Union in the Trinity


It was once said that all theology from the Eastern Christian perspective begins with the Trinity.  This is equivalent to saying that all theology, “God-word” begins with God.  The Pseudo-Dionysius wrote in the sixth century that we can know nothing of the supra-essential Cause of all things, totally transcendent to our contingent existence, except what the God (even his name is a mystery to us) reveals to us.  This revelation has come through the Word of God made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ.  The revelation, then, is by its very “energy,” a revelation of the Trinity.  


Religions outside Christianity tend to misinterpret the Christian faith.  Faith in the Trinity is a profound affirmation of unity.  To say that God is one can be construed as “redundant,” much as saying that “water is wet.”  However, to say that God – a community of three hypostases – usually translated as “person” – in Trinity is one is to enter into a deep mystery of total unity that is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible.”  St. Gregory the Theologian reflected on this mystery, “No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one … When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”


The chosen people, therefore, professed their faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  The Christian creed is, “I believe in one God.”  The ineffable unity of the one God is the quality of goodness God imparts to his creation.  Today even scientists acknowledge that the whole universe is one and interrelated.  This oneness is rooted in the unity of God, one in the Holy Trinity.  The prayer of Jesus just before his arrest is often cited today as manifestation of God’s will that all the church structures of the Christian movement be united.  But it is more than that.  It reveals the will of God that his whole creation, particularly the society of human beings, be united in such a way that they reflect the unity of the Trinity.  Jesus, therefore, prays: “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are … I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.”  This unity, then, is a reflection and manifestation of the divine unity.  It is the way is which we are saved, that is, deified.  It is the way in which we become like God.  It is the way in which we become “sharers in the divine nature.”  God is one, he has made creation to become one.  St. Paul perceived how this unity was to mark all humanity, “I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”


Admittedly, this has been a bit enthusiastic and simplistic.  I began with faith in the Trinity to put the concept of ecclesial communion into the greater concept of creative unity.  If this is so, then the division among churches is an evil contrary to the will of God.  It is a sin and a scandal to the “world.”  This idea is seen by the leadership of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  In the recent visit of a Catholic delegation to the Ecumenical Patriarch in November of 2013, His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew said, “ … our brotherly sentiments are pervaded by a certain sadness, which derives from the fact that we have not yet achieved the level of eating the same Bread and drinking of the same Cup, so that as many members we may be one body, to adapt the words of the Apostle.  (Cf. 1 Cor. 10.17) We sincerely experience the ontological and existential sorrow of this spiritual division as the most painful separation of all.”


The Eucharistic Reality


The Patriarch’s comments show the importance of Communion for unity.  The Eucharist is the way in which Christ remains present among us.  The disciples at Emmaus recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:30-31) The presence of Christ is real, physical and spiritual.  This is why the Church has always taught that the bread and wine become the real body and blood of the risen, glorified Lord.  It is not the dead flesh of the body taken down from the Cross, which would be abhorrent.  This is clearly seen as early as Irenaeus (end of the second century): “For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity”, and clearly in Gregory of Nyssa, “Rightly then do we believe that the bread consecrated by the word of God has been changed into the Body of God the Word.”   This is necessary for it to truly be ‘Christ among us,” and for it to have the quality of the forgiveness of sins and the giving life.  It is then the concrete, physical way in which Christians are in Communion with one another.  St. John Chrysostom affirmed that in Holy Communion we all become equal, “All things are equal between us and you, even to the very chief of our blessings.  I (as bishop) do not partake of the holy Table with greater abundance and you with less, but both equally participate of the same.  And if I take it first, it is no great privilege, since even among children, the elder first extends his hand to the feast, but nevertheless no great advantage is gained thereby.  But with us all things are equal.  The saving life that sustains our souls is given with equal honor to both.  I do not indeed partake of one Lamb and you of another, but we partake of the same.  We both have the same baptism.  We have been vouchsafed the same Spirit.  We are both hastening to the same kingdom.  We are all alike brethren of Christ, we have all things in common..”  


