How to Study Theology (and not quit your day job)

When considering the possibility of taking some theology classes, or even pursuing a degree, it’s often the objections that hold sway rather than the movement of the Spirit. What can you do with that? Do you have a back-up plan?  Isn’t that a waste of money?

The pressure to do something practical that will lead to employment is immense.  And yet, our hearts are restless…The desire is there, but the justification is sometimes hard to come by.

Those who take the plunge give a wide variety of reasons for doing so – some quite specific, others barely communicable. Here are three reasons you might be considering the formal study of theology.

You work for the Church in some capacity and want professional development.

Whether you are a catechist in a parish, a permanent deacon, or a vice-chancellor of an archdiocese, continuing formation in the faith is crucial.  No ministry is minor. Though advanced study may or may not mean an increase in salary, it will bring an increase in confidence and a deeper relationship with Christ.

The beauty of theology is that its subject matter is infinite.

You’ve recently come to a greater appreciation of your Catholic faith and feel the need to know more.

Conversion is a powerful thing. When your faith is awakened, you crave a deeper relationship with the Lord and a greater knowledge of His revelation. Your desire to live your faith in your home and professional life is strong, but the know-how is lacking. Even twelve years of Catholic school is not enough!

The personal encounter with Jesus sparks a desire to learn everything possible about Him.

You feel God calling you to something, but you don’t know what it is.

When asked why they decided to study theology, so many students say that they really don’t know-they just felt that God wanted them to do it. Theology students range from traditional-age college students searching for their vocation to retirees looking to grow in the faith and serve in their parishes. The diversity among students is as great as within the Church herself.

So, you are feeling the call to study theology, but you can’t leave your employment. Or move to a new city. Or go into large debt. It is just too impractical. But wait – there’s more! It is, in fact, possible to study theology and not quit your day job! Here’s how.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology program makes it convenient and affordable to earn a theology degree, or just take some classes. The program is completely online offered in a self-paced environment with monthly start dates and offers the lowest tuition of any online Catholic theology program.

The college offers an array of programming, including a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts degrees in Pastoral Theology, Sacred Theology, and Advanced Diaconal Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Theological Studies, and a variety of certificates in Catholic theology at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels. For the neophyte, a non-credit course on The Catechism for Catechists is a perfect beginning.

New certificate programs in Black Catholic and Latino Catholic communities prepare pastoral ministers serving those populations, both of which are changing as they grow. Once predominantly African-American, the Black Catholic population now includes many refugees from Africa, making the population very diverse. Likewise, the Latino community is representative of a number of Spanish-speaking countries, each with a unique culture.

Mindful of both the ecumenical and ecological mission of the Church, Saint Joseph’s College has recently partnered with Gratz College of Philadelphia, to offer a joint Graduate Certificate in Jewish-Christian Studies starting March 1, and with the Laudato Si Institute in Granada, Spain, to provide an International Certificate in Christianity and an Integral Ecology starting April 1.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program is rooted in, and professes fidelity to, the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and heritage of the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to combine faith with reason in the pursuit of academic excellence. Its faculty exemplifies its philosophy that effective ministry requires a solid theological foundation, grounded in solid Catholic doctrine, with a deep spiritual and pastoral orientation.

Every faculty member has received the mandatum from the bishop of the local Diocese of Portland.

So here is the fourth reason to study theology-because you can!

The Gospel tells us to “be not afraid” to “go by another way!” Studying theology may be the road less traveled, but it is one that is spiritually enriching and has practical applications for our work, both in the Church and in the temporal world. Saint Joseph’s College is a guide on that road, and we’d like to invite you to walk with us.

The choice to study theology may not get the enthusiastic nod from family and friends. It will require humility, and even a small martyrdom. It is “another way,” and an often unexpected one. But it is a path you do not walk alone-the SJC community accompanies you.

Carmina Chapp and Ann Koshute teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.
(Note: This article first appeared as sponsored content on Crux.

Nothing Comes from Nothing? God in the Middle

Note: This paper was recently presented at the Catholic Theological Society of America annual conference in the Comparative Theology Reading Group: “On Reading the Bhagavad Gītā” With Francis Clooney, S.J.

