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PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY

The experiences of reconciliation between Catholics and Orthodox
in some Slavic countries
Ecumenism at the service of peace

Msgr. MILAN ŽUST*

 

In this year’s Octave, the following words from the prophet Micah accompany us: “You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). We all agree on the fact that we must commit ourselves to the cause of justice and we are striving, too, to show our goodness. Yet, to live with humility seems to me most difficult to achieve. Before God we still struggle, at least exteriorly, to make a good impression; but it is not possible “to walk humbly before our God” without living that humility in front of our neighbour, too, who is an image of God. If we succeeded in seeing our neighbour truly as the “image of God”, as a child of God, loved by his Creator and Saviour, as the friend of God who always accompanies him, then we would view him in almost the same way as we view God: “he who loves God should love his brother also” (1 Jn 4:21), and humility is definitely an essential part of the personal relationship with others.

Without a doubt, this attitude of humility is also necessary in relations between the Christians of different confessions who desire to overcome the present divisions and to grow in greater unity, hoping that the full unity — willed and called for by Christ — can be reestablished. The Lord Jesus Christ himself showed by his life, above all in the Paschal Mystery, that it is precisely humility which conquers evil and overcomes discord. With his humble acceptance of the Cross, followed by his death, the Lord expressed his faithfulness to mankind which he came to save, to reconcile men with their heavenly Father and with one another. Thanks to his humble and complete entrustment to the hands of men, they in turn can humbly entrust themselves to God and to each other, in order to live in communion. The Apostles and so many Saints give witness to this, from the beginning of Christianity until today.

A similar spiritual path of conversion is also what we need for relations among Christians, who sadly are still divided, not only between the various confessions but also within each denomination. Only by walking with the Lord in humble trust in him can we truly join together as brothers and sisters, to acknowledge in humility our responsibility for the division, to ask forgiveness and so contribute to reestablishing communion. Christian unity is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but it can be realized only if we make an effort, each according to his own capabilities and responsibilities.

In the past year, we were able to note with appreciation some of the steps forward in this regard, and not only at the level of personal relationships, which often remain in the background, but also publicly. As the first example, I would like to refer to two meetings of representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church and of the Catholic Church in Croatia. We know that relations between Serbs and Croats are difficult due to the conflicts which occurred in past centuries and even in recent times, after the countries’ declaration of independence from the former Yugoslavia. This somewhat nationalist and political conflict also had negative consequences on relationships between Orthodox and Catholics. Sadly, there are frequently reciprocal accusations, but there have also been true and proper requests for pardon. One of these happened about a year ago at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in Dubrovnik, when the Catholic Bishop Mate Uzinić also invited to a celebration the Orthodox prelate Grigorije of Zahumlje and Herzegovina, who at the end of his brief homily asked forgiveness of the bishop and of the Catholic faithful for the misdeeds perpetrated by some members of the Serbian Orthodox Church against Catholic Croats. Bishop Uzinić, in thanksgiving for this humble gesture, in turn begged pardon on behalf of the Catholic faithful present. Such are the actions — if lived in the Faith, in a personal relationship with Christ — which can truly foster reconciliation, on the path towards Christian unity.

A few months later, in June of 2012, the Serbian Patriarch Irinej paid a visit to the Serbian Orthodox believers in Zagreb. On this occasion the Patriarch, accompanied by members of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, also wanted to meet the local Catholic Bishop, Cardinal Josip Bozanić, together with members of the Croatian Bishops’ Conference. In an attached communiqué, published following the meeting, both bishops invited their faithful to seek by every means to overcome the historical conflicts between the two peoples and between Catholics and Orthodox, especially by pondering “every incident of the past, with respect and responsibility” because “in this way alone the wounds can healed and we can look to the future more tranquilly”. Although not directly, they point in a certain way to repentance, to the request for forgiveness and reconciliation.

A similar document — but of greater importance — was signed last August in Warsaw by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, during his visit to Poland, and Archbishop Józef Michalik of Przemyśl for Latins, President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference. In the text, among other things, exhorts the two peoples are urged to reach reconciliation. The document, which took three years to draft thanks to numerous meetings and demanding dialogue, has already had and will continue have reverberations in the two countries. In Poland, it was read in all the Catholic churches, while in Russia it was received favourably by the Holy Synod, and Metropolitan Hilarion, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations, declared in an interview at the end of last year that the signing of this document was the most important event for the Russian Orthodox Church in 2012. In addition, conferences dedicated to this topic are scheduled in 2013, both in Moscow and Warsaw.

We are well aware that there is still a long way to go and more to do, but the first steps have been taken and we can only hope and pray to God that he grant us the ability to move closer to a reconciliation that is ever more widespread and effective, with humility and fortitude.

We are also conscious of human weakness, of so many prejudices and of the numerous reciprocal wounds inflicted throughout history, which have distanced Christians from each other and which really impede true dialogue. With this awareness but also with great hope, we entrust ourselves to the Lord, who humbly delivered himself into our hands so that he might teach us the same attitude of humility toward our neighbour: be it on a personal or an ecclesial level, that is in relations with our sister Churches. May the Holy Spirit inspire us and guide us so that we become ever more one in Christ, as brothers and sisters of the same Father.

 

*Priest-Official of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

           

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