Facing West? An Easterner’s Journey

A dear Jesuit friend who loves Byzantine iconography and Mariology likes to joke with me about the prospect of “crossing the Dnieper,” meaning to make the leap from the Roman Church to Orthodoxy. He is one of thousands of Roman Catholics who have come to love and appreciate the Orthodox Church. Roman Catholics have invited the Orthodox Church to dialogue on controversial issues and matters of common interest, to worship together, and to strive to overcome obstacles to restoring full Communion between the two Churches. Many gestures symbolized this ecumenical enterprise in the twentieth century, perhaps none more poignant than the exchange of the kiss of peace between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964.

Among the dozens of examples signifying Roman Catholic attempts to engage Eastern Christianity, the most powerful one for me is the way Roman Catholics feature Eastern Orthodoxy in higher education. One does not need to enroll at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome to become immersed in Eastern Christianity. Many Catholic universities have Orthodox faculty and courses on Eastern Christianity, and some schools have strong resources for the study of Eastern Christianity. I was a beneficiary of Catholic emphasis on Orthodoxy during my years of study at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Yes, it was wonderful to have the unparalleled libraries with Eastern Christian periodicals and primary sources, but the best experience was the genuine interest faculty and students expressed in Orthodoxy. Orthodox students were fully integrated into the life of the community and shared genuine fellowship with Catholic faculty and students, an experience I know Orthodox have also enjoyed at schools such as Notre Dame and Fordham (among others, of course).

I often wonder what it’s like for Catholics who try to befriend Orthodox to hear representatives of our Church condemn Catholics as heretics, schismatics, heterodox, papists, and imperialists, to name a few epithets. Maybe some of you will respond; in the rest of this space, I will reflect on the unique journey of an Easterner facing West, a proponent of ecumenical dialogue for the purpose of restoring Eucharistic communion.

“What Would Jesus Do?”

Before you cringe upon viewing the tired query above, let me tell you how my hearing of this question granted me insight into the actual situation of the Church of my youth. You see, I was raised in my grandfather’s small Ukrainian Orthodox parish – an experience filled with soaring joy and unrelenting angst worthy of its own memoir. Our small parish was composed almost entirely by immigrants from Soviet Ukraine who made the USA their home after World War II. Like many immigrant parishes, our parish had a dual, hybrid mission: to continue the mission of the Orthodox Church and to sustain and develop Ukrainian cultural awareness among the generation of children who were born in America. Many of our parishioners came to America as families; the first-generation Americans were the first in our community to marry people who were neither Ukrainian nor Orthodox. Without a doubt, the pastors of our parish presided at many weddings and offered numerous blessings and toasts, but the non-Ukrainian, non-Orthodox spouses participating in parish life were essentially taking a crash course in immigrant life and Orthodox tradition. Many of these folks limited Church life to baptisms, weddings, and funerals, but some of the “Amerikantsi” came every Sunday and participated fully, even if they had not been formally received into Church via Chrismation.

One year, during Lent, my grandfather told my brother and me that he had heard the confession of one of these spouses, who was formally Lutheran, but had attended the parish faithfully for years. He also gave her Holy Communion. Imagining myself as an expert on canonical boundaries, I dared to challenge him with the assistance of my brother. Oblivious to most American idioms, he responded, “What would Jesus Christ do?” His response was not a trite employment of a common saying, but rooted in the reality he faced: this woman sacrificed to participate in the parish life, and she approached, asking for the sacraments, which he then imparted. He felt that the only Christian response was to say yes, to honor her desire to be one with us.

My grandfather enjoyed immense authority in our family, so my brother and I remained silent after his admonishing query. I also knew that grandfather approached his ministry with the gravitas of the imminent judgment, and was not “playing ecumenical games.” For him, this was a faithful woman, real flesh, blood, person, who was always present and wanted the sacrament. It was his Christian duty to share it, based on what we might call the primary canon of loving one’s neighbor.

Over the years, I have reflected on my grandfather’s response to our challenge as I deepened my commitment to ministry in the Orthodox Church. It was difficult to locate his decision among the groups of Orthodox responses to dialogue with Roman Catholics. The decision to offer direction and Communion to a Lutheran woman married to a parishioner cohered with the proponents of ecumenism in Orthodoxy and their desire for the restoration of Communion, but seemed to arrive at it ahead of the rest of the Church. This action stood in clear violation of a strict application of the rule of the Orthodox Church, which identifies Orthodoxy as THE Church, and all other Churches and their adherents as separated from Orthodoxy. What struck me most, in retrospect, was the situation posed to my grandfather as pastor: he shepherded an Orthodox parish which was a significant minority among a much larger Western Christian majority. The Lutheran woman symbolized the ultimate destiny of Orthodoxy in the West: to make a permanent home in the West, Orthodoxy would have to change its strict ecclesiological position and respond charitably to people who became fixtures of the community. As the survivor of a horrifying genocidal regime and a bloody and deadly war, the desire exhibited by the woman to participate more fully in the life of the Church could not be denied. The Lord’s coming was imminent: pastors had to act boldly to unite divided people. Orthodoxy’s destiny in the West was to live side-by-side with Western Christian communities. One step towards reconciling with the West was to feed the Christians who participated in Orthodox Church life in some serious way. Orthodoxy was not going to leave America; nor would America convert to Orthodoxy en masse; to settle permanently in America, Orthodoxy had to meet the West, face-to-face, and the way this was happening was the inevitable presence of men and women who made Orthodoxy their home without taking the final step of conversion.

