John Paul II and the Enigma of the East

Interview with Michelina Tenace of Pontifical Oriental Institute

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 19, 2001 ( John Paul II´s forthcoming trips to Syria and Ukraine put a spotlight on his attention to the Orthodox world.

In order to better understand the Pope´s commitment to promote this reconciliation of the Catholic Church with the Eastern Churches, ZENIT interviewed professor Michelina Tenace of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, a member of the Aletti Center of Rome, which is dedicated to promoting relations with the Eastern Christians.

–Q: On many occasions, particularly during the Synod of Bishops for Europe, held in October 1999, John Paul II has stressed that Christianity in Europe needs two lungs, the East and the West.

–Tenace: The image of the two lungs recalls life. An organism is alive if it has what enables it to live: air, water, food. The two lungs remind one of the relation between life and breathing, in other words, between life and the Holy Spirit. In order to be alive, one must grow in the spiritual life.

When the image of the two lungs is applied to the relation between the Eastern and Western Churches, the intention is to bring to mind the situation of a Christian who does not take advantage of the vitality of the totality of the body, but only of a part.

The totality of the body in this case is the Christian Apostolic tradition, extremely rich because it possesses in itself many solutions offered to many of the problems that we have today. However, if we only look at one part of the tradition, we realize that it is difficult to breathe. Then, why not breathe with full lungs, taking recourse to the life transmitted by the Church in 2000 years of existence?

The Aletti Center hopes to respond, in particular, to this challenge: to find an answer to today´s problems, which are similar in the East and West, by appealing to the richness of the two traditions.

In certain aspects, Europe´s decadence is like the Roman Empire´s in the fifth century. At that time, the monks saved civilization by [living] their Christian life radically, with their love for culture, creation, art, the interior life, and man as man.

John Paul II is prophetic in many ways, but in this [area] he is very explicit: By insisting on Christians´ commitment to unity, he wishes to remind them of their responsibility to the world, creation, and man´s destiny. The East has its own light: Christ is the light of the East. As the director of the Aletti Center, Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, says, our facing toward the East is motivated by that conviction: Everything that is Christ´s is ours.

The importance of unity among Christians, even from the point of view of the dynamics of international politics, is so great that, for example, Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement, interprets the attack on the Pope, perpetrated by Turk Ali Agca, as a martyrdom for unity. According to him, it was an attempt to stop John Paul II´s push in favor of the Orthodox Church. He says so in his wonderful book [«Rome Seen Differently: An Orthodox Before the Papacy,» 1997].

–Q: Why is a possible papal trip to Moscow so controversial?

–Tenace: Who knows? There are difficulties we cannot even imagine. However, some are clear. To begin with, we must admit that for a Catholic it is difficult to understand that, in the dialogue between Churches, the Pope is not on one side and the patriarch on the other. According to that logic, it would be enough for them to come to an agreement and all would be resolved. It is not that way.

On one side is the Pope, and on the other, many patriarchs, heads of Churches that do not acknowledge communion with Rome. Orthodoxy is not a unique reality. It is fragmented and even in internal conflict. Suffice it to mention an obvious conflict: Constantinople with Bartholomew, and Moscow with Alexis II, represent an Orthodoxy that has not resolved the historical, cultural, ideological, etc. rivalry.

If one wants to take a step toward unity, one must keep in mind how it will be interpreted by the rest of the Orthodox world. Precisely in order to favor a meeting and reconciliation, some dream of a council including all the Orthodox Churches, in which each one can express its petitions, difficulties, and be able to find solutions together.

In this context of unity and diversity, sometimes the beautiful image that circulated in the first centuries is recalled, of the five patriarchs like five fingers necessary for a hand. Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople were united in faith and charity. The primacy of Rome was lived as a guarantee of unity.

Today the image of the five patriarchs would not be sufficient to understand the complexity of the situation. However, it is interesting to see how the Pope´s work develops, keeping these old Patriarchal Sees in mind, as regards the dynamics that exist among them. As to the Holy Father, the impression is that he has done everything possible, even indicating the way of a truly right attitude, which puts charity and humility, including the acceptance of humiliation, in first place.

–Q: Is there little hope, then?

–Tenace: There are genuine signs of hope, despite the worrying difficulties. However, they are neither easy to see nor to enumerate. In an article written for the newspaper La Croix, Olivier Clement, an Orthodox who lives in Paris, presented among the sings of hope some places where people live this hope.

Along with the communities of Taizé and Bose, he mentioned the Aletti Center. Given that I myself live in the Aletti Center, I can say that there is a sign of hope there. For example, in 1955, LIPA publications came into being in the center. It has published some 50 books, with 60 translations not only in Eastern languages, but also in Romanian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Russian, Greek, etc.

I also think that Father Thomas Spidlik´s book, the manual on «Spirituality of the Christian East,» has been translated into Russian and when it was published in Moscow, it was sold out in a few weeks, and had to be reprinted in several editions. It is used by Orthodox without a problem. In 1998 Father Spidlik himself was the first Catholic who received a doctorate «honoris causa» from an Orthodox institution, the department of theology of the University of Cluj in Romania.

However, all this is relative. No one can pass judgment on the value of the sacrifices of people belonging to one or another Church, humiliated because of the difficult coexistence among Christians.

At times the signs of hope are very modest, hidden. The way the Holy Spirit works in the Church is always the same: how did the Gospel spread? By the work of a few persons of conviction, transformed by faith in Christ. A few people, the Apostles, poor and ill prepared, we could say.

However, they had incredible force, the force of Christ. In this connection, if we reason with numbers and statistics, we cannot know where the Church and ecumenism are headed. The world is changing and with it the Church, people meet, understand one another, help each other, begin to love one another, because they recognize that they belong to Christ and, therefore, that they are already united in him.

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