Oriental Orthodox Churches: What They Teach Us


Before bidding adieu to the Oriental Orthodox Churches, it would be good to look back on what we have learned in our brief review of their history, culture and faith. What do they have in common and what is their relationship to the Catholic Church in the third millennium? What important lessons do they teach us?

Ancient and Apostolic Churches

All of the Oriental Orthodox Churches have a very old tradition. In fact many prefer to be called Ancient Orthodox. They stress their origins in the twelve Apostles or their disciples. They are as old or older than the churches of the west. Indeed they take great pride in the fact that they have passed on (tradition) the faith, worship and customs of the ancient churches of Christendom.

Many of these churches began and are located in the Middle East. They are generally in full communion with one another and are very interested in the unity of all those who believe in Jesus Christ and their churches. They are actively involved in the ecumenical movement and are in dialogue with the Catholic Church.

Most of these churches date their separation from other Christian churches to the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) which sought to reconcile the teachings of Pope Leo I of Rome and St. Cyril of Alexandria regarding the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Though they are sometimes accused of monophysitism, they really have the same faith as Catholics, though the formulation is different. This difference is largely due to the terminology of St. Cyril of Alexandria, especially his use of the term (physis) to explain how Jesus is one divine person but he has two distinct and complete natures, the divine and human.

Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus in 433 succeeded in getting the two schools of Antioch and Alexandria to agree on a formula (the Formula of Union) and this agreement prepared the way for the consensus achieved in the Council of Chalcedon, when agreement was reached over the formula of Pope Leo the Great of Rome and the formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria who was the hero of the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 AD.

The Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue

Since the 1980’s the Catholic Church has been involved in a theological dialogue with the Orthodox Churches (including the Eastern Orthodox whom we will discuss in future articles). As I have indicated in the articles about the East Syrian and West Syrian Churches some of these exchanges have resulted in agreed statements with the approval of mutual interim Eucharistic sharing for pastoral reasons. Other agreed statements have not reached that point, but could easily do so.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches are in dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Churches as well, and that dialogue is progressing very well. In the Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue both groups of Orthodox Churches meet together with Catholic participants. (There is a dialogue of bishops and another of theologians.)

In the Second Vatican Council’s document on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) there is a treatment of the Catholic Church’s relationship with Orthodox Churches. There is also a similar treatment in the Ecumenical Directory published by the Vatican in 1969/70 and again in 1993. The New Code of Canon Law (1983) also has specific treatment regarding the Orthodox, especially canon #844.

Perhaps most important are the agreed statements which were hammered out between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox. They reconcile some differences that are millennial and which have been very difficult to bridge since the Council of Chalcedon. Similar agreements have been signed with Protestant Churches.

The Eucharist, Prayer and Communion

One of the characteristics of Orthodox theology and spirituality is its focus on the Eucharist. The Eucharist is seen as salvation in action. It is the Risen Lord in our midst. We recognize him in the “breaking of the bread”. The Orthodox churches stress commonality or communion (koinonia). The purpose of the incarnation of Our Lord was to restore the communion between mankind and God. Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, by his death and rising has reestablished that communion between God and mankind. The communion with God is in the Church. By celebrating the Eucharist we become what we receive, the body of Christ.

Thus the Eucharist is at the heart of the movement for Christian unity. It is not a matter of power and authority, but of eternal life in Jesus Christ. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is where eternal life exists and is shared. In the first millennium the patriarchal system of government was created and respected. Rome was seen as the first of the churches and accorded a role in solving disputes when they arose. The intervention of Pope Leo the Great in the Council of Chalcedon is a case in point, though there is evidence of that role in earlier times. But the stress was not on the prerogatives of the patriarchates, but on the unity of the Church. This unity is what is sought through the Holy Spirit in our time.

The Future of Christian Unity

It would seem that the desire for Christian unity and the modern movement for it have grown lukewarm. It might be more accurate to say that secular materialism has made inroads against all religion, and the role of religion is itself being questioned in the third millennium. The Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council has become one of the principal players in the difficult task of reuniting the Christian church. Many attempts of the past have failed. The difference with the present effort is that the Church has become aware that without Christian unity the evangelization of the world is in jeopardy.

The Gospels record Jesus as saying: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8) Perhaps that is the question we should be asking.

(The above article appears in the November/December 2011 issue of Bread Broken & Shared).