The reality of the Eucharist gives rise to what I would call a “Communion anomaly.”  If communion is to be achieved, then both communicants must believe in the same reality.  Both communicants must accept that the bread and wine become truly and physically the body and blood of Christ.  Moreover, both communicants must share the same faith.  Our faith is in the one God revealed through Jesus the Messiah and Lord.  The ecumenical councils of the first millennium were concerned precisely with identifying and defining our faith in Jesus Christ: that he is both God and man and finally that having taken human nature, he can be depicted in icons of his human body, and that therefore in some way we can see the one person who is both God and man.  The Apostle Phillip asked Jesus, “Show us the Father,” and Jesus replied, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Both the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church accept this faith.  In the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church deemed the agreement in faith sufficient to allow intercommunion in Penance, the Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick to those Eastern Christians separated from the Catholic Communion in good faith.   This initiative, however, was not acceptable to the Orthodox Church, which feels that a more exact unity in faith is necessary.  Nonetheless, after the Council, both Churches have felt that they are sisters in faith, and a dialogue of love was initiated to achieve full communion.  Restricted to the Catholic and Orthodox communions, both recognize that the other has a true eucharist, and that those participating in Communion are united in the one body of our Lord Jesus Christ for the sanctification of soul and body.  The anomaly lies in this: though both Catholic and Orthodox share in the one body of the one Lord Jesus Christ in their Communion in the Divine Liturgy, neither can share in the one life-giving Communion with one another in the same Liturgy.  We can both receive true Communion, we just can’t do it together.  An Orthodox lay woman I met once tried to conceptualize this anomaly.  Her conclusion was, “yes, when you (the Catholic) receive Communion, for you it is the Body and Blood of Christ, but if I were to receive, it would not be the Body and Blood of Christ for me.”  It is necessary that we pray and work that this anomaly be repaired.


The Obstacles to Communion


Despite a substantial agreement on the nature of Christ and on the reality of the eucharist, “communicatio in sacris” has not been possible to reestablish between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  I would like to inquire into this, and my approach may be subjective.  From the Orthodox side, it may well be the very concept of “orthodoxy” itself.  From the Catholic side, it may be the organization of the Church, centered around the absolute jurisdiction and infasllibility of the papacy.  


Theological orthodoxy, as explained above, is obviously necessary for true communion.  Lest I be misunderstood, I remark at the beginning that I firmly accept the concept of an objective orthodoxy.  There is a real truth and a real expression of that truth that corresponds to objective reality in regards to God, to his revelation, and to his presence in us, both in the community and the individual.  In this regard, I also affirm that this reality subsists in the Orthodox Church, and, speaking as a Catholic, that it subsists in the Catholic Church.


Many Orthodox feel that the time is ripe for the unity of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  Since the Vatican II Council, a dialogue of love has been established to help resolve any dogmatic issues that may still separate us.  Many positive steps have been taken.  As a member of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, I would like to mention particularly our statements of the Filioque and on Baptism. This is in addition to the many documents that have been composed by the International Dialogue between the two Churches.


On the other hand, many Orthodox, holding to an uncompromising tradition, reject these initiatives. Since the Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1920, Orthodoxy has been committed to ecumenism, but this is not acceptable to many.  This is a common conclusion of people of faith committed to truth.  Truth is absolute and the formulations of this Truth accepts no compromise.  The zeal for truth is, of course, admirable, but it sometimes leads to an inappropriate intolerance.  After all, outside the “fullness of truth,” there is a gamut of belief from those who are almost Orthodox to total atheists.  St. Basil the Great, in his Letter 188, distinguishes between heretics, schismatics and those in illegal congregations.  Fr. John Erickson observed that for the absolute traditionalist, “outside the Orthodox Church as we see it there is simply undifferentiated darkness in which the Pope is no different than a witch doctor.”


In the mid-1990’s, the Joint Commission pf the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and the Non-Chalcedonian Churches, whose co-president was Most Reverend Damaskinos, Bishop of Switzerland, came close to a union agreement. This initiative, however, was forcibly rejected by the Mt. Athos monastic community.  Their objection was that a reunion after the work of an Ecumenical Council could only be done by another Ecumenical Council Indeed, point (2) stated that “the consciousness of the Orthodox Church recognizes that infallibility and authority in the Holy Spirit is in the Ecumenical Councils and refuses to accept the possibility of revising the decisions of an Ecumenical Council by another Ecumenical Council without the latter Council being considered as an heretical conventicle, such as the Latrocinium of Ephesus.”    


Though the majority of Orthodox are committed to ecumenism, the conservative, traditional membership has a virtual veto power over advances toward unity.  In the leadership of traditional Orthodoxy are the monastics.  They are recognized as a valuable treasure of the Orthodox Church.  Pope St. John Paul II recognized the value of monasticism in the Eastern Churches in his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (1995): “Monasticism has always been the very soul of the Eastern Churches: the first Christian monks were born in the East and the monastic life was an integral part of the Eastern lumen passed on to the West by the great Fathers of the undivided Church.”  Monasticism forms a true ascetical magisterium in the Orthodox Church, and the faithful recognize in it the great virtue of asceticism and faithfulness to Orthodoxy.  The Catholic Church also has monastic orders, though their ascetical image and religious organization would not be considered true “monasticism” by the East.  Also, Western monasticism are leaders of ecumenism while Eastern monasticism remains suspicious of ecumenism.  While monasticism is a support for true faithfulness and holiness in the modern world, it is also a brake against movement toward unity.


