Recently, an ordained friend who shepherds an Orthodox parish in the Upper Midwest wrote to ask me and some other friends for our opinions on concelebrating an “Akathist” (a non-Eucharistic prayer service consisting mostly of elaborate hymnography devoted to the Mother of God or a saint with elements from the Byzantine Liturgy of the Hours) with a Roman Catholic priest and parishioners from his church. He was frustrated that he had not received a response from the proper authority and was keeping his Catholic colleague waiting. Our responses to him varied, and he essentially had three choices: 1) continue to wait for permission from the bishop; 2) celebrate the Akathist with the Roman priest and ask for forgiveness; 3) preside at the Akathist alone with the Roman priest and his parish attending. I encouraged my friend to pursue option 3, since one does not need to preside to participate, but he complained that having the Orthodox preside without an ordained Catholic concelebrant would diminish the meaning of this event.
I was reminded of my friend’s challenging dilemma as I worked on a paper for an international conference devoted to reflection on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. I reflected on the achievements of the fathers and mothers of the twentieth century, especially in the rehabilitation and restoration of the priestly, prophetic, and royal dignity of the laity in all liturgies, especially the sacraments of initiation. Interest in the priesthood of the laity was quite strong among Orthodox theologians, who viewed Chrismation as the sacrament primarily communicating the imparting of these gifts to the laity.
My own sense is that the theological apparatuses upholding Roman and Byzantine liturgies are strikingly similar, grounded by Christ’s priesthood shared with the body of Christ and demanding the active and conscious participation of the people in the liturgy. Orthodox theology has become a bit stagnant in the last 25-30 years on this topic. Despite the shared advancements of the twentieth century, when Orthodox and Catholic theologians often collaborated on the enterprise of liturgical theology, the Orthodox churches seem to be content with recognizing Roman baptism, and receiving Catholic priests into the Church through vesting, but stopping just short of communion. The willingness to recognize baptism and receive ordained clergy is an acknowledgement of the fullness of sacramentality in the Roman Church, a confirmation of Roman “churchliness.” The insistence on stopping just short of Eucharistic communion exposes Orthodoxy’s preference for a more exclusive ecclesiology, which is quite unlike the groundbreaking Roman position adopted when Unitatis Redintegratio referred to Eastern Christian communities as “churches” and manifested a veneration for Eastern churchliness in liturgical practice.
There are many pastors and theologians who believe that all theological disputes must be resolved before restoring communion. I believe that a natural next step for Orthodox is to invite Catholics to share non-Eucharistic offices with the Orthodox. Mutual participation in liturgical offices functions as a rehearsal of communion: the assembly of people gathered for liturgical prayer offers an image of united Christianity where people who are formally divided voluntarily unite to petition and thank God Almighty. One might be tempted to dismiss this proposal as utopian, but the key to its implementation is rehearsal: Christians divided by region, history, theological emphasis, or the memory of war and bloodshed can foment human unity only through rehearsal. How can we be united in community if we do not try it?
One way to try it would be to celebrate something like an Akathist service together, with clergy and laity praying and petitioning as one assembly, as my dear friend had proposed. I have a sense of how my Orthodox brothers and sisters would receive this proposal; how about Catholics? Would something like this interest you?