WASHINGTON - Leaders of the world's Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, meeting this week in Maryland in a quest to end 1,000 years of schism, paused to pray together yesterday in a joint worship rich with fragrant incense and Byzantine chant at the capital's Greek Orthodox cathedral.
But what brought the two delegations together - the celebration of the Eucharist, the central religious ritual for both Orthodox and Catholic - also highlighted how separated they are from each other. For when it came time to receive Communion, the Catholics, including Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, the Vatican's top ecumenical official, and Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, had to remain in their seats.
The same occurred a day earlier when Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, leader of the Orthodox delegation, and his colleagues attended a Mass at the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore.
Both Orthodox and Catholic churches offer Communion only to those who embrace their respective formulations of faith.
In his sermon, Archbishop Stylianos noted that the two groups cannot yet drink "from the same holy cup" of consecrated wine, which they believe to be the blood of Christ.
"We are not yet entitled to do so. We are not yet allowed to do so," he said. "Each of us has had his sins - on both sides. ... We should acknowledge our sins. We should confess our sins. We should repent of our sins, both at the same time, and ask God to forgive us."
Despite the ritual prohibitions, the churches offered what gestures of friendship and fraternity they could.
As Communion proceeded yesterday at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Archbishop Stylianos approached the Catholic delegation and offered them pieces of unconsecrated bread, a common Orthodox gesture for members of other faiths visiting their services. He first offered the bread to Cassidy, then to Keeler, giving both a kiss of greeting on each cheek, before moving on to the entire Catholic delegation.
During the Catholic Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption, Keeler and Cassidy offered Archbishop Stylianos an embrace of peace before Communion.
The members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches, meeting for the first time in the Western Hemisphere, have nearly completed 10 days of meetings at Mount St. Mary's University and Seminary in Emmitsburg. As is traditional, all sessions have been private, with no indication of what has been accomplished being released until a news conference on Wednesday, the dialogue's final day.
Sessions at Emmitsburg have focused on the relationship of Catholic and Orthodox churches in light of disputes that arose after the fall of the Soviet empire. Eastern Catholics in Eastern Europe, who recognize the authority of the Catholic pope, have sought the return of churches and other property seized under communist regimes. Some of those churches were given to the Orthodox, leading to ownership disputes. Orthodox churches have objected to what they perceive as opportunistic proselytizing in the former Soviet empire by Western Christian churches.
Still, the experience of worshipping together in a spirit of good will makes it clear why dialogue between the two churches, with the goal of full communion in which they could share sacraments, is a worthwhile goal, Cassidy said.
"I think we see here what we are looking forward to, what our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to, that we can be together in this way - and yet not quite," he told the congregation of the Greek Orthodox cathedral at yesterday's service.
"We are on the way toward ... that kind of unity which we shared for a whole millennium. Then we lost it," Cassidy said. "And history has been very cruel to us in this last 1,000 years, cruel in the sense that we've been cut off more and more from each other, divided not only by our own divisions, but even more by geography and by peoples who came to oppress us and divide us territorially.
"And ultimately that has left us with a heritage, as we enter this new millennium, which we absolutely have to overcome."