This 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.