By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY | Published April 14, 2011
Ecumenical dialogue requires patience, determination and a great deal of humility. Humility in ecumenical dialogue does not indicate that one partner does not believe firmly in the theological or doctrinal truths of their faith heritage. Humility means that the dialogue partners realize that the ecumenical dialogue is the work of God’s Holy Spirit and that it is always done in respectful response to the Lord Jesus’ prayer that unity would be the state of His Church. The Roman pontiffs who have governed the Church for the past half-century have all worked and prayed for the advancement of many different ecumenical initiatives. Fortunately the initiatives of the Roman pontiffs have also been matched by the equally sincere work and the prayer of leaders in other Churches and ecclesial communities.
The now famous and poignant picture of Pope Paul VI embracing the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras has become a model of their fraternal respect and affection and is represented in many artistic expressions of the ongoing ecumenical dialogue over the past decades. Both men were harshly criticized by those who see the ecumenical dialogue as a betrayal of their churches’ doctrine.
The work of ecumenism has nonetheless moved forward, although not as quickly as some would have wanted. While many areas of theological discord remain, the number of moments and occasions when Catholicism and Orthodoxy can agree grows. One of those moments occurred last week as His Eminence Alexios, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Atlanta, and I, as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta, signed a mutual agreement regarding the sanctity of human life. This agreement was the fruit of prayer and the work of many people, most importantly the respectful collaboration of Father George Tsahakis, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox community of Atlanta, and Father Paul Burke, parochial vicar at Holy Spirit Church and my delegate for these events, who worked tirelessly to prepare a text that would highlight the reverence that both of our churches hold in reference to the dignity and sacredness of all human life.
A signed mutual agreement on the topic of life is a welcome moment but clearly not the final sign of ecumenical union. We cannot share the Eucharist together, we still disagree over the important issue of Petrine primacy, and there are other remaining questions that separate us on ecclesial life. However, the agreement is another event that signals our prayerful desire to continue working together and learning to respect and love one another more fervently each day.
The laity who have attended all of our ecumenical programs are themselves a wonderful incentive to continue our dialogue. These fine people welcome us to their churches, sing in the choirs for these events, serve as hosts, prepare the receptions that conclude our ventures, and urge us to continue to work for the day when Christ’s prayer will be fulfilled: that they may be one.
As the Orthodox scholar Bishop Kallistos Ware reminded us in his keynote address for this ceremony, we have a hopeful legacy over the past 50 years that suggests that even the thorny issues of theological disagreement can be confronted with a humble and loving heart, which is surely the most genuine sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit calling us toward unity and peace.