Vatican II Praised Eastern Traditions

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

General Audience August 9, 1995

1. On the topic of ecumenism, what the Second Vatican Council says about relations between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church is particularly important: the current separation cannot make us forget the long way we have come together. "For many centuries the Churches of the East and of the West went their own ways, though a brotherly communion of faith and sacramental life bound them together. If disagreements in faith and discipline arose among them, the Roman See acted by common consent as moderator" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 14). During that historical period, the Eastern Churches had their own way of celebrating and expressing the mystery of the common faith and their own discipline. These legitimate differences did not prevent them from accepting the ministry entrusted to Peter and his successors.

2. On their journey together, the West received a great deal from the East in the area of liturgy, spiritual tradition, juridical order. Furthermore, "the basic dogmas of the Christian faith concerning the Trinity and the Word of God made flesh from the Virgin Mary were defined in Ecumenical Councils held in the East" (ibid.).

The doctrinal development which occurred in the East in the early centuries was decisive for the formulation of the Church's universal faith. Here I would like to remember with deep veneration the doctrine defined by several Ecumenical Councils in the first centuries: the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, at Nicea in 325; the divinity of the Holy Spirit, at the First Council of Constantinople, celebrated in 381; the divine motherhood of Mary, at Ephesus in 431; the one person and two natures of Christ, at Chalcedon in 451. The thematic developments that make it possible to understand with increasing clarity the "unsearchable riches" of Christ's mystery (cf. Eph 3:8) must be based on this fundamental contribution which is definitive for the Christian faith.

The Second Vatican Council refrained from examining the circumstances of the separation, as well as from evaluating the mutual rebukes. It merely noted that the same inheritance received from the Apostles was developed in different places and various ways in the East and in the West, "also because of differing mentalities and ways of life" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 14). This created problems that, in addition to "external causes, as well as the lack of charity and mutual understanding, left the way open to divisions" (ibid.). The memory of the painful pages of the past, instead of imprisoning us in recrimination and controversy, should spur us to mutual understanding and charity, in the present and in the future.

3. In this regard, I would like to stress the great consideration shown by the Council for the spiritual treasures of the Christian East, starting with those connected with the sacred liturgy. The Eastern Churches celebrate the liturgy with great love. This is especially true with regard to the Eucharistic celebration, where we are all called to an ever greater discovery of the "source of the Church's life and pledge of future glory" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 15). In it, "the faithful, united with their Bishops, have access to God the Father through the Son, the Word made flesh who suffered and was glorified, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And so, made 'sharers in the divine nature' (2 Pet 1:4), they enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity. Hence, ... in each of these Churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature" (ibid.).

Then the Decree on Ecumenism recalls the Eastern Churches' devotion to Mary, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God, who is extolled with splendid hymns. Worship of the Theotokos highlights the essential importance of Mary in the work of Redemption and also sheds light on the meaning and value of the veneration given to the saints. The Decree puts special emphasis on the spiritual traditions, particularly those of the monastic life, observing that they were the source "from which Latin monastic life took its rise and has often drawn fresh vigour ever since" (ibid.).

The contribution of the East to the life of Christ's Church was and still is very important. Thus the Council exhorts Catholics "to understand, venerate, preserve and foster the rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches, in order faithfully to preserve the fullness of Christian tradition and to bring about reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christians" (ibid.). In particular, Catholics are invited "to avail themselves more often of the spiritual riches of the Eastern Fathers" in the tradition of a spirituality which "lifts up the whole man to the contemplation of divine mysteries" (ibid.).

4. Concerning aspects of intercommunion, the recent Ecumenical Directory confirms and states precisely all that the Council said:

that is, a certain intercommunion is possible, since the Eastern Churches possess true sacraments, especially the priesthood and the Eucharist.

On this sensitive point, specific instructions have been issued, stating that, whenever it is impossible for a Catholic to have recourse to a Catholic priest, he may receive the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick from the minister of an Eastern Church (Directory, n. 123). Reciprocally, Catholic ministers can licitly administer the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick to Eastern Christians who ask for them. However, any form of pastoral activity that does not give due consideration to the dignity and freedom of conscience should be avoided. In other specific cases, provisions have been made for forms of communicatio in sacris in particular concrete situations.

In this context, I would like to convey a cordial greeting to those Eastern Churches who live in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, while still preserving their ancient liturgical, disciplinary and spiritual traditions. They offer a special witness to that diversity in unity which adds to the beauty of Christ's Church. Today more than ever, the mission entrusted to them is one of service to the unity Christ desired for his Church, by sharing "in the dialogue of love and in the theological dialogue at both the local and international levels, and thus contributing to mutual understanding..." (Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, n. 60).

5. According to the Council, "the Churches of the East, while keeping in mind the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to their own disciplines" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 17). There is also a legitimate diversity in handing on the one doctrine received from the Apostles.

The various theological formulas of the East and the West are frequently complementary rather than conflicting. The Council also notes that the authentic theological traditions of the Orientals are "admirably rooted in Holy Scripture" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 17).

Therefore, we must grow in our knowledge of what the Council taught and recommended about respecting the practices, customs and spiritual traditions of the Eastern Churches. We must strive for relations of sincere charity and fruitful collaboration with them, in full fidelity to the truth. We can only share and repeat our wish that "friendly collaboration with them may increase in a spirit of love, without bickering or rivalry" (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 18).

Yes, may the Lord truly grant this as a gift of his love to the Church of our time!

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 August 1995, p. 7.

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