Eastern Orthodox relations have been improving markedly under Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul II anxiously awaited a path towards reunion with what he called the “other lung of the Church,” but he was met with a pretty icy response, and was refused entry to visit Russia. In no small part, petty ethnic politics played a role — since JPII was Polish, he was viewed with suspicion, instead of as a living saint who shared a devotion in of praying down the Soviet Empire which terrorized the Orthodox and Catholics alike.
In contrast, there have been abundant signs of a thawing under Benedict’s pontificate. In particular, the relationship between Pope Benedict and Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (considered “first amongst equals” not that the Orthodox aren’t in union with Rome) seems to be downright positive, as the above picture suggests, along with plenty of others, and articles describing positive, much-needed dialogue between the representatives of the two largest branches of Christianity.
It’s easy to get one’s hopes up and be disappointed – particularly in the West, any sort of Catholic-Orthodox cooperation is treated as the silver bullet which will cure centuries of bad blood. One needs only read the New York Times archive of JPII’s pontificate to see how many times that false alarm was sounded. But with that caveat, here’s a story that really shocked me, in a positive way: Catholics and Orthodox are building a church together in Kolomiya, Ukraine. Catholic Culture notes that the church is being built “to celebrate the 1022nd anniversary of the “Baptism of the Rus,” the establishment of Christianity in Ukraine. The joint project is a remarkable breakthrough in a country that has seen persistent tensions between the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church.”
It should be noted that the Ukrainian Orthodox are currently in a pretty extreme state of internal schism:
Bishop Boychuk represents the Orthodox Church of the Kiev patriarchate, which has broken away from the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. The Orthodox faithful in Ukraine are divided among three competing groups: the Kiev patriarchate, an Orthodox body remaining loyal to the Moscow patriarchate, and a 3rd autonomous body.
Again, the reasons behind the Russian/Ukrainian split seem as much to do with culture and ethnicity as theology, at least given the coverage from Ukrainian papers. In fact, this outstretched arm to the Ukrainian Orthodox will almost certainly damage relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, who recently, after stringing us along with the promise of talks, then tried to strong-arm the pope into stopping Catholic evangelism in Western Ukraine as a condition for those talks. This seems to pretty well answer the question as to how serious the Catholic Church is about Ukraine.
Honestly, the promise of a joint Divine Liturgy between Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic makes a lot of sense from a Catholic perspective. They have valid sacraments, they even use an almost-identical form of the Divine Liturgy as the Ukrainian Catholics, and we’re completely fine with the Orthodox receiving Catholic Communion. From a Ukrainian source:
“Since the time of the foundation of our eparchy the relationship with the bishops of the UGCC in Kolomyja has been very friendly. We have a joint purpose – to build a unique church in Ukraine. By holding joint events we unite our faithful in one Christian family. Bishop Mykola and I call our priests to hold joint divine services and events that we can lead and conduct together in order to strengthen the unity between people,” stated Bishop Boychuk.