Straining for a Properly Interreligious Vocabulary

On June 10, 1994, at the CTSA meeting in Baltimore, in response to Frank Clooney’s Theology after Vedānta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology, I complained that Frank was inconclusive. I discovered contrasts where he discovered comparison. He responded, as he has often, that systematic interpretation needs a theologically coherent community of discourse. I agree. A community of discourse needs vocabularies across languages. Translators are both traitors and bridge-builders.

A mixed English theological vocabulary based on Jewish and Christian scripture and theology, Greek and Latin philosophy, the English philosophical tradition, and the religion and irreligion of English speakers, constrains us. Sanskrit is almost always a later acquisition. Translating the Bhagavad Gītā is challenging. From the Hindu side, Parimal Patil states:

gitalogo“It is not possible . . . to accurately describe Hindu arguments and theories in English without a deep familiarity with philosophical and Christian theological writing in English. Thus, any discussion of Hindu material that is authentic to tradition and intelligible to contemporary theologians will already have to be comparative and dialogically responsible to Christian traditions of theology . . . As theologians from other traditions are allowed to contribute to the conceptual resources of the discipline, the vocabulary and style of English language theology should . . . become properly interreligious.”[1]

Patel is too sanguine about the coherence of our English theological vocabulary, not yet “properly interreligious.”

Forty-three years ago in June 1972, I began studying Sanskrit, tutored by Fr. Thomas Berry. My first assignment was the Gītā. I translated it before reading it. I spent the summer flipping through Sanskrit-English dictionaries looking for English words that might match the Gītā’s Sanskrit. I did not understand that the dictionaries depended on Oxbridge study of Latin and Greek, the Authorized Version, the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare, etc. The dictionaries were unfamiliar with philosophical and theological vocabularies from the Latin Christian tradition, and were certainly unfamiliar with the Greek and Oriental Christian traditions. The emergence over the past fifty years of scholars professionally literate in Sanskrit and in Catholic theology is significant, but not sufficient to the task. We may be losing ground. As Frank states:

“Behind all of this, I think, is the problem that there are fewer scholars today with a solid theological education; ‘theology’ and all the doctrines included in a major Christian tradition keep getting blurred, even if this or that scholar is more careful on the Hindu side. Perhaps the real threat to comparative theology is simply a loss of any proper sense of theology, and a forgetting of the obligations of the theologian to know something definite!”[2]

To know something definite in comparative theology, we need a properly interreligious English theological vocabulary that is appropriate both to the Christian traditions and to the Hindu traditions.

Kṛṣṇa’s Oracle

Chapter 2 presents Kṛṣṇa’s response to Arjuna’s reluctance to fight. Having lost my translation from 1972, I use Feuerstein’s translation.[3]

“The Blessed Lord said.” What follows is oracular. “Haec dicit Dominus.”

“You grieve [for those who are] not to be grieved for, and [yet] you speak words of wisdom. The learned do not sorrow for the dead or the living. Verily, never was I not, were you not, or were these rulers not, nor will any one of us not be henceforth. Just as in this body the body-essence [experiences] childhood, youth, and old age, so too it obtains another body after death. A thoughtful [man] is not confused by this . . . Of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being; of the existent there is no disappearance. Moreover, the ‘end’ of both is seen by the seers-of-Reality. Yet know as indestructible that by which this entire [world] is spread out. No one is able to accomplish the destruction of this immutable [Reality]. Finite are said [to be] these bodies of the eternal embodied [Self], the Indestructible, the Incommensurable. Hence fight, O descendant-of-Bharata.” [2.11-12, 16-18]

First Contrast: Creatio Ex Nihilo

I will consider three contrasts. The Gītā’s worldview is not the worldview of natum ex Patre unigenitum [the only-begotten born from the Father], of creatio ex nihilo [creation out of nothing], and of beginning. This worldview, since the Council of Nicaea, has centered Christian doctrine. Kṛṣṇa’s assertion challenges it head-on: “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being.”[4] There is a peculiar logic here caught by the Sound of Music: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could so somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.” The judgments of the two worldviews are asymmetrical.[5] The works of Sarah Grant and David Burrell with their focus on Śaṅkara are helpful.[6] They propose that Śaṅkara’s teaching of a “non-reciprocal relation of dependence” is a bridge to Aquinas’ theology of creation. About a thousand years after the Gītā’s composition, Śaṅkara wrote its first extant commentary from the position of advaita, non-dualism. To avoid category mistakes and genealogical confusion, caution is needed. The Gītā’s teaching is not premised on anything like creatio ex nihilo. Nor is it premised on Śaṅkara’s subtle teaching on advaita, which, however, builds on this very verse.

