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Ecumenical Commission


Eleuterio F. Fortino

«In the course of centuries, life according to the Holy Spirit, in the variety of models and charisms, has enriched both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church with extraordinary testimonies. Even in this century of ours, the contribution of new martyrs has not been lacking. It is from these martyrs that believers are urged to look with greater attention at Christ "the same yesterday, today and always" (Heb. 13,8)». This affirmation is found in the message sent by the Holy Father to Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, on the occasion of the Fifth Interchristian Symposium (Assisi, September 5-8, 1997), organized by the Institute of Spirituality of the Pontifical Atheneum "Antonianum" in Rome and by the Orthodox Theology Department of the "Aristotle" University in Thessalonia.

This initiative of Interchristian symposiums is of particular interest because it deals with more than dialogue or confrontation between two theological faculties. In these encounters, Catholics and Orthodox «intend to reflect together», as the Holy Father wrote. This year reflection centered on «Sanctity as life in the Spirit», and in other years, it has focussed on other common aspects of the Christian tradition. The themes already discussed in past years show this: «Prayer and contemplation» (Crete, 1992); «The spirituality of monasticism in East and West» (Thessalonia, 1993); «The ecclesial dimension of spirituality» (Venice, 1994); «Spiritual orientation of Europe: the contribution of Eastern and Western Christianity» (Alessandropoli, Greece, 1995).

The common reflection between two Christian traditions, like that of the Greek and Latin, reveals a great variety of theological and spiritual expressions which more often than not, on the base of a common faith, show themselves to be complementary. They offer fruitful instruments of evangelization in diverse cultural contexts. Further, placing these expressions together can aid a reciprocal enrichment.

This lesson which for us Catholics comes from the Second Vatican Council was recalled for us by John Paul II in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (n. 47-48) and also in the apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (n. 37). The decree on ecumenism presents the recognition of the work that God does among the other Christians as a spiritual necessity. «Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments for our common heritage which are to be found in our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in his works and worthy of all praise» (UR, 4).

The common reflection on sanctity makes the potentiality of one baptism emerge, and, like all that is truly Christian, is never contrary to the benefices of the faith. Rather, it could make it so that the same mystery of Christ and the Church are grasped more fully. «Such a joint witness of holiness, as fidelity to the one Lord, has an ecumenical potential extraordinarily rich in grace» (UUS, 48).

The symposium spread over an area dedicated to highlighting the biblical prospective of life in the Spirit and the theological foundations for extending it to models of sanctity found in history, to pneumatological aspects of sanctity, to sanctity in the holy canons, to the Holy Spirit and to charisms in the process of canonizations, to the language of sanctity in modern and secularized society, to the experience of the Spirit and the education of the modern world. Each thematic was developed in parallel, at least in the problematic, by a Catholic spokesman and by one from the Orthodox theological faculty. From this came a variegated and multicolored picture, peopled with different figures on various landscapes, but which had, one had the clear sensation, one source of inspiration.

Unlike other encounters of ecumenical dialogue, the atmosphere of this symposium was peaceful and pacifying, maybe because of the distance which each feels in oneself when reflecting on the Christian vocation and sanctity. A publication in St. Petersburg presented by Fr. Tecle Vetrali, professor at the Ecumenical Institute "San Bernardino" in Venice, could be taken as a synthesis of the symposium itself. It deals with an experience of communion started between the Patriarch of Moscow and the Franciscan Order of Brothers Minor. The professor said: «This fraternal relationship has exposed many affinities between the Orthodox and Franciscan spiritualities. The correspondence does not reduce to the psychological or cultural field. The communion is profound and touches the same roots of existence: it is born from the same Holy Spirit, who introduces us into communion with the one Christ and the one Father, illuminating us with the one Gospel». The title of the publication is: «Multiple experiences of the one Gospel. Testimonies of the Russian and Franciscan Spiritualities». The book was written by both Catholics and Orthodox and presents some eminent saints from both traditions: Sergio of Radonez, Serafino of Sarov, Elisabeth of Essen, Nicolas of Mira, Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, Anthony of Padua. The biographies are preceded by a brief history and characterization of Russian monastic and Catholic Franciscan life. The relator concluded: «This book is presented as an exchange of gifts between two Churches and two spiritual traditions which yearn for communion and unity».

The division between Catholics and the Orthodox has in fact also contributed to a profound wound in the recognition of sanctity. The calendars of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are different, except for the saints common in the first century. In particular, the saints canonized after the division are absent. This aporia in veneration is based on theological presuppositions and necessitates a solution in the realm of establishing full communion. The ecclesial division has sliced into the communion of saints, at least in terms of their recognition for veneration. This makes the contradiction generated by the division more evident.

The relations which the Catholic Church has established with other Christians since the Second Vatican Council have, in addition to the growth of communion and fraternity, enabled us to discover what God is bringing about in the members of other Churches and ecclesial communities. The Holy Father has made a theological and spiritual elegy of this. «In a theocentric vision, we Christians already have a common Martyrology» (UUS, 84). In fact, «The witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants» (TMA, 37). Pope John Paul II desires that the «Christian testimony» given particularly in this century - in the time of Nazism, communism, dictatorships in various parts of the world - are not forgotten, but rather are recognized, are placed forward in such a way as to become examples to imitate. This has an ecumenical value which goes beyond its theological conceptualization. «Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs», affirms the Holy Father in the same place. «The communio sanctorum speaks louder than the things which divide us».