Liturgical Sharing, Catholic/Orthodox

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?


  1. I’d like to add my voice, from my perspective as another Orthodox Christian. It seems the general Orthodox reluctance toward liturgical coupling with those outside the tradition is derivative of the eucharistic and baptismal exclusivity that St. Justin the Martyr says belongs to those who believe as we do (First Apology 66). A potential problem in the grassroots or individualistic approach you advocate is the evident diversity of theology held and advocated by clergy even within the same confession outside Orthodoxy. In my locality you can attend Roman Catholic parishes which are faithful to RC doctrine and canons, while the next describes the Resurrection as a myth and advocates the ‘womenpriest’ movement. I tend to believe, as I may be correctly interpreting the author to be doing, that communion will grow from the ground, up. But how does that happen when, as it can be observed, the common ground we’d like to step out onto is unstable and constantly shifting?

    1. @Nathan Kroll – comment #1:
      Could it also be some good old fashioned politics, prejudices, distrusts, and misunderstandings from the past? And I mean from both sides, East and West.

      A number of years ago I was having a splendid conversation with a Russian Orthodox priest at a local Civic get-together, until he discovered I was Roman Catholic. Subsequently, he became hostile, accused me of being a heretic, and left. He had thought I was a Protestant Minister when we started the friendly conversation. It was sad, really; both of us were having a good time.

      At least, from my personal perspective, I think we need to work through the things I said above. Too many commonalities are being overlooked because of things that happened so long ago, without either side at times not wanting to budge an inch (in my opinion) because of pride. Common Services would help break them down the barriers they cause. I wish the Orthodox friend was in my neck of the woods.

      I would still love to continue with the conversation we were having at that time.

  2. +1 Nathan Kroll. Now is not the time for Orthodox to cooperate liturgically with Roman Catholics. The Roman liturgical schism is still burning brightly. Thank God the Orthodox have shied away from the temptation of liturgical novelty and preserved their ancient liturgical heritage. Please, Eastern brothers and sisters, do not imitate “liturgical renewal”. Keep your distance until even a tenuous peace has been made between Roman Catholic progressives and traditionalists.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #3:

        Father, I apologize for ranting. It’s true that the Church of Greece has permitted versus populum experimentally for certain liturgies. What the Church of Greece hasn’t done was set a date when every church must set up an altar in front of the iconostasis. I don’t mind the Greek style of liturgical experimentation because it is non-compulsory. This experimentation is quite dissimilar to the order in 1965 that all American Roman Catholic churches must turn their altars around within a very limited period of time.

        I inadvertently illustrated one of my delusions about Orthodoxy in #2. I have often wrongly thought that “Orthodoxy” (which cannot be reduced to one group anyway) has valiantly resisted postmodernization for the most part. For that reason, “Orthodoxy” has been unspoiled and might get “contaminated” by contact with the normative Roman Rite. This is preposterous because Orthodox clergy and synods have always been in contact with Rome, both before and after the Council. My rant illustrates this fantasy that the East is vacuum sealed off from the West.

  3. @ Jordan: There is plenty of liturgical renewal in Orthodoxy, which is the topic of a book I’m writing. Almost all of the renewal occurs within the received tradition and is not “surgical,” though there are some proposals and models for adopting more ancient structures and revising them for the contemporary Church. My hope is that some of the issues I discuss and examples I present will be eye-opening and promote more conversation. Also, there is plenty of polarization within Eastern Orthodoxy; working out one’s salvation in and with the Church can be a real struggle.

    @Fr. Nathan, you ask an important question, and the matter of Eucharistic exclusion appears even earlier than Justin, with the Didache. My own reading of tradition is that late antiquity and medieval Christianity privileged the idea that some people should not be admitted to the Eucharistic assembly until they have the moral and cognitive willingness to adopt the faith represented by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and live by it as well. The people who attend liturgy are all over the dogmatic map. Hearing the prayers with attentiveness and saying the Creed together provides, at minimum, the possibility of adopting the Church’s faith as one’s own, even as we continue to struggle with specific points of faith. To me, this is another reason to promote liturgical sharing, to expose one another to our tenets of faith. I also realize that this is a struggle and feels risky.

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