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Prayers for our Planet: World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation

Photo Credit: Catholic News Service photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters

Over the past few centuries, human activities have contributed to more environmental degradation than ever before in history. Pollution is raising the planet’s core temperature, tainting what little clean drinking water remains, and rendering air unbreathable. Melting ice caps, ocean acidification, and disappearing coral reefs are just a few more effects of pollution and climate change. Constant wars and irresponsible mining techniques are shaking the earth’s plates causing earthquakes and watershed destruction in the most unnatural places. Corporations and other businesses are aggressively trying to buy and control the remaining clean water sources, and, therefore, effectively 70-80% of your body which is made of water. I know what you’re thinking:  this guy is a downer! And you’re right, this topic is bleak. But it’s a situation that we humans have created, which means it’s a situation that we humans have the power to mend.

There are too many great organizations and individuals who have dedicated their lives to mitigating environmental destruction to mention in one blog post. Therefore, this occasion will focus on the work of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a trail blazer in the area of environmental protection. Rather than bore you with lengthy paragraphs, though, here is a simple timeline of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s major contributions over the past three decades:

1986 – The 3rd Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conference in Chambésy expressed concern for the abuse of the natural environment, especially in affluent western societies.

1988 – “Revelation and the Future of Humanity” conference recommends the Ecumenical Patriarchate designate one day each year for the protection of the natural environment.

1989 – Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios publishes first encyclical letter on the environment, proclaiming September 1st the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.

1990 – Monk Gerasimos Mikrayiannanites composes a service of supplication for the environment.

1991 – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convenes ecological gathering entitled, “Living in the Creation of the Lord.”

1992 – The Orthodox Christian Primates endorse September 1st as a day of pan-Orthodox prayer for the environment.

1992 – The Duke of Edinburgh visits the Ecumenical Patriarchate for an environmental convocation at the Theological School of Halki.

1993 – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visits the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace where they sealed a friendship of common purpose and active cooperation for the preservation of the environment.

1994 – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convenes ecological gathering at the Theological School of Halki on the environment and religious education.

1994 – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew establishes the Religious and Scientific Committee (RSC) for dialogue with Christian confessions, other religious faiths, as well as scientific disciplines.

1995 – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convenes ecological gathering at the Theological School of Halki on the environment and ethics.

1995 – The RSC, through Ms. Maria Becket’s coordination, hosts Symposium I entitled Revelation and Environment under the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Prince Philip.

1996 – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convenes ecological gathering at the Theological School of Halki on the environment and communications.

1997 – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convenes ecological gathering at the Theological School of Halki on the environment and justice.

1997 - The RSC, through Ms. Maria Becket’s coordination, hosts Symposium II entitled The Black Sea in Crisis under the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and H.E. Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission.

1998 – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convenes ecological gathering at the Theological School of Halki on the environment and poverty.

1999 – The Halki Ecological Institute is created for inter-disciplinary vision and dialogue, implementing the ecological theory of the Religious and Scientific Committee into practice.

1999 – The RSC, through Ms. Maria Becket’s coordination, hosts Symposium III entitled River of Life – Down the Danube to the Black Sea under the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and H.E. Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission.

2002 – The RSC, through Ms. Maria Becket’s coordination, hosts Symposium IV entitled The Adriatic Sea – a Sea at Risk, a Unity of Purpose under the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and H.E. Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission.

2002 – Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew co-signed a document of environmental ethics entitled the “Venice Declaration.”

2003 – The RSC, through Ms. Maria Becket’s coordination, hosts Symposium V entitled The Baltic Sea – A Common Heritage, A Shared Responsibility under the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and H.E. Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission.

2003 – The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Norway co-sponsor the North Sea Conference.

2006 – The RSC, through Ms. Maria Becket’s coordination, hosts Symposium VI entitled The Amazon: Source of Life under the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and H.E. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations.

2007 – The RSC, through Ms. Maria Becket’s coordination, hosts Symposium VII entitled The Arctic – Mirror of Life under the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, H.E. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and H.E. Jose Barroso, President of the European Commission.

2008 – The World Council of Churches recognizes the leadership of the Orthodox Church and designates an annual “Time for Creation” from September 1st to October 4th.

2009 – The RSC, through Ms. Maria Becket’s coordination, hosts Symposium VIII entitled The Great Mississippi River: Restoring Balance under the auspices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

2012 – The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Southern New Hampshire University convene Halki Summit I at the Theological School of Halki to address the environment and business.

2015 – The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Southern New Hampshire University convene Halki Summit II at the Theological School of Halki to address the environment and literature.

2015 – Pope Francis recognizes the September 1st World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation and designates it for the Roman Catholic Church, as well.