The doctrine of creation is not easily explained. It is possible to conceive of God without a created world. It is possible to conceive of a world without God. The world might not have been. If it does exist by creation, it is “gifted” by God. Gratitude is the appropriate response. Gratitude yields a theology of human freedom and love for God. One thing that creation is not is a change. Therefore the notion of beginning is almost as peculiar a notion as creation itself. In contrast to the Gītā’s teaching, the created universe has no material cause. Nothing changes in creation. Thomas Aquinas states this emphatically.

“Creation is not change, except merely according to a mode of understanding. For change means that the same something should be different now from what it was previously . . . But in creation, by which the whole substance of a thing is produced, the same thing can be taken as different now and before only according to our way of understanding, so that a thing is understood first as not existing at all, and afterwards as existing . . . Creation places something in the thing created according to relation only; because what is created is not made by movement or change . . . Hence creation in the creature is only a certain relation to the Creator as to the principle of its being.”[7]

Aquinas also argued that “in the beginning” could not be reasoned to. It requires revelation.

“I answer that, by faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist.”[8]

Thus the great Hindu dialecticians had no reason to reason to “beginning.” The conjoined creation of the universe by God out of nothing and of one that begins may be a “haplax legoumena” [one-time teaching] with no corresponding Hindu homologue. This judgment is tentative. The Gītā’s teaching that “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being” and the Christian teaching that God created the world out of nothing with a beginning depend on revelation, not on reasoning alone. Both are, to borrow John Millbank’s phrase, in a “suspended middle” between reason and revelation.[9] A properly interreligious vocabulary will attend to this “suspension.

Second Contrast: Why Is There Anything?

The second contrast challenges both the Gītā’s worldview and the Christian. Contrasts are not just binary. There are more than two hands involved [Shiva has six hands]. The question why there is anything rather than nothing haunts contemporary philosophical culture. The question is oblique both to Christian doctrine and to the Gītā. Martin Heidegger asks:

“Why are there ‘existents’ rather than nothing? That is the question. Clearly it is no ordinary question . . . And yet each of us is grazed at least once, perhaps more than once, by the hidden power of this question, even if he is not aware of what is happening to him.”[10]

This question cannot be answered. It is open. There is no Archimedean point from which to answer. Hans Urs von Balthasar states:

“Why in fact is there something rather than nothing? The question remains open regardless of whether one affirms or denies the existence of an absolute being. If there is no absolute being, whatever reason could there be that these finite, ephemeral things exist in the midst of nothing, things that could never add up to the absolute as a whole or evolve into it? But, on the other hand, if there is an absolute being, and if this being is sufficient unto itself, it is almost more mysterious why there should exist something else.”[11]

Contrasting Christian creatio ex nihilo and the Gītā’s “of the non-existent there is no coming-into-being” leaves us in a second “suspended middle” of differing rationalities and revelations. The question why there is anything at all and the peculiar logics of a peculiarly unanswerable question compound the task. We are suspended in a suspension. The tasks of comparative theology are not just theological. Therefore we need to develop a properly interreligious vocabulary.

Concluding Contrast: Seeing with a New Eye

Chapter two was a good place to begin reading, but should not end there. Kṛṣṇa’s answers to Arjuna’s questions lead in chapter ten to wonder at who Kṛṣṇa really is. He is clearly more than a mere chariot driver. Then in chapter eleven, Kṛṣṇa gives Arjuna a new eye to really see him.

