Catholic and Orthodox leaders resume talks on 1,000-year split

To try to bridge nearly a millennium of schism, Catholic and Orthodox leaders are to begin a 10-day summit today in Emmitsburg, their eighth official ecumenical meeting in the past two decades, and the first convened in the Western Hemisphere.

Members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church will meet in private at Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary, but will emerge for several public worship services in Emmitsburg, Baltimore and Washington.


The gathering was scheduled for last summer at the Western Maryland seminary, but was postponed because of the NATO bombardment of Serbia.

Baltimore archbishop is host


Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore who is host of the meeting here, said he believes the collegial atmosphere between the Orthodox and Catholics in the United States might provide a good model for the larger churches, which formally split in 1054, and have grown to 1 billion Catholics and 300 million Orthodox Christians.

"Part of the hope is that the good relationship we've had between Catholics and Orthodox locally and nationally will give some encouragement to the international delegations who are coming here," Keeler said.

The 46 delegates will listen to discussions in English, French, Greek and Russian. The Catholic delegation will be led by Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, the Vatican's top ecumenical official. The Orthodox delegation is headed by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, representing the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

The ultimate goal of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue is full communion between the two churches. During the first 10 years of the dialogue, which began in 1980, they made significant progress, hammering out agreements on the Eucharist, sacraments and apostolic succession, which is the historic link of Catholic and Orthodox bishops back to the early apostles of Jesus.

Status, property disputes

But the dialogue has stalled for the past decade with the fall of communism, as disputes arose in Eastern Europe, particularly in western Ukraine and Romania, over the status and property of Eastern Catholic churches who have historically recognized the pope's authority.

After World War II, "the Communists, for their own reasons, decided to suppress the Eastern Catholic churches that existed under their authority and unify them with the Orthodox through force," said the Rev. Ronald G. Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"These churches went through a horrible martyrdom. Churches were confiscated and given to the Orthodox," he said. "With the fall of communism in 1989, these Eastern Catholics emerged from the catacombs wanting their churches back, feeling a terrible injustice had been committed against them. And many saw the Orthodox in collusion with the Communists against them. There were confrontations that resulted from this over church property that were very strong."


The Orthodox churches have objected to what they perceive as opportunistic proselytizing in the former Soviet empire by Western Christian churches.

Tension over missionaries

"Over the past 10 years or so, the dialogue, particularly in Eastern Europe, has been tense," said the Rev. Thomas FitzGerald, a theology professor at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., and a participant in the North American Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. "It's been tense because of changes in the Orthodox world. And it's been tense because of the influx of missionaries from the Christian West who have come to these various countries seeking to convert Orthodox people to their version of Christianity."

The Orthodox also have opposed the Catholics' centuries-old practice of seeking unity with the East by sending missionaries to encourage churches to recognize papal authority. These churches, referred to as Eastern Catholics, retain their Orthodox traditions and liturgy but are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

When the international commission last met, in 1993 in Balamand, Lebanon, the two groups approved a document in which Catholics agreed not to proselytize in areas with a majority Orthodox population, and the Orthodox recognized the right of the Eastern Catholic churches to exist. But six of the 14 Orthodox churches were not present at the Balamand meeting, so the topic will be revisited at this meeting in Emmitsburg.

The most hopeful sign, observers say, is that the two churches are meeting and talking.


"At this point, I think the big issue is restoring the sense of trust," FitzGerald said. "I think people have to meet. I don't think things get better unless people meet and talk. And here in the states, we've had a tradition of meeting and talking at highest level."