The Gospel of Jesus Christ has been alive in Greece for 2,000 years. St. Paul preached in Athens, and Corinth, and Thessalonica. He formed the people of Greece to become some of the very first Christian communities in the world. For two millennia, the Churches of Greece have produced mystics, saints, scholars, and martyrs.
The Churches of Greece, like the Churches of many parts of the East, are true Churches, led by successors to the Apostles. But these Churches—the Orthodox Churches—have broken their communion with the pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth. Over time, many of the Christian Churches of the East—while maintaining true and valid sacraments, and the gift of apostolic succession, have lost their connection to the successor to St. Peter, and therefore been severed from the fullness of Christian unity.
There are, in many of the Christian traditions of the East, faithful Christians who have maintained, or restored, communion with the universal Church, and the Bishop of Rome. These Eastern Catholic Churches are witnesses of the true diversity of cultures and traditions, formed by the Holy Spirit, in union with the universal Church, and sharing in the fullness of truth. But, sadly, many Christians across the Eastern world do not enjoy sacred communion with the Vicar of Christ, and the unity with the universal Church is fractured.
In 2001, Pope St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit Greece in more than 1,200 years. He visited with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church. Two years earlier, he visited and prayed with the Patriarch of Constantinople. Since that time, the popes—John Paul, Benedict, and Francis—have continued to meet and pray with the leaders of the Orthodox Churches—praying, especially, for unity.
In 2001, Pope St. John Paul II said that Christian civilization “has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them.” The two lungs of the Church are the Churches of the East, the Orthodox Churches, and the Catholic Church. Pope St. John Paul, like his predecessors, prayed fervently that the Holy Spirit would unify the “two lungs” of the Church, so that Christians around the world would be united in fraternity, in discipleship, and in truth.
This week, leaders of Orthodox Churches from around the world gathered in Crete for beginning of the “Great and Holy Council,” a meeting of most Orthodox Churches, which will invoke the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and discern how the Orthodox Churches can serve Christ in the modern world, as witnesses of the Gospel and light to all nations. The Orthodox Churches have been planning the meeting—properly called a synod—since 1961. It has taken very careful planning for the Orthodox leaders to develop a plan to come together, and to seek consensus—and the will of God—for their Churches.
Sadly, not all Orthodox Churches will participate in the Synod. A few Orthodox Churches—most notably the Russian Orthodox Church—will not participate. Theological disputes, among other things, have prevented all 14 of the Orthodox Churches in the world from gathering. But those who are present will pray fervently, seeking the will of God for their Christian communities. When the Council began on June 16, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople prayed that the Council would “deliver a single message of true faith, real hope and peaceful reconciliation to our world that is in conflict.”
As the “Great and Holy Council” continues this month, we should join Patriarch Bartholomew in this prayer. The Orthodox are our brothers and sisters, and we should pray that the Lord will work through them to reveal the mercy of God to the world. We should also join Patriarch Bartholomew in his prayer that all Christians might know “unity in Christ.”
As the Orthodox gather in Crete, where the Gospel has been alive since St. Paul preached there, we should pray the Holy Spirit will bless their discernment. We should pray that the Church might “breathe with both lungs.” We should pray that the Holy Spirit might reveal the fullness of all truth to the eastern successors of the apostles. And we should pray for Christian unity, in the words of Jesus, “that all might be one.”