From the Catholic side, the difficulty is the Papacy.  The Papacy has developed into an essential core of the organization of the Catholic Church.  It performs a valuable function.  It enables the Church to have a standard of canonicity, and – because infallible – a sure foundation of correct teaching.  With the doctrine of “immediate jurisdiction” it provides a way for the universal Church to respond immediately and decisively to local crises.  As the clear spokesman for the world-wide Catholic Church, it provides a way for the Church to respond quickly and more effectively to challenges from the world to the universal church.  It is inconceivable that the Catholic Church will divest itself of this most powerful tool of government, which it establishes directly on the Gospel, on the words of our Lord to Peter.


It has, of course, certain weaknesses: 1) the role of the Pope has been popularly exaggerated   (called sometimes “papolatry”).  It can lead not only to centralization but to a kind of central tyranny.  Even since the Vatican II Council, the See of Rome has aggregated to itself all power in the naming of bishops everywhere.  Of course, the authority of the Popes is also not as absolute as the Orthodox would see it.  Papal leadership sometimes suffers from a kind of benign neglect from those who do not agree with some of its directions.  Witness the polarization in social economic policies present in the secular world today.  It has an ecumenical weakness: the Orthodox Church is not willing to accept the system of the Roman primacy, and it would have to truly transform its own structure of government to do so.  Pope St. John Paul II was aware of this problem in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, and wrote, the papal office “constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians, whose memory is marked by certain painful recollections. To the extent that we are responsible for these, I join my Predecessor Paul VI in asking forgiveness.”  He envisioned, in mild terms,  a possible reform, “in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”  Pope Francis also speaks of the limitations of the Papacy: “ It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”. (16) Referring to Pope St. John Paul II’s suggestion of reform, he continues, “We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion.”  Therefore, very small steps have been made towards a solution to this problem.


We live today in a world where polarization of extreme positions has become a way of life, and where any attempts at dialogue seem to be a compromise of the pure truth.  Consider, for example, a “Confession of Faith Against Ecumenism,” published on the Internet by a group of Traditional Orthodox: “We proclaim that Roman Catholicism is a womb of heresies and fallacies …. The entire chorus of Fathers, both in Synods and individually, regard Roman Catholicism as a heresy …. it has altered nearly all of the teaching and practice pertaining to Baptism, Chrismation, the Divine Eucharist and the other Sacraments, and has converted the Church to a secular state.”  Attitudes of suspicion towards Catholics are not limited to the fringes.  The then Charman of the Joint International Theological Commission for dialogue between the Othodox and Catholics, Archbishop Stylianos of Australia, denounced Pope St. John Paull II’s Encyclical on the Eastern Church, Orientale Lumen, as hypocritical proselytism.  The Catholic Church, of course, has not been free of its own Traditionalists.  Indeed, until the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church had very little to do with ecumenism, and viewed unity as simply submission to the Roman Pontiff.  Unfortunately, some of the more extreme groups today feel that the Pope has betrayed Catholic principles.


Caught in the middle are those Eastern Christians who are in union with the See of Rome.  Usually called “Eastern Catholics,” they are often called also “Uniates,” which has become also a term of derision, as if their only reason for existence is to be betrayers of Orthodoxy in union with Rome.  Considered as traitors by many Orthodox and as second-class citizens by many Roman Catholics, they find themselves trapped in untenable positions in ecumenical dialogue.  The Roman Catholic Church insists that they be faithful to their traditions, while some Orthodox consider them “pretending” to be Eastern as a form of proselytism.   The fall of Communism resulted in freedom for Byzantine Catholics in former Eastern European satellite countries.  This had a paradoxical result: freedom from atheistic Communism which had persecuted Christians gave birth to a crisis in ecumenism that stalled the dialogue for many years.  The Balamand declaration of June 1993 sought an answer to this crisis, calling for the rejection of “Uniatism” as a method of Church unity, while recognizing the right of Eastern Catholics to exist and minister to their people.  This solution was, in general, not acceptable to traditional Orthodox, who see that for the Eastern Catholic there are only two choices: 1) to return to Orthodoxy or 2) to become Roman Catholic.  At the other end of the spectrum, some Catholics felt that the declaration did not sufficiently protect and uphold the rights of Eastern Catholics.  No easy resolution of this anomaly has appeared on the horizon.  Here the division in Communion is especially sharp.  Two churches which celebrate the same Liturgy, which believe they are in communion in the one body and one blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet cannot commune with each other and where remnants of mutual hatred still exist.  


