On the Unity of the Catholic Church, East and West
Our Strength Unites Us as a People of Christ
This Missio Dei reflection is the fourth and final article exploring some of the most important and faith-sustaining documents produced by Vatican II. The first reflection, entitled Understanding and Celebrating Vatican II in the Midst of Liturgical Debate, was published on February 28, 2022 and centered on Sacrosanctum Concilium, this Sacred Council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated by Vatican II. The second reflection, entitled Light of the Nations!, was published on March 7, 2022 and examined Lumen Gentium, Light of the Nations, described at the time as “the keystone” of the Council’s magisterium. The third reflection, entitled Joy and Hope in this Modern World, was published on March 12 and focused on Gaudium et Spes, on the Church in the modern world; on joy and hope!
This final reflection has special significance at this time, in March, 2022, as the eyes of the world turn towards those in Ukraine where so many people, including our Catholic sisters and brothers, fight for their very survival. I focus this reflection on Orientalium Ecclesiarum, on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite. This journey essentially serves as a reflection on Vatican II’s reaffirmation of the bond of great union between the Roman rite and other rites within the Catholic Church, such as the Ukranian Catholic Church. I will note again that to encounter a summary of Vatican II more generally I invite you to go back and read and reflect on the first two Missio Dei reflections I authored as noted with links to the reflections above.
Orientalium Ecclesiarum, On the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, was promulgated by Pope Saint Paul VI on November 21, 1964. This document represents an important emphasis away from the Western Latin Church focusing instead on the importance of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches whose “purpose was threefold: to encourage Eastern Catholics to remain faithful to their ancient traditions; to reassure them that their distinct privileges would be respected, e.g., the patriarchates and priests administering the sacrament of confirmation; and to urge closer ties with the separated Eastern Churches with a view to fostering Christian unity. An important provision was the permission of intercommunion (along with penance and anointing) between Catholics and those Eastern Christians who have valid orders.”
Long before the religious and cultural upheavals in western Europe that resulted from the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Church experienced the Great Schism of 1054 A.D., resulting in two separate churches: the Orthodox Church in the east and the Roman Catholic Church in the west. This east-west divide was long in the making, and centered around both doctrinal disagreements (e.g., the filioque dispute and Trinitarian theology as espoused by Church Fathers such as Saint Athanasius), as well as linguistic and cultural differences along Greco-Roman lines. Inherent in this unfortunate split in Christianity were also liturgical disputes: differences concerning clerical marriage; rules for fasting and prayer; differences in the type of bread (leavened versus unleavened) used for the Eucharist; as well as essential cultural differences such as the use of religious statues in the west as tangible objects of devotion to the Lord who took human form in the person of Jesus Christ — as well as the Virgin Mother — and the saints versus the veneration of icons in the east, to name several areas of doctrinal and procedural dispute.
We have all now undoubtedly read or in some way experienced the sorrowful plight of our Ukranian Catholic brothers and sisters as they endure the onslaught of their eastern neighbors from Russia. In ways many of us in the west would not ordinarily encounter, this conflict has in part exposed us more to the wonders and beauty of Ukranian Catholicism as a primary example of an eastern rite in our faith. Although the constraints of space here preclude a detailed analysis of the sequella of the eleventh century schism, which involved numerous subsequent attempts to reunify the two Churches (e.g., the Council of Florence of 1438 to 1445, AD), suffice it to say that in 1596 the Ruthenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in Poland reunited with the Union of Brest. Subsequent reunifications followed thereafter; and today these eastern-rite Churches are organized under the four eastern patriarchates under the governance of the episcopal see of the Pope.
Orientalium Ecclesiarum as a major publication of Vatican II served to proclaim and to celebrate the equality of the eastern and western traditions of Christianity, the importance of the heritage of the eastern-rite Churches, and the communion between the Latin and Greek traditions. It can also be seen as an entreaty to the remaining eastern Churches which continue to remain Orthodox. Orientalium Ecclesiarum represents the Catholic Church’s ongoing mission to unite east and west, to pay respect and recognition to the Church traditions that remain beyond the Latin world, and to integrate doctrinal issues and theological disagreements that emerged during the first millennium of Church history after the apostolic age:
Such individual Churches, whether of the East or of the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in what are called rites (that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage) are, nevertheless, equally entrusted to the pastoral guidance of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in supreme governance over the universal Church. They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others by reason of rite. They enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, even with respect to preaching the gospel to the whole world (cf. Mk. 16:15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff.
This important product of Vatican II seeks to integrate the traditions and theological doctrines of east and west in a spirit of ecumenical Christian union, which Vatican II also dealt with separately as one of its major documents.
In the over half-century since the conclusion of Vatican II, although there continues to be liturgical and other refinements and changes in the Church visible, the foundations of Church theology remain strong in part through both its eastern and western traditions — as the Church continues to analyze, to proclaim, and to bear witness to divine revelation. This strength, found in the ever-present inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is buttressed by the doctrinal underpinnings of the Church, the traditions of the Church, liturgical practices developed in both the east and the west. Vatican II in so many respects reafirmed the ongoing and unstoppable legacies of those who proclaimed the Good News (Luke 9:1-9) from the time of Christ, through the ages of those who followed the apostles and Church Fathers, to the present time under the pontificate of the 265 successor to Saint Peter, our Holy Father Pope Francis, who has shown such great solidarity with our fellow Catholics in the east!
As conflict in Ukraine rages on as this article and reflection goes to press, I offer prayers for all of those swept up in the winds of this present invasion by Russia into Ukraine, and for all of those suffering the scars of violence and war. This time of all times we are invited to both witness and profess our solidarity with our eastern rite Catholic brothers and sisters; and above all to pray for peace and Christian unity.
Abbott, W.M. (1966). The documents of Vatican II with notes and comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox authorities. America Press, Inc.
McBrien, R.P. (1994). Catholicism: New study edition. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.
“Orientalium Ecclesiarum.” Catholic Dictionary . Retrieved March 8, 2022, from: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=35317.
All of Dr. Plaud’s Missio Dei writings and reflections can be accessed here.
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