The New Realities of Ecumenism in Eastern Europe

By Long, John F. | The Catholic World, January-February 1994 | Go to article overview

The New Realities of Ecumenism in Eastern Europe

Long, John F., The Catholic World

In June 1988 the Russian Orthodox Church marked the one thousandth anniversary of Christianity in the Russian lands with solemn celebrations at which an imposing delegation of Catholic cardinals, bishops and other clerical and lay representatives played a prominent role. In December 1991 Pope John Paul II presided over a special synod of Catholic bishops from all parts of Europe who had come together to reflect on the new ecclesiastical and pastoral situation which had developed so swiftly in Europe with peristroika and the fall of the Berlin wall. Each of the eastern Orthodox churches had been invited to send representatives. Only two accepted, and the Russian Patriarchate was not among them.

The stark reality of these two events throws into relief the complex situation which has arisen for ecumenical relations in the newly liberated territories of central and eastern Europe.

The liberation of eastern Europe had not only political and economic fallout. Religious liberty let loose a whole series of ecclesial, spiritual, nationalistic and ethnic forces which had existed under the surface and whose strength had been underestimated by those who had patiently worked in the ecumenical vineyard for many years.

One of these forces may loosely be called "tradition." From 1917 in the Soviet Union and from 1945 in lands which came under direct Soviet rule (e.g. Lithuania, western Ukraine) or Soviet influence (e.g. Czechoslovakia, Romania), the churches were strongly controlled and even oppressed by governments which were fundamentally anti-religious. The churches in these areas and individual Christian believers were able to hold on to their faith and pass it on to younger generations by stressing certain traditional liturgical forms, expressions of belief and attitudes toward other Christians which were considered essential for preserving one's own religious identity. Ordinary forms of catechesis and religious publishing were almost non-existent.

To speak only of Catholics, the largest part of the clergy and laity had no chance to experience not merely the Second Vatican Council but those movements--scriptural, patristic, doctrinal, ecclesiological--which preceded Vatican II and made it possible. With the coming of religious freedom, the sudden confrontation with what had been taking place in Christianity outside their countries over forty-five or seventy years was a traumatic experience. One area in which this was particularly felt was that of ecumenical relations.

One must try to imagine what ecumenism meant to the ordinary Lithuanian or Greek Catholic in Ukraine or to the Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox. There was little understanding of, and therefore less willingness to follow the new paths opened up by the ecumenical developments which had been taking place since the 1960s. The considerable gains in common understanding, common prayer, common action were held to be suspect if not even an outright betrayal of all that had been part of the heritage of these people, and to which they had often given heroic witness in the face of ridicule, prison and even suppression.

Thus, it became clear that from a strictly ecclesial view, the various churches could not rely too much on the ecumenical progress which had taken place over the years. Only a very small portion of the hierarchy, clergy and laity had come to some understanding of this progress and to reflect it in their own thinking and religious activity.

The Christians of central and eastern Europe have shown great steadfastness and real heroism in maintaining their faith and religious heritage. Others have lessons to learn from them in this regard. However, there is now need for them to relate this faith and heritage to the many positive developments which have taken place for more than fifty years among Christians of the rest of the world. Above all, they must reassure themselves that the greatest part of what has taken place is not an example of "western decadence," a "yielding to modernism," a "betrayal of the fundamental principles upon which the Catholic (or the Orthodox or the Lutheran) churches have been built. …

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