Is Communion of All Christians Possible?


The starting point for this essay was the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, promulgated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on May 28, 1992.  Striking is its initial statement that “The concept of communion lies ‘at the heart of the Church’s self-understanding,’ insofar as it is the Mystery of the personal union of each human being with the divine Trinity and with the rest of mankind, initiated with the faith, and, having begun as a reality in the Church on earth, is directed toward its eschatological fulfillment in the heavenly Church.”  We started then from Trinitarian faith as the basis for the will of God “that all be one,” as in the unity of the Trinity.  We have seen that the concept of unity is simple, but its actual achievement is complicated.  Some have even questioned whether an authentic, pure and perfect unity is attainable in our spatio-temporal world and will only be fulfilled in its “eschatological fulfillment in the heavenly Church.” (Cf. supra) This is perhaps true, given that sharp disagreements rose up almost from the beginning of the Church’s existence, as the letters of St. Paul reveal.  Despite this, a unity in God must be possible.  This unity springs from the descent of the Holy Spirit on the nucleus of believers in the Upper Room on Pentecost.  Pentecost must always remain a possibility.  The reality is that the Roman and Byzantine Churches did maintain a substantial unity for centuries, despite differences in culture and theology.  This is a hope that seems close to within our grasp.  Some have even theorized that unity existed in the margins even until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when Rome forbade any communicatio in sacris (1729) and Constantinople responded by refusing to recognize Catholic baptism (1755).  


In this essay, I have focused on communion as the visible manifestation of our belief in one Church.  Earlier in this essay, I quoted St. John Chrysostom who underlined the importance of Communion for unity: “All things are equal between us and you, even to the very chief of our blessings.  I (as bishop) do not partake of the holy Table with greater abundance and you with less, but both equally participate of the same. …   We both have the same baptism.  We have been vouchsafed the same Spirit.  We are both hastening to the same kingdom.  We are all alike brethren of Christ, we have all things in common.”  Our profession of faith is, “I believe in one … Church.”  There are, though, other marks of the Church that result in communion: it is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”  Each of these deserves its own meditation.  That the Church is holy through its Communion is seen in the hymn sung after the faithful have partaken of the Body and Blood of Christ, “Keep us in your holiness so that all the day long we may live according to your truth.”  We can be holy only in Christ, whose body is the church, in whom we find truth and are united in one faith. Likewise, the Church is catholic, there can be only one Church throughout the whole world.  Perhaps the ancient custom of sending Communion to other eucharistic communities is evidence of this fact.  It is also why the divisions in Christendom are so disturbing.  


Most important for this essay, however, is the mark of the apostolicity of the Church.  As we have seen, Communion is an extremely complicated issue.  Resolutions remain elusive, and while solutions seems clear, do we have the will to adopt them?  Because of this complexity, there must be a norm for unity, and that is in a faith that is apostolic, that is established on the revelation of Jesus to his apostles.  Throughout the ages, it is the college of bishops that has, as successors of the apostles, maintained and moderated the unity of the Church.  St. Irenaeus early on enunciated this principle, “It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.”  Communion among the bishops of the Church, then, is the palpable way in which unity can be achieved, and apart from this apostolic communion, there is no unity.  St. Ignatius emphasizes that unity in Christ is through unity with the bishop, and this precisely through union in the “one bread.”  For this reason, unity seems to be a simple goal.  Just get the bishops together, have them “submit to one another,” redistribute their jurisdiction for mutual benefit, and then share in the same eucharist.  All Christians, united in their bishops, will then be brought into unity.  Alas, while at once a simple and clear solution, it is also the crux of the problem.  In all ages, questions of jurisdiction have plagued the Church, questions of how best to express the faith have plagued the Church, while disunity and self-righteousness have led to division.  If unity is to be attained, it must come through the bishops, the leaders of the Church and defenders of the apostolic faith.  This is hopeful, since there is a limited body of hierarchs and they are trained in the faith.  However, at the same time, they must represent their constituency and defend the faith according to their conscience.  When a man is ordained a bishop in the Byzantine Church, he must recite three creeds, the first being the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which spell out in detail what is to be believed about God and our salvation.  Therefore, bishops are not entirely free in the decisions that they can make.  The faithful should follow the leadership of their bishops, but this is not always the case.  In the seventeenth century in Russia, the Patriarch Nicon instituted a liturgical reform.  All the bishops accepted the reform, but many priests and lay people balked and separated into a bishop-less sect.  The existence of an authentic episcopate remains, however, the sign of hope that the Church can be one.

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