2018 – Stay tuned for the next great event, namely a symposium.

The most basic takeaways from these initiatives as well as other publications include: 1) all people from every discipline and every sector must work together to save the planet; 2) moderation of all people everywhere is essential; and 3) we must continuously build a loving relationship with our planet, being ever cautious not to exploit her.

In conclusion, it’s worth mentioning that just this morning, continuing on this long history and in celebration of the mutually recognized World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis released a joint statement reaffirming the need for all people to be stewards of creation rather than lords over creation:

Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our voracity to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our rapacity for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs … [w]e urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and to support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation.

Thoughts on the Role of Orthodox Laity in Christian Unity

A week ago here in Wisconsin, the Sunday liturgy was cancelled at our local Greek Orthodox parish. Typically, we would have driven the hour and a half to an OCA parish in Milwaukee that we sometimes attend but it was below zero and my wife and I didn’t want to test the iciness of the highways. Instead, we finally visited a nearby Byzantine monastery, which is about half the distance to Milwaukee. I had wanted to go there since we moved to Wisconsin last fall but this finally seemed like a kairos moment. Yet, I had my doubts about how we would be received. This hesitation was not from a lack of experience with Byzantine monasteries. I am no stranger to those. Instead, it was due to the fact that the monastery was not only Byzantine, but Byzantine Catholic. I had been to Eastern Catholic churches before but never a monastery. I knew the liturgy would be the basically the same but would the community be otherwise ‘weird’? Admittedly, this is a strange thought coming from an American-born Orthodox from the Deep South where Orthodoxy doesn’t even register as Christian for many. I wondered how the monks would react when I told them I was Eastern Orthodox. Would it be awkward? Would I have to find the right words as to not offend or confuse? These and other worries crossed through my mind before making the decision to go.

It turns out that my petty insecurities were unfounded. I was surprised and impressed by this bastion of Eastern Christian spirituality hidden among endless acres of farmland in a town with a population of 783. It had a thriving lay presence on Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. Many families trickled in during the service and I watched as they lit their candles and looked for a place to stand in the tiny chapel. The sermon was powerful, direct, and deeply rooted in the Eastern Fathers. It is certainly not a coincidence that the brotherhood choose to settle in a town named after St. Gregory the Theologian. My wife and I were on our way out after the service when a young monk ran up to meet us. After a friendly chat with him, I was told it would be fine to take a photograph in the chapel (which is not always a given). We then met the abbot, who was equally kind and put to rest any initial hesitations about our reception. Most importantly, from my short conversations with the monks and from some pamphlets they have for visitors, I got the impression that there was a clear recognition of the tragic reality of ecclesial disunity between Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but a determination to work towards its healing. In other words, there was neither a naïve ‘well, we’re all the same anyhow!’ nor a fatalistic ‘our differences cannot be overcome’. This encounter left me with thoughts on the role of Orthodox laity in ecclesial unity among Christians.

It seems a given that our rifts will never be healed without the work of the entire church community. There must be a role for the laity in the process, which is also, dare I say, a prerogative. This mending will never occur if clergy and laity continue to point to canons forbidding prayer with separated brethren (while ignoring many other canons) to justify avoiding ever attending a church or even associating with other Christians outside of work. I don’t buy the argument that going into a church is akin to an act of treason that somehow validates the group as supreme and repudiates one’s own allegiances. Neither does it lead to a weakened faith, though it may reveal an already weak faith. Perhaps the hard truth is that many secretly don’t want unity despite grudgingly giving it obligatory lip-service. It can be hard to define yourself when you no longer have a foil to which you can favorably compare yourself and point out their every flaw. But this is not a path to unity and will lead nowhere but increasing sectarianism and ghettoization. The informed laity cannot simply leave it up to the theological authorities and bishops to solve this issue, but must show their interest and investment by making this clear in their words and actions and by getting involved in events that show mutual Christian affection and respect that goes beyond their own communities.

