By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 29, 2014
ATLANTA—Some 200 people joined the spiritual leaders of the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches gathered in prayer.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Metropolitan Alexios, both carrying pastoral staffs, walked side by side as they entered the church as chants and the sweet smell of incense filled the gothic Cathedral of Christ the King on Tuesday, May 20.
The ecumenical meeting marked the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I, which fostered a new relationship between the churches after nearly 1,000 years of division.
Archbishop Gregory said the two world leaders in 1964 were “bold enough” to overcome differences despite critics who said the meeting could scandalize Christians.
“The real scandal is that for 1,000 years we did not embrace,” he said, adding he has a “warm and loving fraternal relationship” with Metropolitan Alexios.
The local leaders have prayed together 10 times. Metropolitan Alexios said he and Archbishop Gregory are small players in the full sweep of ecumenical dialogues, but “(we) act and do what our Lord has asked us to do” and pray together for unity.
The nearly two-hour service included a reading from the year 250, written by St. Cyprian, chants and choral pieces by the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral and Holy Spirit Catholic Church choirs. The two leaders simultaneously read a prayer for church unity and then each individually offered a blessing to the crowd.
A Catholic priest, who is an expert on ecumenical issues, outlined the history of talks between the faith traditions.
There was “icy silence” between the two churches for hundreds of years after a mutual excommunication in 1054, said Father Ronald Roberson, a Paulist priest and a former member of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He is the associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Church relations entered a new age when Pope Paul VI and his Orthodox counterpart embraced during a trip to Jerusalem, said Father Roberson. It was the first meeting between the spiritual leaders of the two churches since the 15th century, he said.
An exchange of gifts between pope and patriarch are key to understand the 1964 meeting, he said. They gave each other “symbols of mutual recognition,” with the pope giving a chalice and paten, which showed he recognized the patriarch’s ordination and Eucharistic ministry. The patriarch in return gave the pope a pectoral cross, a sign he was recognized as a bishop.
The international dialogue continued in the 1970s and 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe sparked a crisis. Newly freed Catholic communities demanded a return of their churches taken by communist governments and handed to Orthodox congregations, he said.
Talks among theologians on the international level have stalled, he said, in part as political disputes divide the 14 Orthodox churches.
Meanwhile, the vital dialogue in North America between Orthodox and Catholic leaders continues, he said. It has helped that believers here are not driven by ethnic tensions and neither faith community dominates civic institutions, he said.Progress has been made on Christians celebrating Easter on a common date, while a stumbling block continues to be the role of the pope, he said.
Believers in the pews are hopeful divisions between the churches can be mended even after almost a millennium apart.
Gema Dumitru, who attends St. Benedict Church, Johns Creek, grew up in her native Romania as a member of the Romanian Greek Catholic Church, which is in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Her husband, Peter, is Greek Orthodox.
They were married in communist Romania behind locked doors for fear of the police.
“It brought tears to my eyes. I feel it is do-able,” she said about unification. “I think dialogue is a great step.”
Said Peter, “I’m glad there is some progress and the dialogue is open. Hopefully, we’ll see one church—as there was originally—and not so far in the future.”