Thus began Pope John Paul II’s 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen (“Light of the East), which encourages Latin Catholics to better know the traditions of the Christian East.
Rather than collecting dust on a Vatican shelf, the letter has continued to inspire a Washington, D.C.-based grassroots ecumenical movement for almost two decades. Initially planned as a single meeting to discuss John Paul’s work, the Orientale Lumen Conference has become an annual gathering open to anyone. In some ways, it has kept the light of Orthodox-Catholic dialogue burning while official dialogues have hit roadblocks.
And for that it has received acclaim from leaders in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
“Although you say your movement is grassroots, I’m convinced it’s rooted in heaven and inspired by the Holy Spirit,” the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, told the apostolate on its 10th anniversary.
“It’s exactly the kind of thing the ecumenical movement needs,” said Paulist Father Ronald G. Roberson, a top ecumenical officer of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “People go home from these conferences and talk to their friends,” said Father Roberson, who is associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. “The hope is they go back and talk to people and it has a ripple effect. It’s an excellent project. My initial pessimism was not wall-founded.”
That would have been in 1996, when Jack Figel, a Byzantine Catholic from Fairfax, Va., and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who teaches at Oxford, were planning the initial event.
Figel, who grew up in a Slovak family near Pittsburgh, rediscovered his Eastern Christian roots when he was in college. In the early 1990s, he met a priest in England who wanted to revive publications of the ecumenical Society of St. John Chrysostom. The result was Eastern Churches Journal. Later, when the priest, Father Serge Kelleher, and an Orthodox bishop, Vsevolod of Scopelos, wanted to reprint a liturgical book from 17th century Kiev, Figel started Eastern Christian Publications, which he still runs. ECP’s list includes books, DVDs and CDs on ecumenism and Eastern Christianity.
Figel met Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, a theologian and a metropolitan in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in 1996.
“Over dinner, I proposed the idea of holding an open-to-the-public ecumenical meeting about Orientale Lumen,” Figel recalled during a recent interview in Washington. “Bishop Kallistos immediately agreed and even got his diary out and we planned the conference for June of 1997. I knew the dean here at Catholic University, Father Raymond Collins. I went to him with the idea; he thought it was great. He said he would cosponsor it as the dean of theology and religious studies.”
In the apostolic letter, John Paul reminded Christians that “a particularly close link already binds” Catholics and Orthodox. “We have almost everything in common; and above all, we have in common the true longing for unity,” John Paul wrote.
Both Churches are apostolic in origin and have a valid episcopate, priesthood and the seven sacraments.
The Pope pointed out that unity between Rome and Constantinople endured “for the whole of the first millennium, despite difficulties. We have increasingly learned that it was not so much an historical episode or a mere question of preeminence that tore the fabric of unity, as it was a progressive estrangement, so that the other's diversity was no longer perceived as a common treasure, but as incompatibility.”
The Pontiff recommended “improving our knowledge of one another” in order to grow in unity. “The children of the Catholic Church already know the ways indicated by the Holy See for achieving this: to know the liturgy of the Eastern Churches; to deepen their knowledge of the spiritual traditions of the Fathers and Doctors of the Christian East, to follow the example of the Eastern Churches for the inculturation of the Gospel message; to combat tensions between Latins and Orientals and to encourage dialogue between Catholics and the Orthodox…”
Just the things the Orientale Lumen Conferences have been doing ever since.
The first conference featured Metropolitan Kallistos; Melkite Catholic Bishop Nicholas Samra, and Bishop Basil Losten, then-eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of Stamford, Conn, who said, "Beyond any question, Orientale Lumen is the most important Catholic document on the Eastern Churches since the Second Vatican Council.”
“Everyone who came—we had about a hundred people at that first conference—said that this was a wonderful idea and that we should keep doing it,” Figel said.
But if the conferences are grassroots, it’s far from being a simple forum where ordinary Christians sit around and say nice things to one another. It’s been able to attract quite a few “heavy hitters” in the ecumenical world over the years, and because only their main speeches are recorded, they often feel free to speak candidly during question-and-answer sessions.
“I’ve heard the most radical things said by people in an informal setting, off the record, bouncing ideas off each other, in an environment where you’re not speaking as a representative of the Church,” said Joseph Bernard, a Byzantine Catholic from Virginia and a regular attendee.
