By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published February 16, 2012
The spiritual leaders of Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox in metropolitan Atlanta came together Jan. 24 for an ecumenical service at Holy Spirit Church, the seventh time since 2009 the two faith communities’ local leaders, clergy and lay people have held such gatherings of prayer and shared concerns.
“We are called to gather in (God’s) holy name, for we only have one Father who loves us and we should always seek ways to overcome all obstacles in this life. … We should not use our faith to divide, but rather to bring us together,” said Archbishop Alexios, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Atlanta.
“We believe … Christian unity is the will of God. And we, poor servants of God that we are, hope to advance Christian unity in some small way,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta said.
“We hope in a small way to bring our people together in prayer and love so one day in God’s will and God’s time we might come together in Eucharist,” Archbishop Gregory said.
The event was held during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Its theme, “Pilgrims of Peace, Messengers of Hope,” came from that of a worldwide interfaith gathering hosted by Pope Benedict XVI in Assisi, Italy, in 2011. It was the 25th anniversary of the Assisi event, initiated by Pope John Paul II.
Holy Spirit Choir and Chantors from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation sang at the ecumenical service.
Keynote speaker Dr. George Demacopoulos, of Fordham University, said passion for unity in the church was a hallmark of the saint of the day, St. Gregory the Theologian.
Calling him “the smartest person in the fourth century,” Demacopoulos said St. Gregory was a student of rhetoric whose gifts were so remarkable in his last year of study he was asked to become dean of the school. He did it for one year and then left and lived for 30 years in a small monastery. Later, he was asked to attend and provide theological assistance for an ecumenical council in Constantinople when the early church faced difficulties over expressing and conforming belief in the Trinity.
“He literally invented the vocabulary by which Christians define the Trinity,” Demacopoulos said. “St. Gregory essentially wrote the Nicene Creed.”
Although such a gifted theologian, he had a pastoral heart, the speaker said. Many people at the time had been baptized not following the Trinitarian formula because of conflicting beliefs. When church leaders wanted to insist that they all be re-baptized, St. Gregory said no, Demacopoulos said. “He knew they needed a pastoral response to a theological problem.”
He did not prevail, but “his compassion for meeting the people where they were is common sense for all Orthodox and all Catholics,” the speaker said.
January 24 is also the vigil of the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. St. Paul described himself as a devoted Jew, who knew and followed the laws of his faith, the speaker said, until changed by God’s intervention and “his willingness to critique himself.”
“St. Paul was willing to think anew about his own tradition. If we are going to follow in the footsteps of these two great theologians, that is what is going to be required of us as well,” he said.
In metro Atlanta, the Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical services began when the Catholic Church worldwide marked the Year of St. Paul in 2009, said Father Paul Burke, who has facilitated the gatherings from the Catholic perspective. The Orthodox Church also celebrated the Year of St. Paul, he said. Archbishop Alexios, Archbishop Gregory and Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue presided at an evening prayer service at the Cathedral of Christ the King on May 6, 2009.
Since then, there have been a series of ecumenical events, some reflecting the liturgical season: commemorating the Nativity of the Lord, Easter or Pascha, and All Saints.
Last April Archbishop Alexios and Archbishop Gregory signed a common Declaration on the Sanctity of Human Life.
And this February, Archbishop Alexios issued a letter to his faith community, expressing opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate to include contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in all health plans. His letter responded to the one sent by Archbishop Gregory to local Catholics. Archbishop Alexios also encouraged fellow Orthodox hierarchs to join with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in opposing the mandate, Father Burke said, which the Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America did in a joint statement issued Feb. 2.
Along with a priest at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, Father George Tsahakis, Father Burke has assisted in planning the ecumenical services.
Answering questions by email, Father Burke said the closeness between Catholics and Orthodox is both theological and personal.
At the level of universal and formal dialogue between the two, “Our dialogue with the Orthodox is different from other ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue,” he said. “We both have maintained Apostolic Succession and we recognize each other’s Sacraments. Papal Primacy is one of the issues that is being presently discussed at the international level as this is an area of disagreement.”
In metro Atlanta, he said, “From the beginning there has been a deep respect and affection between the Churches. The first task was for us to come together in prayer and begin to get to know each other. The gatherings are opportunities to do this. One can see that a relationship of trust has been established. We are also aware that we have many Catholic-Orthodox marriages. No sooner has one gathering taken place, when we are asked by the people when is the next one. Cardinal Leo Josef Suenens once said that ‘if we are to unite, we must love one another, and if we are to love one another, we must first get to know one another.’”
Future plans include the possibility of a joint website, a joint office to coordinate and plan local initiatives supported by the Focolare movement, and the possibility of a joint pilgrimage led by Archbishop Gregory and Archbishop Alexios to Rome and Constantinople.