Tradition often becomes the subject of at least a condescending smile, if not derision and contempt on the part of Protestants. [4]

From that premise, the attempt to unite Orthodox and Catholics would seem to have been the ideal way forward. Yet Catholicism, it seems to me, went the opposite way. And this is visible in everything. However, to explain my thoughts, I would like to consider several aspects. And among them the main one is the liturgical aspect.

The sacred Liturgy, divine worship, is the foundation of the Church. Without worship, without the Eucharist, the Church cannot exist. In fact, throughout history, the Church has gathered around the Eucharistic sacrifice. Of course, all historical churches with apostolic succession have created their own liturgical rites around the Eucharist, on the compilation of which the Church has worked through its members for many centuries, organically accepting the sound new aspects and discarding what is foreign. The liturgy is the appearance, the manifestation, of the Church, its visible incarnation in the world.

Any forcible, inorganic change can lead to very large upheavals. The Russian Orthodox Church had a tragic experience of this. In the seventeenth century, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon decided to break the Russian liturgical tradition that had developed over 500 years, forcibly imposing a Greek one that was similar but formed in a different historical context. The state and church authorities of those times carried out these reforms by force, arresting and killing all those who disagreed. This led to one third of the Russian Church going into schism—a schism that has still not been healed to this day. Moreover, since there were few bishops in the Russian church at that moment—only one did not agree with the reform, and eventually separated—the Old Believers were marginalized, and some of them lost the priesthood and the sacraments. [5]

The bitter experience of the Russian Orthodox Church was either unknown or ignored by the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. For some reason, the Catholic Church authorities of our time decided to change the liturgy. There is nothing wrong with making some changes in a rite. Those who are more or less familiar with the principles of Anton Baumstark’s comparative liturgy [6] know that changes in any rite are the norm of the life of the Church. But ritual change only works well when, firstly, it is necessary, that is, when these changes are called upon to more fully illuminate one or another aspect of the life of the Church, and secondly, and most importantly, when this happens within the framework of the teaching of the Church and the existing valid liturgical rite.

The goal of the liturgical reforms of the 1960s was lofty: to revive the participation of the people of God in the Holy Eucharist. The purpose is good and, indeed, necessary. Yet instead of attracting the people of God to a more lively and active participation in the Eucharist—through common singing, responses to the exclamations of the priest, even slightly and organically changing the Order of the Holy Mass—the ecclesiastical authority of the Catholic Church decided to radically change both the Order of the Mass and the Latin rite altogether. This, in spite of the fact that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council themselves indicated that the changes must be very balanced and deliberate: “That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress, careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral… There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” [7]

Has this norm of the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium been carried out correctly? The facts themselves say otherwise. Take, for example, the Offertory (a part of the Order of the Mass during which bread and wine are brought to the altar with prayers in view of the consecration). It has been completely reformed. I still can’t imagine why it had to be done. Looking at the new Offertory rite, it is not at all clear what kind of “theological, historical and pastoral research” was carried out on the direct instructions of the Council to introduce that change. Why not turn to the ancient Roman missals, where there are various ancient forms practiced in the Latin Rite? Why compose new prayers, obviously borrowed from Jewish Berakhot? To show the connection between the Old and New Testaments? I’m sure that every priest who celebrates the liturgy knows about this connection. To revive the elements of Jewish worship? Except for the elements brought over in the first generations after the apostles, the Church never in her history had such a Judaizing tendency. [8] To recognize the importance of Judaism and begin to honor the Jews as their “elder brothers”? I fear that 99.9% of the Jews have no idea that there is this element in the Catholic Mass. That is to say, we simply do not see any pastoral, theological, or historical basis for this change in the Offertory rite; nor did it emerge organically from something already there; nor was it genuinely and certainly required.

Further, the central prayer of the Mass is the Eucharistic Canon. In the Byzantine rite, two Eucharistic canons are used as the standard—that of St. Basil the Great and that of St. John Chrysostom. These Eucharistic Canons have been used by the Church for over 1,500 years. The West had the Roman Canon, of similar antiquity and centrality. The Catholic Church took now in our day a completely different path—the path of composing new texts for the Eucharistic Canon. At the same time, supporters of the New Rite point out that the new Eucharistic Prayers were written on the basis of ancient Eastern texts. [9] But any person who is more or less versed in liturgical science will see that this similarity is in fact quite distant and that the new Eucharistic Prayers in the Roman Rite are new texts that are not sanctified either by having been used in tradition or by the teaching of the Church, and sometimes even seem to go against it. [10] Why was this done? I remain silent about the completely redrawn Lectionary and liturgical calendar and the changed system of the Divine Office and the Propers—texts to some extent written by Saints and sanctified by time, yet ceasing to sound during the Catholic liturgy. They simply did not find a place in the New Rite.

Why was it done? Why was the reform so radical? We will find the answer if we look at the authors of the reform and to what inspired them. In executing the reform of the liturgical books, the Commission openly relied on the experience of Protestant worship, drawing inspiration from the Protestant theology of the Eucharist (Last Supper, meal, community…) for introducing changes. The Catholic Church thereby deliberately rejected its own experience, its heritage, rejected the experience of the Eastern Churches wherein a living understanding of the Eucharist as the liturgy of the Body and Blood of the Savior was preserved, and instead went along the Protestant theological path, the followers of which not only do not believe in the true and real Eucharistic Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, but even created their own worship rites in opposition to the Catholic Mass.