Of course, many will see a danger in this. What if some people get the idea that real differences and divisions are superficial and can be ignored or flouted? This is a legitimate concern and I do not wish to diminish its importance. But note that I earlier specified ‘informed’ laity. I submit that there is a need for committed and spiritually-rooted Orthodox Christians to meet and even worship with other Christians, not to proselytize or engage in apologetics but to come together in love, honesty, and the hope of future reconciliation, which must be built on love. At the very least, this will help us know the ‘other’ not in theological caricature but as concrete persons we are called to love, forgive, and ask forgiveness of before offering ourselves as a living sacrifice at the Holy Table.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating full sacramental participation prior to actual ecclesial unity. I don’t think this issue can be solved by disingenuously pretending there is no division. In fact, I think that the inability to fully participate serves as a painful but necessary reminder of our disunity. Similarly, I do not suggest neglecting one’s own liturgical services to attend others, since various Christian services often occur at the same time. I am simply calling for laity to take advantage of, and even make, opportunities to fellowship with other Christians and express their solidarity and desire for union. This is the single most important step in overcoming centuries of animosity, mistrust, and spiritual stereotyping. If the laity mobilize to show that this is a pressing issue for them, it is much more likely that something will be done about it by the Church as a whole. Ironically, this influence can be most famously seen in the popular mobilization against the failed Council of Ferrara-Florence. Today we need to apply the same force to the cause of ecclesial unity in accordance to Christ’s prayer that ‘they might be one’, regardless of whether we think it is likely or even feasible.

Despite the notorious bad blood between Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics in lands where there has been sheep-stealing and internecine (or should I say ‘inter-Nicene’) violence, I believe Eastern Catholics will play an important role in future Christian rapprochement. They can be viewed as the test case for other Orthodox churches. Can the Catholic Church reverse centuries of centralization to rediscover and accommodate a robust diversity of autonomous and autocephalous churches? Can the Orthodox Church accept a spirituality and liturgy that does not have its roots in Byzantium and rediscover a meaningful place for the Pope of Rome as the first among equals? While it is still too soon to know, in the last few decades leaders in the Catholic Church have begun to seriously address many of the historic grievances of the Orthodox faithful such as local diocesan autonomy and the possibility of married priesthood. These are signs of goodwill and Orthodox should publically recognize them as such and reciprocate in kind with similar gestures that indicate a willingness to work towards unity.

This is not a formal theological proposal. It is my own theologoumena, if you will. Or perhaps, even less, it a simple personal reflection on these matters since I am not trained as a professional theologian or canon law authority. Yet, I can find no good reason that an informed laity should not take up the call to be more involved in the mandate of promoting Christian unity to whatever degree it is possible, and even whenever it is not. I can confidently say that I plan on returning to the aforementioned Byzantine Catholic monastery this Lent whenever I cannot attend locally or when there are additional services that are not offered at most parishes. Yes, I know I’m an optimist but that won’t stop me from hoping, praying, and acting for Christian unity, adopting the following slogan until I, God willing, reach the age of seventy-four: “De-Schism 2054.” We all have a role to play.

Dr. Christopher D.L. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac.

Self-Sufficiency vs. Mutuality: Reflections on the Great Schism and Catholic-Orthodox Reconciliation

One way of thinking about the East-West schism of the past thousand years is that it occurred because each of the sides came to believe it could be the church, wholly the church, without the other.  Each began to envision an ecclesial future in which the other had no place.  For a variety of reasons, this sense of self-sufficiency was stronger, earlier, in the Latin than in the Greek church.  None of the four major Eastern Sees was as prepared as Rome was to detach itself from the rest that made up what came to be called the Pentarchy (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome).  The circumstances in which Rome did detach itself were complex, characterized by long and troubling periods of official Byzantine iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries.  Eastern hierarchs themselves, during this period, made much of the singular authority of Rome as a counterweight to Byzantine iconoclast emperors.  After the 7th ecumenical council (II Nicaea, in 787), Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople, responding to those who questioned the orthodoxy of that council, wrote the following:

This Synod possesses the highest authority....  In fact it was held in the most legitimate and regular fashion conceivable, because according to the divine rules established from the beginning it was directed and presided over by that glorious portion of the Western Church, I mean by the Church of Ancient Rome.  Without them, no dogma discussed in the Church, even sanctioned in a preliminary fashion by the canons and ecclesiastical usages, can be considered to be approved, or abrogated... (Patrologia Graeca 100, 597A, 621D; translation as found in Dvornik, Byzantium, 96)   

What's most striking here is that for Patriarch Nicephorus, the Byzantine church couldn't proceed as if it were the whole church, apart from the church in the West: the Christian East needed Rome.  The same sense of need for the other was not reciprocal, however.  Another Eastern hiearch, Nicetas of Nicomedia, writing in the 12th century, complained precisely that

the Roman Church to which we do not deny the primacy among her sisters, and whom we recognize as holding the highest place in any general council, the first place of honor, that Church has separated herself from the rest....  When, as a result of these circumstances, she gathers a council of the Western bishops without making us (in the East) a part of it... [then] although we are not in disagreement with the Roman Church in the matter of the Catholic faith, how can we be expected to accept these decisions which were taken without our advice and of which we know nothing, since we were not at that same time gathered in council? (Anselm of Havelberg, Dialogi, III, Patrologia Latina 188, 1219AD; English translation as found in Dvornik, Byzantium, 145-46)