I have reflected on this example for so long because one’s response to this decision exhibits the diversity of attitudes towards ecumenism in Orthodoxy. In all likelihood, the mainstream response would view the giving of communion to the Lutheran woman as a violation of a canon requiring a reprimand. The response would read something along the lines of, “this is very nice, but you’re walking ahead of the Church; walk with the Church.” Essentially, this is the refrain we offer to people who can pray with us at Liturgy but cannot receive Communion. A smaller cohort of Orthodox would have called for my grandfather to be deposed for permitting a heretic to receive the mystery. A very small group of people would say, “sure, I also give communion to non-Orthodox at liturgy without asking for permission”  (the Church version of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’). In the current climate of Orthodoxy, I am finding the pendulum to be swinging towards cautious avoidance of “going too far” in ecumenical dialogue, the tip sometimes brushing the conservative rhetoric of condemning all non-Orthodox and demanding their penitential return to Holy Orthodoxy.

The ecumenical dialogues between Orthodox and the other Churches (my deliberate choice of words) will continue, and will hail points of agreement while advising all to avoid going too far and creating a Communion for which we are not yet prepared. As of this writing, I have not been publicly chastised or reprimanded for promoting ecumenical dialogue, at least to my knowledge. But I do find the work of ecumenical dialogue to be somewhat lonely. We cheerfully remember strong points of agreement at academic symposia and special Church events, yet we are somehow satisfied with division, as long as no one gets hurt. Deepening communion requires effort and a willingness to hear the other. How do we know if we want to restore Communion when we can’t get past talking about the historical causes of division? We can spend hours together in the classroom, at work, with our children playing together at school and all of us sharing in the strong moments of everyday life, yet Eucharistic Communion remains unattainable. We think it is easier to point out our differences and walk away without considering the potential blessings that could result from taking the next step together. The point is to take the next step, to go further.

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian in the West, I have found Western Christians to be hospitable, welcoming, willing to house me, sponsor my education, and give me a platform to speak about Orthodoxy. As I face West, I am finding that the Christians I meet are no longer strangers, but friends. I have nothing to fear; I want complete Communion with them. The desire for completing Communion is what I hope will be reinvigorated throughout Christianity, especially in the Orthodox Churches. The return of this desire will be manifest in a mutual willingness to take the next step, to go further. And, I hope that my journey might become less lonely, that some of my cautious Orthodox friends might face West with me and discover the sheer humanity of the Western Christians among us as a joyful delight, and not a threat, the foreshadowing of healed divisions among people who all want to go home to the abode of the Trinity, together.


  1. A dear Jesuit friend who loves Byzantine iconography and Mariology…

    Wait, is his last name Bergoglio?


    And as to this:

    I often wonder what it’s like for Catholics…

    Generally speaking, it doesn’t bother me that much, because I understand that there are many Orthodox Christians who don’t share such thinking. It’s also possible that they don’t get to me because –and this is kinda really sad — Catholics have been throwing around those labels — “heretics, schismatics, heterodox, papists, and imperialists” — to each other for so long that they’ve lost (some of) their power to offend.

    Anyway, what a beautiful reflection. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. I’m not offended in the slightest if Orthodox Christians consider me a heretic or schismatic for being Roman Catholic.

  3. Personally, I cherish my contacts with Orthodoxy. I did a Master’s degree in St. Vladimir’s in NY and this was an eye opener for me. I hope I am a better disciple of Christ after the experience. I had no bad experiences there and was always fully accepted, the only limitations on me were not being allowed to wear a cassock or sing in the Chapel! I am Irish, so I think I wasn’t considered to be a threat, although if I had been Ukrainian Catholic, I think it would have been different experience. Attending the Divine Liturgy and not being able to receive Communion was painful. But the lack of unity is a fact. A major ecumenical problem is the lack of a single voice that speaks for Orthodoxy, i.e. who do we talk with to re-establish communion? Coming from a Western background it was hard at times to get used to the somewhat illogical attitudes to certain practical pastoral problems and the possibility for diametrically opposed views to comfortably co-exist, but again this was good eye opener for me to see that there is more than one way to face a situation. I appreciated Victoria Clark’s assertion that at the split between East and West, the West lost its heart and the East its mind. We need to find each other to be whole again.

  4. From time to time, I will attend Vespers at local Orthodox Parish, especially around the great feasts and I greatly value the worship and spirituality. As for being called schismatic and heretical, dialogue always starts with genuine perceptions of truth, so it doesn’t bother me at all. Thick skin is always a virtue. Nor does not being able to receive communion at a Divine Liturgy. It shows how important unity of doctrine is to full communion.

  5. Your grandfather, I believe, used the charity of Christ to make an important decision. It is that moment of decision making as a pastor that moves people forward or as Nicholas wrote “to go further.” The PrayTell quips and comments can sometimes load up with judgements (I think I’m pointing at myself too) where the issues of community and intent and pastoral practice get relegated to liturgical and theological legalism.

    I believe that when it is all said and done and we are with Jesus Christ, he will ask us “what part of do this in Remembrance of me did you not understand?”

    Thanks Nicholas…a great way to start July.

  6. Father Deacon–two things: 1) I had a (now reposed) dear friend who was a Ruthenian Greek Catholic priest. He had a just such a woman in his natal parish who came with her husband every week to DL, raised the children Greek Catholic, etc. but never converted. My friend’s thought was: with such a person, what did we/are we doing wrong that she doesn’t convert? 2) and this is my thought: why would I want to go to Communion in a church outside my own, that I am not in ‘communion’ with, and more than likely don’t believe the same thing about the Communion that they are receiving?

    1. @John Kohanski:
      Thanks for this thoughtful response.

      My best guess on your second question is that taking the big step for a permanent commitment to a new community is more difficult for some than it is for others. Perhaps she did not want to relinquish the communion she had with her native community, yet her marriage inspired her to partake quite fully in parish life? I know this is speculation, but if that was indeed the case, then her example exposes both the pain of separation and the objective of ecumenical dialogue.

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