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Mount Athos objects to ecumenical openness

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.the-tidings.com/2007/041307/difference.htm Published: Friday, April 13, 2007 Mount Athos objects to ecumenical openness By George Weigel Last
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 12, 2007

      Published: Friday, April 13, 2007
      Mount Athos objects to ecumenical openness
      By George Weigel

      Last December's visit by Pope Benedict XVI to
      Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of
      Constantinople revived speculation that the
      millennium-long division between Rome and the Christian East might soon end.

      That was certainly the dream of Benedict's
      predecessor, the Servant of God John Paul II, who
      really did seem to believe that Rome and
      Constantinople could achieve ecclesial
      reconciliation by the end of the twentieth
      century, so that a millennium of division --- the
      formal split having taken place in 1054 --- would
      be succeeded by a new millennium of unity, in a
      return to the relations that prevailed in the
      first centuries of Christian history.

      It was a noble vision, but it may not have
      accurately measured the depth of the chasm
      between Catholicism and some parts of the
      worlds-within-worlds of Orthodoxy. Recent
      comments on Benedict's December pilgrimage by the
      Orthodox monks of Mount Athos suggest that the
      division is deep and wide indeed.

      Mount Athos, a craggy peninsula in northern
      Greece, is home to 20 self-governing Orthodox
      monasteries. In fact, Mount Athos is virtually a
      country unto itself; its formal designation in
      Greece is the "Autonomous Monastic State of the
      Holy Mountain." No women or female animals are
      allowed on Mount Athos; visitors are strictly
      limited; only male members of the Orthodox Church may become monks.

      And, while Mount Athos comes under the
      ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical
      Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Athonite
      monks, who regard their monasticism as what they
      term "the non-negotiable guardian of the Holy
      Tradition," were very unhappy with Ecumenical
      Patriarch Bartholomew and the way he treated his Roman guest in December.

      Why? Because, the monks complained, "the Pope was
      received as though he were the canonical bishop
      of Rome." There were other complaints, but that
      was the first listed in a statement released last
      December 30 by the Assembly of Representatives
      and Superiors of the twenty monasteries: Why was
      Bartholomew treating Benedict as though the
      latter were, in fact, the bishop of Rome?

      Well, if we can't agree on that, we do have, as
      Jim Lovell told Mission Control, a problem.

      To be sure, Athonite monasticism, "the
      non-negotiable guardian of the Holy Tradition,"
      is a particularly stringent form of Orthodoxy.
      And if the monks of Mount Athos have their
      dubieties about the ecumenical openness of
      Patriarch Bartholomew, it is, perhaps, not
      surprising that they imagine Benedict XVI as a
      usurper and a teacher of heresies.

      Yet this Athonite intransigence reflects a hard
      truth about Catholic-Orthodox relations after a
      millennium of division: namely, that, for many
      Orthodox Christians, the statement "I am not in
      communion with the Bishop of Rome" has become an
      integral part of the statement, "I am an Orthodox Christian."

      The obverse is not true. I very much doubt that
      there are more than a handful of Catholics around
      the world whose confession of Catholic faith
      includes, as a key component, "I am not in
      communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople."

      The truth of the matter is that, outside
      historically Orthodox countries and certain
      ethnic communities, the thought of how one stands
      vis-à-vis the Patriarch of Constantinople simply
      doesn't enter Catholic heads. Perhaps that's a
      problem, but it's nowhere near as great an
      obstacle to ecumenical progress as the conviction
      in some Orthodox quarters that non-communion with
      Rome is a defining characteristic of what it means to be "Orthodox."

      1054, it now seems clear, was not a
      date-in-a-vacuum. Rather, the mutual
      excommunications of 1054 were the cash-out, so to
      speak, of a drifting-apart that had been going on
      for centuries, driven by language and politics,
      to be sure, but also by different theological
      sensibilities. Are those two sensibilities
      necessarily Church-dividing? The Catholic answer
      is, "No." But that is emphatically not the answer
      of Mount Athos, and of those Orthodox for whom
      the Athonite monks are essentially right, if a bit over-the-top.

      All of which suggests that John Paul II's dream
      of a Church breathing once again with both of its
      lungs is unlikely of fulfillment anytime soon.
      Unless, that is, Islamist pressures compel a
      reexamination within Orthodoxy of what a life-line to Rome might mean.

      George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics
      and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
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