While it is not a popular position for an Orthodox Christian, much less a priest, when I reflect on the history of uniatism—of those communities who left the Orthodox Church and joined themselves to Catholic Church—I am struck less by the machinations of Rome and more the failing of Orthodox Christians. Much of what we call uniatism is the fruit of our failure to be reconciled to each other, to support and encourage each other. How different would events then, and now, have unfolded if the actors had seen each other as the precious, irreplaceable gifts from God that each of us is to the other?
What concerns me as well is that even among those Orthodox Christians who left and joined themselves to Rome the same divisions still exist among Eastern Catholics. Forgive me for speaking so plainly, but I cannot help wonder at times at the tribalism that seems so deeply rooted in Eastern Christianity. Whether we are Orthodox or Catholic, we seem to prefer to be with “our people” rather than “those people.” This preference for our own comes at the expense of the Gospel and is in stark contrast to the beauty and wisdom I have found in Eastern Christianity.
The documents of the Second Vatican Council figured prominently in my own journey to the Orthodox Church. Not, as some might imagine, in a negative way, but in positive way. Reading the Council Fathers, looking at the reforms that they struggled to articulate and implement, was struck by the the prominence of the Christian East. To take but two examples, Vatican II’s emphasizes the conciliar nature of the Church on the universal level and the celebration of the Eucharist in the vernacular on the parochial level. I could add to this the renewed emphasis on the Liturgy of the Hours (or the daily cycle of services) and the universal call to holiness as the foundation of the life of the Church. Granted these elements were not always embodied with equal success, but the attempt was made and I saw in the attempt a turn to the East that lead me naturally to the Byzantine Catholic Church and ultimately to the Orthodox Church.
The Church of Rome looked to renew herself by looking East to re-appropriate for her own life the importance of the local Church. I wonder if it isn’t necessary for the Orthodox Church to look West and re-appropriate for ourselves the importance of the universal Church? Part of this process would , I think, require from us a sober reflection on the failures of uniatism not simple in the pejorative sense of the term, but also at the failure of Orthodox Christians then (and also now) to be true to our own ecclesiological vision. It is this failure I would suggest that failure that made reasonable the departure of some of us to Rome.
Let me be clear, I do not think that re-union with Rome is the answer. Yes, there must be reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and I hope for this in my lifetime.
But while reconciliation with the Church of Rome is essential, there is another, internal reconciliation that must happen as well. If it doesn’t then I am afraid we will see deeper divisions not only within the Church but from the Church as well. Even during the relative calm of recent years some 60% of those who join the Orthodox Church as adults leave us. Add to this the young people who leave as adults and the number of adults whose participation in the life of the Church is nominal at best, and the need for renewal and reconciliation on all levels of the Church becomes painful obvious.
Fr Gregory Jensen (Orthodox Church in America)