The title of this essay was referred to a few weeks ago in my homily. It reflects the passion of Pope St John Paul II to bring unity to the two great Churches of the Latin West and the Orthodox East. Why hasn’t it happened?
The split occurred over a period of centuries of misunderstanding and miscommunication. It was driven forward by mutual claims to primacy and the arrogance especially of the papal legate in 1054, a date that has become the traditional beginning of the split, and exacerbated by the sack of Constantinople by Westerners during the Fourth Crusade. A paper agreement of union was worked out (under duress: Constantinople was under siege by the Turks) at the Council of Florence in the 15th century, but it was immediately rejected by people in Constantinople (especially the monks). The sack of the Eastern capital in 1453 really finalized the break. What began with disagreements ended up in great resentment and bitterness. People hurt and angry very often have long memories of the insults…
It seemed as though a breakthrough might happen at the end of the Second Vatican Council. As a result of their previous meeting in the Holy Land, Pope St Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras formally agreed to drop the mutual excommunications under which the two Churches had been living. Things looked hopeful.
The desire of John Paul II led to dialogue with Patriarch Demetrios, and perhaps if it were only up to them, there would have been success, as seems to be the case today with Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew. But the Orthodox structure involves a number of “auto-cephalous” Churches—they stand independently, and the Patriarch of Constantinople really has only titular headship. For Orthodoxy to move toward Rome (and vice versa), all the Orthodox Churches would have to be in agreement. Especially with regard to Pope John Paul II, the Russian Orthodox (who actually claim superiority over Constantinople) would never come to agreement with a Polish pope.
Still, a few days ago we celebrated Ss Cyril and Methodius, named by John Paul II as co-patrons (along with St Benedict) of all Europe. They were Greeks who evangelized the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe in the 9th century and were warmly supported by the pope in their missionary efforts. They are a sign that all things are possible with God—even perhaps the breaking down of prejudices and resentments that keep us from acting as brothers and sisters. We must never forget that the great patron saints of Rome and Constantinople are, after all, St Peter and St Andrew: brothers! Our diversity of language, liturgical style, and even theology simply do not need to keep us out of communion. During the Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II called for a “purification of memories.” If we could achieve this between East and West, how good and pleasant it would be: brothers and sisters dwelling in unity!