“I’ve been told by Church officials involved in the official dialogue that in many ways what we do with Orientale Lumen they couldn’t do themselves because if any of them hosted it, people would think there’s some agenda, there’s something behind it,” Figel said. “And this, not being connected with any particular Church—everyone is open and welcome to come—it’s not connected, so there’s no agenda.”
Patriarch Bartholomew himself addressed the gathering when it met in Istanbul—ancient Constantinople—for the first time, in 2004. Other speakers over the years have included Cardinals Edward Cassidy of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Donald Wuerl of Washington and William Keeler of Baltimore; Gregorios III, Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria and All the East; two recent primates of the Orthodox Church in America—Metropolitan Jonah and Metropolitan Tikhon, and Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., a preeminent historian of the Byzantine liturgy.
Orientale Lumen delegations have traveled to Rome to meet Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Figel tries to alternate the annual conferences between ecumenical discussions and education on issues in the Eastern Churches. In addition to John Paul II’s Orientale Lumen letter, the conferences have looked at the Pope’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, in which he expressed his openness to a new approach to exercising papal primacy; Mary; primacy and conciliarity; the Eucharist; Eastern Catholic Churches; patriarchates; liturgy as a foundation for dialogue; icons; Eastern Church feast days; monastic spirituality; the councils of the Church, and theology of the laity.
Normally meeting in Washington, D.C., Orientale Lumen has met in Istanbul three times. The first of those visits, in 2004, was extended with a bus trip to the city of Iznik, the ancient site of Nicaea, where the first and seventh ecumenical councils were held. The site of the first council, the imperial palace, is now under a lake, but visitors toured the ruins of a church that was the site of the seventh council, which condemned iconoclasm. The group then gathered in the synthrenon, an area of circular benches behind the altar, where Metropolitan Kallistos gave a talk on the importance of the councils in Church history and the development of the Nicene Creed. The group then recited the Creed together as an ecumenical prayer for Church unity.
Ecumenism of Friendship
Unity is the common theme running through each conference, and this year’s gathering, held June 17-20, brought together a panel of experts who were involved in writing a 2010 “vision statement” on what steps could bring about full communion between Orthodox and Catholics.
Several members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation spoke about their statement, “Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future”: Protopresbyter James Dutko, an Orthodox pastor from Binghamton, N.Y.; Father Thomas FitzGerald, dean and professor of Church history and historical theology at Hellenic College-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass.; Father Sidney Griffith, professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at the Institute of Christian Oriental Research of The Catholic University of America; Father Roberson, and Sister of Charity Susan Wood, professor of theology at Marquette University and president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
Also speaking were Metropolitan Tikhon and Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., who taught for many years at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.
Metropolitan Tikhon arrived in black cassock and white klobuk. Sporting a long greying beard and pectoral medallion of the Theotokos, he delivered his talk from notes on an Apple laptop at the podium.
“The first invitation I accepted after my election was lunch at Jack Figel’s house. I was able to get a glimpse into the great work he’s done with Eastern Christian Publications and the many Orientale Lumen conferences throughout the years,” he said, commending Figel’s “energy and zeal in the valuable work of sharing Christian traditions both Eastern and Western.”
The conference took place at the Washington Retreat House, run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement, whose chapel was modified for the three days with a temporary icon screen. Sung morning liturgies were in the Byzantine or Armenian rite and included a Moleben to the Holy Spirit and Akathists to Christ and the Mother of God.
“We try to provide a balance in our agenda [among three things:] prayer, for the soul; plenary talks and lectures for the mind, and fellowship for the spirit,” Figel said. Attendees develop “ecumenical friendships” and return year after year to keep those friendships alive. “Everyone who comes has an interest in ecumenical dialogue and wants to learn about each other and more about each other’s traditions, as well as from our speakers,” Figel said.
Those friendships are on the lay level but also among priests, bishops and theologians. That helped keep Orthodox-Catholic relations alive while the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church was suspended for six years, after a contentious meeting in Emmitsburg, Md., in 2000, over the role of Eastern Catholic Churches.
“We kept meeting all through that time, every year,” Figel said. “So some have said we kept the dialogue alive, even with a small spark. And now it’s grown with the Ravenna document and plenary meetings almost every year and making great progress. During the downturn of the official dialogue, we were still maintaining the relations and kept on meeting.”
