Homily for Solemn Vespers presented by Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco
Homily for Solemn Vespers
Presented by His Eminence
Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco
National Prayer for Christian Unity Week
Thursday, January 25, 2024
Saint Pius Roman Catholic Church – Redwood City, CA
My dear brother in the Lord, Archbishop Salvatore; dear brothers and sisters,
Tonight we gather to pray, as we do every year at this time, for the unity of all Christians, but especially tonight for unity of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians. We may say that we already have some form of unity, in our shared Christianity, many common teachings, our shared history, our common work and witness in the world. And this is true. We can also say, however, that we still lack unity in doctrine, in structures, and in areas of practice. This is why we come together to pray. To gather before our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to show him that we still strive to live according to his words to his disciples, “that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17.11), and to open our hearts to Him to confess what we still lack, and ask for Him to journey with us, as He journeyed on the road to Emmaus, teaching us all that we must know, before we may break bread together at His table, in the Eucharist.
The theme for this week of Christian Unity, “You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) is needed as much as ever. We live in a war torn time, in the Middle East, in Ukraine, and elsewhere in the world. We know what our Traditions have taught for centuries. But let me offer something from the fifth century father, St. Jerome: “Our Lord teaches who our neighbor is…. Everyone is our neighbor, and we should not harm anyone. If, on the contrary, we understand our fellow human beings to be only our brother and relatives, is it then permissible to do evil to strangers? God forbid such a belief! We are neighbors, all people to all people for we have one Father.” (Homily on Psalm 14 (15)).
This is not just good advice from the past for other people, but for ourselves today, now. For the last few years, we seem to have forgotten that we are all neighbors. We have fallen prey to a rhetoric of fear of the other, especially the foreigner, the person with a different religion, or the person who does not speak “my” language, or look the way I do. Sadly, many have fallen prey to the idea that the very words of Christ himself are words of weakness. We must reject those notions. The Kingdom of God cannot and is not a place of hatred and enmity toward another person. Simply, these are antithetical to the Gospel, to the Good News, that Almighty God is a God of love for all His people and creation.
Tonight we must rededicate ourselves to our common Christian vision that we are all neighbors.
We gather tonight to remember one of the most important events in Orthodox and Roman Catholic, indeed, in Christian history. Sixty years ago, two great hierarchs – His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and His Holiness Pope Paul VI – met in peace, met as neighbors in the city of Peace – Jerusalem – taking the first steps to overcome the centuries of living apart, of not living as neighbors. A news release at the time said the following about the initial embrace that these two great leaders shared in January of 1964: (It) “melted away centuries of silence between their respective Churches. A milestone and the dawn of a new Christendom was consecrated at that moment, when the attention of the entire Christian world was focused on the City of love and reconciliation, while the heats of all well-intentioned people were beating in anticipation as they waited to hear the message of unity and fraternity in Christ.” (Chryssavgis, p 14)
Of course, we know that the meeting didn’t somehow unify Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches into one, but it sent the message that these two Churches, out of contact for centuries, were neighbors. Athenagoras and Paul opened the doors of hospitality to one another for the future exchanges and dialogues that would come. It was the great beginning of a growing matrix of encounters and dialogues that strive to bring us together. As Fr. George Florovsky noted at the time, “the meeting of the Patriarchs of the new and the old Rome, was a timely reminder and a double reminder: of the fact of separation, and of the task of unity. A reminder and a summons…. This is only the beginning of the way.” (Florovsky, p.p. 69-70)
Now, for these sixty years, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, hierarchs, theologians, and “faithful people in the pews” have steadily worked to live as neighbors once again. Tonight is such an example – of coming together as Christian brothers and sisters, to witness one another at prayer, to hear the Scriptures together, and to share in fellowship. The North American dialogue continues to bring our experts together to study and discuss the theological issues that keep us apart and can assist us to better minister to our respective communities. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and His Holiness Pope Francis have made many joint statements, notably on the environment. So much constructive work has been done to bring us together. There is still room for growth and better practice. “We still look for the movement of God’s Holy Spirit to guide our Churches toward a fuller, more concrete unity of life.” (Daley, p. 53)
This unity will be found through our commitment to our study of the word of God coupled with the Tradition – ancient and modern – of the Church. Each of us has a developed theology and thinkers; each of us relies on these and we should make every effort to know them as best as we can. But, each of us also has learned from the other. Many Orthodox Christians have benefited from the writings of “western” fathers and thinkers, from Augustine to Ratzinger, and simultaneously, many Roman Catholic Christians have benefited from the writings of “eastern” fathers and thinkers, from Chrysostom to Zizioulas. From our study and dialogue, we continually recognize the faith and life of the so-called “other,” finding that we are on a journey in time and space towards the kingdom of God and that journey will be best traveled as we travel it together and as one.
This journey still is not easy and will take time. In fact, it is still often quite difficult. The temptation for us is to oversimplify the issues to come to an easy resolution – after all isn’t that the American way? Solving problems within the 60 minutes of a television program?!
Some would have us magically “turn the clock back” in our respective Churches to a time when we were united. We cannot return to antiquity. As Fr. Florovsky wrote, “we cannot simply go back to the year 1054 and resolve anew the questions of those days. Both East and West have changed since then, and other questions now stand before us.” (Florovsky, p. 66). Any 21st century attempt to return to an ecclesiastical 11th century would only be an act of nostalgia, for a so-called “golden” “problem free” era. But even a simple read of history would remind us that there are no “golden, problem free eras.” And to think in this manner, I believe, denies the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church today.
We might also want to overlook the theological challenges that keep us apart, whether it is the filioque or papal supremacy, and choose to find our unity in common action on common issues. We should cooperate to speak on the ills of the world, from the war in the Middle East and Ukraine, to the issues of homelessness and economic injustice in American life. We can and should work together at many levels. Yet, we cannot give up on the questions of faith, theology, and practice within our Churches and between us. For example, the North American dialogue has been working on the practical issues of marriage and divorce of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians. Underlying this work are still very challenging differences in the theology and understanding of marriage between us. In 2025, all Christians will observe the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council, that of Nicea, where our fundamental doctrine about the Holy Trinity was first declared, and the formula for the date of Easter was promulgated. We note that in 2025, we will celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord together as we often do, but which should remind us that there was a time when we always celebrated the Greatest Feast of the Church together. We cannot overlook these issues because we are impatient in the quest for unity.
Sisters and brothers, my dear friend Archbishop Salvatore, our prayer for unity this evening summons us to our common understanding that we are all neighbors. Our Lord taught us that. Our great ecumenical teachers from the past taught us that. And Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI taught us that. We must take heed of the theme of that lesson, study it in all its depth and nuance, to discern how that lesson confirms and challenges our present time as Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians.
Chryssavgis, Florovsky, and Daley quotes from Dialogue of Love, Breaking the Silence of Centuries (Ed. by Chryssavgis, Fordham University Press, 2014).