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Very Brief Observation on the Great and Holy Council


The Russian Orthodox are the last of four local churches to withdraw from participation in the Great and Holy Council, the Pan-Orthodox Synod, set to begin tomorrow – Pentecost Sunday in their calendar. Their reason given that as consensus was adopted as the model for any and all work of the Council, and that at least one local church had withdrawn, consensus was no longer possible.

The timeline of last-minute withdrawal from the Council:

  • 1 June – Bulgarian Orthodox Church
  • 6 June – (Greek) Patriarchate of Antioch
  • 10 June – Georgian Orthodox Church
  • 13 June – Russian Orthodox Church

As I see it, consensus to hold the Council now, under the presented procedures, and the promise to attend by each local church was achieved in March 2014 and affirmed just a few months ago, at the January 2016 Synaxis of Primates. The Churches themselves committed to hold the Council, to attend, and to participate.

Therefore, now is too late to back out. Common sense would dictate that after having committed to the Council, if you back out, you lose your voice and vote, but the decisions are still binding upon you and consensus depends on those who are actually present and participating. You forfeit your right to vote, you do not get a veto, by backing out. If you want to object to some document, you have to be participating to do so.

In other words, dear Bulgaria, et al., you do not have to agree, but you do have to show up.

Of course, this is a moral obligation, there is no juridical, binding power that would compel otherwise. One could argue that failure to participate in a general council to which unanimous consensus compels you to attend is tantamount to excommunication – to me, non-participation in the Council seems a far more serious breach of communion that disagreements over the calendar, over jurisdiction in Bahrain, or over who can grant the Americans autocephaly.

To be sure, some of the objections of the local churches are valid and should be considered. Some are nonsense. But I admire far more the Serbian Orthodox Church, who, while deeply concerned about several aspects of both process and content, are still committed to exercising synodality. You cannot claim to be a church who takes synodality seriously, over and against what you perceive as excessive papal primacy in the Catholic Church, and then fail utterly to even organize yourselves into a regular exercise of that synodality on a universal level.

You go to a Council to resolve issues, to raise new ones, to practice being Church together even in disagreement. Unity cannot be achieved by putting off meeting. True, we should see this as the beginning of a lengthy process, not a stand-alone event. Vatican II was eight months of meetings spread over four years allowing generous time for research and consultation. And it had only been ninety years since the last attempt at a general council, only 400 years since the last complete council. The Orthodox have three times as much time to make up for – a real council could be expected to take a full year of meeting together. One week is nowhere near enough.

But at the end of the day, it is hard to respect anyone who claims “we have not had enough time to get ready” or “let’s postpone procrastinate some more.” Seriously? 1229 years since the last general council, 115 years since the first call for this one, and 55 years since the planning commissions started meeting, even by the glacial ecclesial standards, this is absurd.

Still, we can be grateful that the leaders themselves seem to have more patience with childishly manipulative behavior than I do, as telling the Russian (or Bulgarian, Georgian, or Antiochene) Patriarch he has just been demoted to the bottom of the table for skipping a required meeting probably would not do much to actually get him to show up next time he promises to do so. But since they do seem so concerned about seating arrangements, maybe that would work better than appeals to common sense and episcopal responsibility…

Patriarchs and primates in Crete, 18 June 2016


Russian National Orchestra in the Vatican

How often is St. Peter’s Square turned into a parking lot? The cabbie that dropped us off said he has lived in Rome for half his life, and never seen it. But that was the sight that greeted us as we were dropped off at the Paul VI Auditorium for what promised to be an enjoyable afternoon out with the Holy Father (and a few other folk).

These two days have been celebrated as “Russian Culture Days at the Vatican”, one of the key public events of which was today’s concert by the Russian National Orchestra, a gift of the Russian Patriarch Kirill I to Latin Patriarch Benedict XVI.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the President of the Department for External Affairs of the Patriarch of Moscow (read: top ecumenist), personally presented the gift of the concert to His Holiness, which included a Symphony in Five Parts composed by the metropolitan himself. The concert included pieces by Rachmaninov, Rimski-Korsakov, and Musorgskij by the Russian National Orchestra; a variety of pieces by the Russian National Horn Choir, and another selection from Musorgskij and Rachmaninov with the Synod Choir of Moscow before all three combined for the final Symphony piece by Metropolitan Hilarion.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Seat of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia

On the way into the building, I kept getting saluted by the Swiss Guard. At first I kept looking to see if they were saluting everyone, or if some bishop was walking behind me. Eventually we figured that in my black suit with a small red Jerusalem cross in my lapel (a souvenir from my recent pilgrimage) they may have mistaken me for a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher! Not sure there are any this young, though!

As most know, I have an affinity for things Russian, including the music, so this was a special treat for me – to combine my love of Russia, ecumenism, the Church and the Vatican all into one event. We also got seats just behind and to the right of the Holy Father and the cardinals, which made it that much more exciting. This was my first time inside the Paul VI auditorium, which can seat about 6000 people, and which is entirely powered by solar panels on the roof.

There is no question that, with the election of Benedict XVI and even more so with the election of Kirill I, relations between Rome and Moscow have thawed considerably. We continue to pray for the unity of the world’s largest Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, and look forward to fruits of dialogue even more beautiful than an afternoon’s concert!

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