From Nicetas's perspective, the mistaken move on the part of the church of Rome was to act apart from the other major churches, all of them together referred to by Nicetas as "sisters".  The concept of sister churches entails a kind of mutual belonging and interdependence.  Interestingly, there had been a time (415AD) when one of Rome's bishops, Innocent I, had willingly referred to Antioch as the "sister" of the church of Rome; and indeed he suggested then that sisters can't tolerate being separated from each other for very long.  (Ep. 23, PL 20, 546A)  As Rome's sense of self-sufficiency increased, especially with the Gregorian reforms in the 11th century, it called itself the mother, rather than sister, not only of all the other Western churches but of the major Eastern Sees as well.  Rome would establish a Latin patriarch in Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade (1204), and, in the post-Reformation period, parallel Latin patriarchates in such traditionally Orthodox lands as Antioch and Jerusalem.  Orthodoxy, by contrast, has never to this day appointed an Orthodox bishop of Rome.  Nor has Orthodoxy -- until now, at least -- held any council that it identified as "ecumenical" since communion with Rome was broken.  In these respects, Orthodoxy in concrete practice has continued to regard itself as being in some sense less than the whole church of Christ, less than self-sufficient.  It has a more vivid memory of the "undivided" church of the first millennium and a more carefully preserved vision, at least implicitly, of a future in which full communion between the two will be restored.

A huge piece of the story of Christianity in the past hundred years has been how the Catholic Church in the 20th century came to recognize again its need for the Christian East in all the latter's distinctiveness.  The Catholic Church dramatically broke out of its previous mode of complete self-sufficiency.  It came again to speak of itself as sister church, and not mother, of the Orthodox.  It took all sorts of actions and made numerous official statements, such as in John Paul II's Orientale Lumen, that conveyed the idea that without Orthodoxy, the Catholic Church cannot be fully itself.  Pope Francis, who will be meeting next month with Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem, fifty years after the historic meeting there between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, has spoken of what the Catholic Church stands to continue learning from Orthodoxy about synodality and collegiality.  Formally, the Catholic Church has not undone its self-identification as the true church of Christ, but it has nuanced this self-understanding considerably with its shift from saying that the church of Christ is the Catholic Church to saying that it "subsists in" the Catholic Church.  Much ink has been spilled over the meaning of that phrase, and some Orthodox hardliners -- as well as Catholic hardliners -- have tried to argue that it changes nothing, but I would argue (and will, in a future post) that understood correctly, what Catholic ecclesiology really means by saying that the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church is actually consistent with a relationship of genuine interdependence and mutuality between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.   

What looms now as an equal or greater question and challenge in East-West relations is not whether the Catholic Church can admit its need to be reunited with Orthodoxy, as for so long it did not do, but whether Orthodoxy can admit its need for reconciliation with the Christian West.  From the mid-18th century on, Orthodoxy has come more and more to mirror and to echo, in its own rhetoric and stance, the kind of self-sufficiency and triumphalism for which in centuries past it chided Rome, e.g. in the words of Nicetas quoted above.  Nicetas in the 12th century had no difficulty in referring to Rome as a sister church -- in spite of the break in communion that had occurred, for that break was still regarded as less than permanent -- but there are Orthodox today who refuse to recognize the Catholic Church as a sister church of the Orthodox.  A significant reason for their refusal is an acceptance of the schism as a permanent rupture, a fait accompli, rather than as a tear in the fabric of the church that has never been absolutely complete, and might (indeed, must) still be repaired, just as divisions that opened up between Greek East and Latin West in the first millennium -- some of them lasting for many years -- were healed without either side having ceased to be church in the meantime.

Georges Florovsky maintained that "even divided Christianity is still one Christianity, at least in aspiration" ("The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement," Theology Today 7:1 [April 1950], 69).  It's true that an entire millennium of division reflects a deeper wound than the briefer interruptions in communion that occurred in the ancient "undivided" church.  But insofar as the Psalmist in his prayer to God is correct in saying that "a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past" (Ps. 90:4), we should perhaps be careful to avoid making too much of the length of time, per se.  Nor should we overlook the many signs that some healing of the wound of the Great Schism has been occurring as the Catholic West has turned much more receptively toward the Christian East in the past half century and more.  As Pope and Patriarch meet this May in Jerusalem, the place where the Lord prayed that "they may all be one" (Jn. 17:21), we may join ourselves to this prayer of our Lord in great hope of further progress along the path of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation, traveled in truth and love.

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton, where in addition to the course on work and rest, he teaches on the Bible, Byzantine theology and the relationship between faith and politics. He is currently vice president of the Orthodox Theological Society in America

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