Ecumenical relations between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches

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Recently, we joined the Catholic Church in celebrating 60 years of ecumenical journeying with other Christian churches. Today we look briefly at the inside story of the relationship between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox were originally one church. Both claim the apostolic line of succession from Peter through popes and bishops. The Church was then led by five patriarchs in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The patriarch (or pope) of Rome held authority over the other four patriarchs. However, when Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem fell under Muslim conquest in the 7th century, Constantinople and Rome remained the two main centers of Christianity.

The eastern church (Constantinople) and the western church (Rome) developed disagreements on certain doctrinal issues. The Roman Catholic Church has a worldwide hierarchy, with the Pope in Rome as supreme head. However, the Patriarch of Constantinople is considered equal to all other bishops of the Orthodox Church, but receives the honorary title of “primus inter pares” (first among equals).

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox reject the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. They believe that salvation is a process that begins with baptism and continues by cooperating with grace through faith, good works of mercy, prayer, and receiving the sacraments from the church.

Roman Catholics believe the mission of the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father with Jesus the Son (“Filioque”), Eastern Orthodox believe it proceeds from God the Father alone. This controversy was the main cause of mutual excommunication, ending in the Schism of 1054.

Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe that grace is God’s free and undeserved help to respond to his call to become his adopted children, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life. A Christian can be restored to grace by confessing his mortal sins to a priest and doing penance. The Eastern Orthodox, however, can confess their sins to God before a “spiritual guide”, priest or authorized layman, male or female.

Religion promotes unity. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have some similarities.

Eastern Orthodox and Catholics call their priests Father.

Following the practice of Passover, Catholics use unleavened bread for Mass, while the Eastern Orthodox, after the resurrection of Jesus, use leavened. The Catholics keep the Eucharist and adore it, the Orthodox do not.

Roman Catholics believe in doctrinal development, the result of the interaction between faith and reason. For the Eastern Orthodox, the primitive Church and the Bible must not be modified in any way; to avoid heresies and false doctrines.

Unlike Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox do not accept the concepts of purgatory and the Stations of the Cross. Both use the crucifix. The orthodox cross from right to left, joining the thumb and the first two fingers; meaning the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Catholics cross from left to right, using the whole palm, signifying the passage from curse to blessing (Matthew 25:31-33).

Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived in her mother’s womb without original sin (Immaculate Conception) and remained a sinless virgin. The Eastern Orthodox believe that she was like all other humans, but remained a holy virgin.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox use the Greek scriptures of the Old Testament (Septuagint), with 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Wisdom and Baruch. Yet the Eastern Orthodox Bible has additional writings.

Eastern Orthodox worship icons, while Roman Catholics have statues and icons. The Orthodox follow the Julian calendar while the Catholics follow the Gregorian calendar.

Eastern Orthodox priests can marry before being ordained, while in the Roman Catholic Church priests do not marry. Both call their priests “Father”.

Reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches began with the historic meeting in 1964 between the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI. The two Churches collaborate in the fight against racism, religious intolerance, fundamentalism, poverty, divisions, climate change, among other problems.

“The division of Christians is a scandal because there is no true witness to the Gospel except in the unity of the members of the body of Christ”, says Pope Francis.

“The division of Christians is a scandal because there is no true witness to the Gospel except in the unity of the members of the body of Christ”, says Pope Francis.

Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe that grace is God’s free and undeserved help to respond to his call to become his adopted children, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life. A Christian can be restored to grace by confessing his mortal sins to a priest and doing penance.

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