From 2000, when the meeting in Emmitsburg failed, until the 2006 meeting in Belgrade when international dialogue resumed, notable attendees of conferences in Washington, San Diego, or Istanbul included Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Patriarch Gregorios of Antioch, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, Archbishop Vsevolod of Scopelos, and Msgr. Johan Bonny from the Pontifical Council for Unity in the Vatican. “While the two patriarchs and Archbishop Vsevolod were not members of the dialogue,” Figel pointed out, “they played significant roles in ecumenical relations.”
Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, retired Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, attended the second OL conference in Constantinople, in 2007, and took note of the atmosphere. “He felt the experience with our group is like what it will be in heaven: perfect unity, because he said, ‘In your group I felt no confessional politics. No one had an axe to grind. They were all there as pilgrims to learn from each other and pray together and so forth.’ The letter he wrote me said this is a foretaste of what full unity is going to be like” Figel recalled.
The recent gathering in Washington was attended by a healthy mixture of bishops, priests, deacons, and laity, many of whom have roles in their churches, such as ecumenical officers, teachers, cantors and lectors. Catholic religious, such as Benedictines, Augustinians, Dominicans and Oblates, some of whom are Eastern-rite, shared meals with people who had no particular degrees in theology, history, ecclesiology or liturgy but seemed to be very well versed in those subjects, particularly in regard to relations between East and West.
“We’ve made tremendous strides [over the years]. It gives you a greater understanding of the universal Church,” said Benedictine Father Paschal Morlino, pastor of St. Benedict’s parish in Baltimore.
“Orientale Lumen is a wonderful opportunity for both sides, Catholic and Orthodox, to get together and discuss what we have in common and also to discuss what separates us,” said Orthodox Deacon Michael Bishop, from Baltimore. “Often the real problems are not the issues, but our perception of the issues. This was an opportunity for us to hear ‘the other side’ of the coin.”
“The word is being spread,” said Gloria Brissette, a Ukrainian Catholic from San Diego. “If just one new soul goes forth to enlighten others we have succeeded.”
Figel’s apostolate to foster greater understanding is going beyond the conferences. One of his latest ventures is Theosis magazine, which features articles on spiritual topics, prayers and information for each day of the liturgical year. Most of the feast days are different from those on the Latin Catholic calendar, and a Roman Catholic might find many of the saints commemorated to be unfamiliar. The magazine, which looks a bit like Magnificat, is intended for both Orthodox and Catholics.
In addition, Figel runs Orientale Lumen TV, which is putting together a series of educational videos called Sister Churches 101, to introduce a wider audience—through YouTube and parish screenings and discussion groups—to the issues involved in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.
For many Christians, it’s a subject that doesn’t often come up on their radar screens. Panelists at this year’s conference discussed means of getting the word out, particularly since their vision statement suggested ways average Christians might be more involved in ecumenism.
“Some people have come to experience division as the norm, thinking, ‘Why do we need to do anything?’” lamented Father Roberson.
“We can remind our congregations of our sister churches more often than we do,” suggested Father Griffith. “We usually have a pulpit where we can address hundreds of people. People could be made more aware of lots of things, such as icons.”
The 60-70 people gathered for this year’s conference—estimated to consist of some 40% Roman Catholic, 40% Byzantine Catholic and 20% Orthodox—were seen as leaven who can help increase ecumenical awareness.
“The very fact that this group gathered for prayer would not have been done by your grandparents,” said Father FitzGerald. “Some work has filtered down to the grassroots—not as much as we like.”
“Sometimes we on the Consultation wonder if anyone cares,” said Father Dutko. “You do, and it matters a lot.… How many times have you been asked, ‘Do you really believe the Church can be united?’ You’re going to live to see it. That’s what I believe. The reality is reflected in the prayer of our Lord—that all may be one. If you don’t believe his prayer can be fulfilled, how do you expect ours will? Since this is his prayer it must also be ours.
“As believers, all of us are called to be agents of healing of the division between East and West,” Father Dutko continued. “The task of unity is ours—all of us. It’s four-fold: we pray for each other, talk with each other, serve the Lord together, love one another. On the feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul [patron saints of Rome] and St. Andrew [patron of Constantinople], could we not seek opportunities to encounter each other in similar ways? Open houses, tours of our places of worship and receptions for guests would be good ways to break the ice. Prayer services, educational forums, spirituality.”
For Figel, the motivation goes back to what Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said: “Although you say your movement is grassroots, I’m convinced it’s rooted in heaven and inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
“That’s what motivates me,” Figel said. “I get these ideas. I can’t think that they come from anywhere else but the Holy Spirit and all I do is say ‘Yes,’ and it happens.”