“If, Lord, You think it possible for me to see that [form of Yours], O Lord of Yoga, then do reveal to me [Your] immutable self. The Blessed Lord said: O Son-of-Prithā, behold My forms, [which are] a hundredfold, a thousandfold, of varied kinds, divine, many-colored and many-shaped . . . Behold now, O Gudākesha, the whole universe, [with all] moving and unmoving [things], abiding as one here in My [cosmic] body, and whatever else you desire to see. Yet, you will not be able to see Me with your own [physical] eye. I will give you the divine eye . . . Then the son-of-Pandu saw the whole universe, divided manifold, abiding in the One, there in the body of the God of gods . . . The Blessed Lord said: Therefore you arise [and] win glory! Conquering the enemies, enjoy a prosperous kingdom! Verily, they are [all] slain by Me. Be [My] mere instrument, O Savyasācin!” [11:4-5, 8, 13, 33]

Non est finis legendi et quaerendi!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1]Parimal G. Patel, “A Hindu Theologian’s Response: A Prolegomenon to ‘Christian God, Hindu God,’’ in Francis X. Clooney, Hindu God, Christian God: How Reason Helps Break Down the Boundaries between Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 192.

[2] Personal communication.

[3] Georg Feuerstein, with Brenda Feuerstein, trans. The Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (Boston: Shambala, 2014).

[4] See the chapter entitled “Preference for the Negative” in Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1964), pp. 52-57.

[5] See my, “The Asymmetry of ‘Creation’ and ‘Origination’: Contrasts within Comparative Theology,” forthcoming in Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies.

[6] See Sara Grant, Toward An Alternative Theology: Confessions of a Non-Dualist Christian (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002); “The Contemporary Relevance of the Advaita of Sankaracarya” in Bradley J. Malkovsky ed., New Perspectives on Advaita Vedanta: Essays in Commemoration of Professor Richard De Smet, S.J. (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 148-163; and David Burrell, Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

[7]Summa Theologiae I, 45, 2, ad 2 and I.45.3.

[8] I.46.

[9] John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate concerning the Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2005).

[10]Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961 [1953]), p. 1.

[11]Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004 [1963], p. 143.

You’re Invited!

This week (January 18-25) is the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We are invited to pray for the unity of the Christian Family. Celebrated for more than 100 years, unity is more than just an ideal, for the Christian it is an obligation to be carried out in prayer and in shared commitment to building the kingdom of God.

icon_holyapostlesThe roots of praying for unity are fixed in Jesus’ prayer, near the time of his death, “… so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). The Catholic Church’s participation in ecumenical endeavors took new shape in the Second Vatican’s Council’s commitment to build stronger ties across Christian communities. Building on the work of the Council, St. John Paul II called the church to make unity an exercise of spiritual ecumenism, noting that the disunity of Christians weakens the credibility of the Gospel.

In an address to the church in Oceania he reflected “In the work of ecumenism, it is essential that Catholics be more knowledgeable about the Church’s doctrine, her tradition and history, so that in understanding their faith more deeply they will be better able to engage in ecumenical dialogue and cooperation. There is a need too for ‘spiritual ecumenism’, by which is meant an ecumenism of prayer and conversion of heart. Ecumenical prayer will lead to a sharing of life and service where Christians do as much together as is possible at this time. ‘Spiritual ecumenism’ can also lead to doctrinal dialogue or its consolidation where it already exists” (Ecclesia in Oceania, 23).

This reflection of St. John Paul echoes in the theme for this year’s celebration which is “Give me a drink.” Taken from John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), it emphasizes the importance of encountering one another in dialogue and celebrating that all Christians drink from the common well of the life-giving waters of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In our encounter with Christians, in our dialogue, in our shared ministry of charity we learn the richness of one another’s tradition and we more easily see ourselves through the eyes of Jesus; who we are and who we can become. In the Decree on Ecumenism, written at the Second Vatican Council, the unity that can be found in Christ magnifies the invitation of this year’s celebration to drink of the water Our Lord has to offer.

Before the whole world let all Christians confess their faith in the triune God, one and three in the incarnate Son of God, our Redeemer and Lord. United in their efforts, and with mutual respect, let them bear witness to our common hope which does not play us false. In these days when cooperation in social matters is so widespread, all men without exception are called to work together, with much greater reason all those who believe in God, but most of all, all Christians in that they bear the name of Christ. Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses the relationship which in fact already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant….All believers in Christ can, through this cooperation, be led to acquire a better knowledge and appreciation of one another, and so pave the way to Christian unity.

