|Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome|
Posted April 10, 2005 at 10:42 a.m. CDT
By Joan Chittister, OSB
Sometimes what the press reports about a thing isn’t nearly as important as what it doesn’t report at all. The funeral of Pope John Paul II may be exactly one of those occasions. In fact, what wasn’t given much attention at the funeral of Pope John Paul II may, in years to come, be seen as one of this church’s most important historical moments.
As at almost any other funeral of its type, reporters and photographers exhausted themselves recording the name and picture of every politician there. Government officials who did not recognize John Paul II as their spiritual leader, perhaps, did see him as the head of a sovereign state, a fellow political personality. To no one’s surprise, they and their delegations traveled to Rome to pay their respects to a man who put all the people of the earth ahead of any of their chauvinistic intentions. Kofi Annan, George Bush, Jacques Chirac, three kings and four princes led every list. Impressive, indeed.
At the same time, another group of equally important figures were noticed by almost no one. Over time, however, it is precisely this group that may come to be seen as one of the most impressive delegations to a papal funeral in a long, long time. In Rome for the occasion, on the altar, in fact, amid Roman Catholic Cardinals and papal chamberlains and public dignitaries were an entire body of Eastern Patriarchs and Orthodox bishops. Both groups of them.
The first group included representatives of those Eastern churches which, through a long and difficult history of papal-patriarchal tensions, nevertheless remained in union with the Roman Church. They incensed the body and sang chants over the casket.
The second group included those Orthodox churches that hold a Catholic theology but do not accept Roman primacy of the Greek church. They came in full regalia and were given seats in a section in front of the College of Cardinals. The last pontifical liturgy of this stature, in fact, took place in Constantinople in the 8th century. Then, East and West began to splinter and split and silently, slowly disassociate.
The reasons for the present disunity are very many–and very old.
In the first place, Constantinople had established itself as “the new Rome” as early as the fourth century and considered its Patriarch equal to the Bishop of Rome.
In the second place, after the Great Schism of 1054 over papal infallibility, Crusaders, having failed to reclaim Jerusalem, sacked Constantinople and Mount Athos at the end of the 13c, burning monks alive who refused to pledge allegiance to Rome.
What’s more, given this era’s multiple apologies for ecclesiastical sins of all ilk and hue–against the Jews, women, scientists, writers, for instance–not a word of public regret or act of public reparation has ever been addressed to the Eastern church for the kind of damage done in the name of ‘unity.’
The Orthodox sees it as a long history of arrogance, betrayal and disdain by the Western church. And they clearly have a long memory.
When John Paul II visited Athens in 2001, in fact, Greek and Russian Orthodox were so enraged at the thought even of his presence they refused to either eat or pray with him.
And yet, yesterday they were here, gathered around the casket, embracing Roman Cardinals at the Kiss of Peace. Forget the anathemas and mutual excommunications between us. Symbol always transcends theology, politics and negotiations. I have a feeling that history may see what we did not and finally, finally give it its due. The unity that John Paul II pursued during his lifetime may, ironically, be beginning at his death.
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