Often this shift is explained by the idea of ecumenism, saying: “Behold, our liturgy has become more like that of the Protestants and now we are closer to them.” Is it really so? Do Protestants believe that Catholics have now become closer to them because of the similar outward approach to the Liturgy? Hardly. Thank God, despite the deficient outward form, the essence of the Eucharist as the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the sacrament has remained firm in the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. For a Protestant, the Eucharistic celebration is just a memorial of the Last Supper, in contrast to the Eastern Churches, where there has always been a belief that we really partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. Every Orthodox priest and faithful says before Holy Communion: “I believe that what is in the Chalice is your true Blood.” [11] And the Protestants understand this difference, so the liturgical reform of the Catholic Church did not bring any real rapprochement. That is to say, the Catholics did not gain anything, but they lost a lot.

Not only did the authorities of the Catholic Church create a new rite of the Mass, but they immediately and incredibly banned the use of the old, time-honored Rite. Indeed, the last fifty years have been a struggle of people who want to use the old rite, which originates from before the time of St. Gregory the Great, which was lived and experienced by nearly all the Saints in the West since then. It had been a struggle for achieving the right to be faithful to this rite of the Saints. Fifty years of humiliation, derision, and attempts to somehow stay afloat. The current pontificate basically stated that the Old Rite has no right to exist, and the fact that it is now allowed to be used is but a temporary measure. How, conceptually, are the authorities in the Catholic Church in our day any different from those who forced the marginalization of the Old Believers in Russia?

The current authorities in the Catholic Church say that Catholics have only one Mass, only one rite. They are trying even to pervert and “diversify” this one rite to please the current age. Often one can see that many priests in the Catholic Church celebrate the new rite of the Mass ad libitum, inserting changes and additions on their own initiative, appealing to alleged pastoral goals; they can change the Mass in one way or another, not to mention the liturgy in the Neocatechumenal Way and the Charismatic Movement, or the proposed inculturations. [12]

What do we have, all in all? Liturgically, Catholicism has gone astray. It went to meet the Protestants, stretching out its arms towards them, and the Protestants turned away and went further—towards female priesthood and, in general, diluting the very idea of Christianity. And Catholicism was left with outstretched empty arms. It did not come close to the Protestants (although even from the start, it should have been clear that this approach was unrealistic). Simultaneously, Catholicism moved far away from the East, which relies on Tradition; indeed, it went so far that the red line between Protestantism and Catholicism is in our day diluted in the minds of the Orthodox, both theologians and ordinary believers.

Of course, I do not call for any specific action; that would be too presumptuous. I simply wished to share the pain that an Orthodox believer whose faith is based on Sacred Tradition experiences when he looks at the Catholic Church today. Yet, I want to believe that Christ, who desires the unity of His disciples, will bring back into communion the historical churches of the East and West with Apostolic succession, will unite them with the love that the Saints had who created this treasury of faith and liturgy—the eternal and imperishable life of the Church, based on Sacred Tradition in the Holy Spirit. 

[1] Dial., 37.

[2] In Orthodoxy there are two divergent approaches to this problem, but recognizing the sacraments of the Catholic Church, is much more rooted in the tradition, which is also reflected in the liturgical texts.

[3] Dei Verbum, 10.

[4] In order not to be unfounded, it is enough to remember that the first Protestants immediately began to call the Catholic Church "The Whore of Babylon", see J. Pelikan/H. Lehmann, Luther’s Works 39:102.

[5] One can read about this in detail: P. Meyendorff Russia, Ritual and Reform: The Liturgical Reforms of Nikon in the 17th Century. St Vladimir’s Press (1991), and Russian: Каптерев Н.Ф.: Патриарх Никон и его противники в деле исправления церковныx обрядов, Москва, 1913

[6] Baumstark А. On the historical development of the liturgy (Vom geschichtlichen Werden der Liturgie, 1923); intr., transl. by Fritz West; foreword by Robert F. Taft. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press 2011.

[7] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23

[8] Even in these first two Christian generations, there are very few parallels with the synagogue worship, except that the Didache bears some traces.

[9] Although any mixing of rituals looks very ugly.

[10] The Latin Rite throughout history has emphasized the Eucharist-sacrifice connection, and this in fact forms the basis of the understanding of the Eucharist in the West.

[11] The rite of the Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Prayer before Holy Communion.

[12] The charismatic movement, speaking in tongues in the Church, died in the 2nd century, we don’t even know what type of speaking it was. And what do we see now in our day? A group of people are convinced that they speak in tongues, and the Catholic hierarchs are not afraid to sin against the Holy Spirit (see Mark 3, 22-30) supporting such a practice. I have not come across a single serious theological work that, based on the history of the Church, the consensus Patrum in favor of supporting the possibility of speaking in tongues in the Church. The extreme caution against such charismatic practices is also confirmed by many Saints in the Church.

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