Decree on Ecumenism, 12

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Does Reunion Include Dissolution?

Vatican IIThe Second Vatican Council met in the autumn months between 1962 and 1965. Therefore, some fiftieth anniversaries have already come and gone: the Council’s opening, the death of Pope St. John XXIII, and the election of Paul VI. Saint Joseph’s College has contributed its own recognition. This year and next, though, will mark the real fiftieth anniversaries—the passing of conciliar documents like Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. When you hear or read somebody comment “Vatican II revolutionized the Church,” these documents provide the sparks for that change. We do not suffer a shortage of accounts detailing the changes of Vatican II and their impact throughout the Church. As many of us know, conciliar enthusiasm has not swept everybody off their feet. Perhaps that is why these fiftieth anniversaries of the Council are so important. We are still, as Peter Huff has said, “on the sacred mountain,” seeking to make sense of the Council and its legacy.

Another conciliar document witnessing its golden anniversary this November is Unitatis Redintegratio, the Council’s decree on ecumenism. St. John’s Gospel includes Christ’s prayer to the Father that all His followers may be one, just as He and the Father are one (17:21). So, after the Church’s self-assessment (Lumen Gentium) but before turning its attention to the modern world, the Council duly considered the readily evident fact that Christianity stood torn asunder, represented by many churches instead of one, true, unified Church. Addressing and correcting this sad reality figured among Pope St. John XXIII’s inspiration for the Council. While he did not live to see its promulgation, Unitatis Redintegratio aptly addressed Pope John’s hope.   Non-Catholic Christians were recognized as possessing some, but not all, elements of the Gospel (#3). Furthermore, the Catholic faithful—lay and clergy—are called to “recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part” in ecumenical work (#4). Honestly studying the beliefs of other Christians is no longer the purview of a specialized academic few, but now expected of everybody (#9).

Each conciliar document poses so many questions and new avenues of discovery, and Unitatis Redintegratio does not disappoint. A simple one might be: Do we thus give up everything for the Council’s vision? Out with the old, in with the new? Within twenty years of the Council’s conclusion some Catholic theologians called for a complete reorganization of the Church’s perception of itself and other churches and religious traditions. From now on, the argument went, being truly Christian meant de-emphasizing uniquely Christian elements and eschewing many proudly Catholic expressions. So it seemed that Roman Catholic Christian renewal involved dissolving oneself, or at least one’s ecclesiology and theology.

True to form, though, Unitatis Redintegratio contains answers to the very questions it has prompted. The Council fathers made very clear that while common prayer might foster unity, common worship services could often give the wrong impression. Catholics should remain Catholic, while Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals attended their own affairs (#8). Common concerns such as feeding the poor and serving those afflicted by disaster, though, demonstrated to the world that unity for which Christ had prayed (#12). Finally, almost twenty years ago Pope St. John Paul II addressed the Council’s call to ecumenical dialogue. The papacy, so long a visible obstacle to Protestants, still could serve the pursuit of unity. Some critics seemed dismayed that Catholic intransigence had, once again, reared its ugly head. But John Paul’s reaffirmation of the Council should not have surprised many. Unitatis itself had declared: “Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (#6). That call included the realization that God alone can bring about true Christian unity (#24). Therefore, the road to reunion runs right through the heart of the Church itself.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

A Blog from Rome

I didn’t know that I suffer from agoraphobia until this year. We were in Rome this spring when the city imageswelled with pilgrims to celebrate the canonizations of the two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. We couldn’t even get within a mile of Piazza San Pietro; it seemed that half of Warsaw was in town. Here’s a picture from the other side of the river, about two miles away, which was as close as we could get without needing the services of the Italian Red Cross.

The event naturally encourages us to think about the monumental achievements of these two popes. Pope John XXIII’s calling of the Council, of course, will stand as one of the most important institutional events of the modern era. It encouraged and renewed so many people, inside and outside the Church. Pamela and I were very lucky to be able to pray most evenings with the Community of Sant’ Egidio, a lay community of peace founded by high school students in Rome who were inspired by John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. The community is anchored in communal prayer, evangelization and solidarity with the poor.

