SUNDAY, JULY 15, 1954, was the thou
sandth anniversary of the saddest day in Christian history, when the legates of the dead Pope St. Leo IX laid a Bull of Excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople upon the altar of his cathedral just before Mass began.
Separated from them by barriers of custom, race and distance. Catholics have little opportunity to meet the Orthodox. Many do not realise that they are the largest Christian body from whom we are divided; nor that, as the direct successors of the ancient Apostolic churches of the East, they share with us—and have guarded, often with their lives. over the centuries—almost everything we tend to think of as our special Catholic inheritance.
Recently, thanks to Pope John's warm feelings towards them, and to Pope Paul's meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras, the interest of Catholics in their closest Christian brothers has been aroused. And the declaration of the Orthodox Conference at Rhodes last year in favour of a dialogue with the Catholic Church raised hopes for the eventual healing of the most shameful and unnecessary breach in Christendom.
It was natural, therefore, that the decision by the third PanOrthodox Conference at Rhodes last month to defer the opening of an official Catholic-Orthodox dialogue should have caused great disappointment. Reports indicated that the Russian delegation to the Conference was responsible for what seemed to be a set-back to ecumenical relations; and it has been suggested in some quarters that their action was dictated by political pressures.
The leader of the Russian delegation, Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad and Ladoga
h o received Archbishop Heenan in Moscow this week) passed through London recently on his way home from Rhodes, and through the kindness of Fr. Rodzianko of the Serbian Church in London I was able to have nearly two hours' discussion with him on this and other subjects.
Metropolitan Nikodim told me immediately that he and his Church 'were most disturbed by these reports. There was absolutely no reason, he said, for Catholics to be disappointed; while any suggestions that the Russian Church was against the dialogue were completely untrue.
In his own words, which he was most anxious should be related as he gave them, he emphasised that it was important to realise that great progress was being made. The second Rhodes Conference had indeed ruled in principle that the dialogue should be opened in due time; but it did not go into any detail. Since then a year had passed, and each Orthodox church had been able to reflect upon the decisions of the last Conference.
On November 15, the third Rhodes Conference considered what concrete steps could now be taken towards the beginning of the dialogue. It decided unanimously that all the Orthodox Churches must, each from its own point of view, not undertake a serious study of everything connected with the dialogue with the Catholic Church.
When this had been done, a special pan-Orthodox Conference would be convened to consider the results of these studies. It would appoint its own theological commission for this purpose, and after this had reported back the Conference would arrive at a decision for the starting of the dialogue.
Meanwhile. the Rhodes Conference decided, all the Orthodox Churches, both local churches and independent ones, might and should foster their own brotherly relations with the Catholic Church; not speaking for the whole Orthodox Church and not going deeply into questions of dogma, but drawing closer to each other in fraternal love.
Metropolitan Nikodim stressed again and again that progress in the dialogue must be made gradually, with no hasty moves which might undo the good already done. The Rhodes decision was beyond question an important move forward on the Orthdodox side: and everyone who had studied the matter deeply would agree that (although this was in fact not part of the Rhodes ruling) the final outcome of the Vatican Council should be awaited before the official dialogue was opened.
"To proclaim the beginning of the dialogue without real and clear agreement on what form it should take and how it should be conducted, and without full knowledge of the position of the Catholic Church, would be an empty sound", he said, "a gesture with no real content. And I must emphasise my strong personal view that, in such an important and holy matter as Christian unity, it is absolutely vital to go forward step by step, but always making progress".
I suggested that many of the geographical, psychological and political .factors which played such a lamentable part in the original schism were unfortunately still with us today, and that only a handful of the Bishops at the Vatican .Council had any first-hand knowledge of Eastern Christianity; whereas many of the most active among them live side by side with Protestant communities and were bound to be influenced by this. Did he not think that to begin the dialogue before Vatican II ended—an opportunity which might not recur for a hundred years—would be an important balancing factor?
Metropolitan Nikodim • was very definite in his answer. At the Vatican Council the Catholic Church must decide its own internal questions in its own way, by the majority vote of its own Bishops. It would be quite wrong to subject Catholic Bishops to pressure from the Orthdox Church. The decisions of the Vatican Council were of vital importance; but the Bishops must take them in full freedom, without external pressures.
Catholicity, as it is under. stood by the Orthodox, means not so much universality as that unanimity of the whole Church, under its Bishops, which speaks at Councils and in the Church's magisterium. It is that "oneness" which the Orthodox hope the Council will emphasise.
"If the decisions taken by the Vatican Council are in the spirit of Catholicity', then the necessary conditions for the opening of the dialogue will have been created", Metropolitan Nikodim said. "For example, how can we begin the dialogue when the position of the Bishops is still an open question?" (The decisions of Collegiality were not promulgated until the following week.)
"If at the end of the Council the position of the Catholic Church on the question of the Episcopacy turns out to be closer to that of Orthodoxy than it has been in the past, then we shall have a better chance of beginning the dialogue on the right basis.
"In any case, the dialogue
cannot be started until the Catholic Church says definitely that it is ready. The decision of the recent Rhodes Conference will be officially communicated to it. On no account must this decision be interpreted as a closing of the doors."
Accustomed as we are to our massive Western centralisation, Roman Catholics often overlook the fact that the bonds which unite the Orthodox Church are those of intercommunion flowing from a shared Faith and priesthood, not of a common allegiance to a single authority.
In many ways closer in their organisation to the loose-knit early Church than we, they greatly prize the fraternal equality of their memberChurches. But the absence of common institutions has its disadvantages. and it was interesting to hear from Metropolitan Nikodim that the Russians suggested two years ago a permanent Orthodox Co-ordination Commission.
Indeed, our conversation was full of evidences of the Russian Church's constructive attitude, as, for example, the fact that they themselves made the proposal (not accepted) at Rhodes last month that a pan-Orthodox commission be formed without delay to prepare the OrthodoxCatholic dialogue itself.
Metropolitan Nikodim is, of course, a familiar figure in the West as the Head of External Relations of the Russian Church. It was he who attended Midnight Mass last Christmas at Moscow's Catholic church of St.