An aspect of John Paul’s legacy was on display in the newly opened excavation of a section of Domitian’s Circus, better known to tourists as the Piazza Navona. The archeological site had just opened a photographic and text exhibition celebrating the tireless efforts at interreligious dialogue of Pope John Paul II. It is amazing to be reminded how often he traveled to meet leaders of Jewish, Islamic and other faith traditions in the service of mutual understanding and peace. The second of the “Ten Commandments” of the Assisi prayer gathering for peace formulated by John Paul II reads:

We commit ourselves to educating people to mutual respect and esteem, in order to help bring about a peaceful and fraternal coexistence between people, of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions.

The photo exhibit is an excellent tool for such education; I hope that a good website for it will be available soon. So far I have been unable to find one. In the meantime, here is an article that lists the pope’s travels in the service of interreligious dialogue.

David Hammond and his wife Pamela Hedrick teach theology and Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Ut Unum Sint

Pan Orthodox Synod announcedThis month, an event of tremendous religious significance is in the process of coming to fruition and, yet, is receiving far less media attention than it deserves. The event in question is a Pan-Orthodox Synod which is the formal title for, what one might call, an Orthodox council. For those who might not be familiar with Orthodox Christianity, such an event has not happened since the split between the Eastern (later Orthodox) and Western (later Catholic) branches of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In other words, an event of this type has not occurred since the 9th century! [Some Orthodox theologians contend that a 14th century synod held in Constantinople which endorsed the theology of St. Gregory of Palamas also qualifies, but that is by no means a universally-held position among Orthodox Christians.]

The news relating to this event was made public on March 9th (the actual communiqué can be found here: http://www.patriarchate.org/documents/synaxis-2014-communique ). At a Synaxis (gathering) of the primates of all the autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox churches, it was agreed that the proposed Pan-Orthodox Synod should be held in 2016 in Constantinople (Istanbul). [The one “hitch” to the vote was the absent Patriarch of Antioch, who left because of a dispute unrelated to the pending council. Because he elected to “suspend” his vote, rather than dissent from the vote, the plans for the future Synod will proceed.] The preparations for this historic Pan-Orthodox Synod began in 1976 and, needless to say given the date, the process has been an arduous and often politically-fraught one.

[For the input of the USCCB on the topic (from 1977!), see the following link: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/ecumenical/orthodox/reaction-orthodox-council.cfm ]

How does this topic relate to the “average Catholic?” According to St. John’s Gospel, the final prayer which Jesus uttered before his arrest on Holy Thursday was for the unity of all those who believe in him. “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are” (Jn 17:11). Jesus’ prayer not only expresses his ardent desire for our communion, but also points us towards the mystical font of all Christian communion, i.e., the very inner-life of our Triune God. Blessed Pope John Paul II, inspired by this verse of St. John’s Gospel, entitled his encyclical on the Church’s commitment to ecumenism Ut Unum Sint (So That They Might Be One). In this text, Pope John Paul reiterates a phrase which he often used in relation to Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, namely, that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (§ 54). That is to say, the Church is called to the communion which she enjoyed during the first Christian millennium. Pope John Paul’s successors have consistently echoed this belief as well. Pope Benedict XVI stated in an address to Orthodox church leaders that “we dare to hope, even if humanly speaking constantly new difficulties arise, that the day may still be not too far away when we may once again celebrate the Eucharist together” (9-24-11). Pope Francis, speaking to a delegation from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, said that “the search for unity among Christians is an urgent task – you have said that ‘it is not a luxury, but an imperative’ – from which, today more than ever, we cannot rescind” (6-28-13).

The eminent Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann (+1983) once said that any communion with Rome would have to follow a Pan-Orthodox Synod. In other words, intra-communion among the Orthodox must come first. He also, rather infamously, followed that statement by referring to the idea of a Pan-Orthodox Synod as an “eschatological concept.” Well, given the recent communiqué from the Synaxis, perhaps we all should be a little extra-vigilant in awaiting the Lord’s return in the next few years. At the very least, we should all share in his prayer that we be one as he and the Father are one. “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

 Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.