The establishment of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) created division within the global Orthodox world. Yet, what has received less attention is the effect of the Ukrainian autocephaly on other Christian denominations and ecumenical institutions. Inevitably, and sometimes unwillingly, these churches were drawn into the conflict and forced to choose sides between Constantinople (and the new Ukrainian church) and Moscow.
At the international level, the clash between Constantinople and Moscow has led to the withdrawal of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) from the inter-Orthodox and ecumenical commissions, which are chaired by the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This act endangered relations which the Orthodox had with other churches on a number of levels: Moscow’s withdrawal has put the ecumenical role of the assemblies of Orthodox bishops, which exist in many countries of the diaspora, in jeopardy. It has also threatened multilateral and bilateral dialogues, such as theological dialogue with the Catholic Church, as well as the functioning of various international ecumenical bodies.
This essay was published in Greek at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.
Since the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has appeared in front of the crowd gathered physically at the St. Peter’s square and the entire world watching through mass media as “bishop of Rome,” adopting an ecumenically friendly language to describe his ministry, compatible with the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Orthodox Church. What is more, Pope Francis has repeatedly and in various occasions underlined the concept of “synodality” as both a constitutive dimension of the Church and a crucial step on its way toward the third millennium. Needless to say, “synodality” is fundamental to the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, and for good reason it has been recognized as one of the most significant contributions of the Orthodox to ecumenical dialogue. Adopting, therefore, a theological and ecclesiological principle that characterizes the Orthodox Church (despite some weaknesses that should be admitted in practical implementation in inter-Orthodox relations), Pope Francis pointed out the fruitful ways in which ecumenical dialogue and the approach to the confessionally “other” could enrich internal ecclesial procedures, becoming beneficial for each single Christian tradition.
Under this perspective, there was no surprise that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has been mentioned in the papal encyclical “Laudato Si” (2015) as a source of inspiration for Pope Francis’ ecotheological vision. This recognition of the value and the importance of the longstanding commitment to environmental issues shown by Patriarch Bartholomew, who for decades has been preaching that caring for the environment is a religious imperative and whose name has become synonymous with ecological theology, earning the title “Green Patriarch” thanks to his persistent endeavors, highlights, in the best possible way, how the collaboration between church leaders could raise the awareness of competent civil authorities and public opinion on global issues, such as the climate change and the protection of the planet. In few words, the openness of Pope Francis and his constructive and positive approach to sensitive issues concerning the Orthodox tradition are promising signs of the common path of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches toward full communion. An additional element that should be stressed and explains the increasing popularity of Pope Francis among the Orthodox, despite the wounds of the historical past, is his public discourses, statements, gestures, and writings, all representing an open-minded Christianity, a Church of the “humble and poor,” honestly working toward repentance and reconciliation.
The papal trip to Cyprus and Greece (December 2-6, 2021) showed Francis’ attention to the Mediterranean, which was also the focus of his first trip (Lampedusa in July 2013), but also his attention to Eastern Orthodoxy as a traveling companion to a Catholic Church increasingly subject to identitarian and nationalist tensions in Europe and worldwide.
There were different and interrelated dimensions to this trip. There was the ecumenical dimension, with the privileged attention to the Eastern Orthodox churches in continuity with the key partnership (since 2013) between Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew. There was the humanitarian dimension, with the Holy See devoting much energy to raising attention on multiple crises on multiple fronts in the area, adding to the long-standing migration from Africa to Europe. In the last decade, the degradation of the security, social-economic, and environmental situation in many countries facing the western, central, and eastern Mediterranean has made the mare nostrum the bottleneck in the flow of human beings fleeing from wars and failed or semi-failed states in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. There was the political dimension, with Francis as the outspoken opponent of nationalisms and populism now coming to Greece, the birthplace of democracy (albeit not liberal and constitutional democracy), calling Europe and the international community to their moral responsibilities. Far in the background, there was finally the ecclesial, intra-Catholic dimension, which for Francis must refer always to what Catholics do ad extra.
It is time for Eastern rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians in the United States to join hands and fight against casteism. Members of the community must support initiatives to make caste a protected category at schools, colleges, and universities as well as in the workplace. Likewise members of the community must unmask the false message that to stand up against casteism is Hinduphobic. Standing up to casteism is a human rights issue, plain and simple—one that cuts across all religions including Christianity.
Contrary to popular belief, caste is not solely tied to the Hindu religion but functions across religions. In fact, casteism, defined as “adherence to a caste system,” has been perpetrated by dominant-caste Christians for centuries and is embedded in Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Indian Christian traditions and practices.
Casteism is a form of decent-based discrimination. Descent based simply means that an individual is born into a certain group, and therefore it matters profoundly who one’s parents and ancestors are. For Americans unfamiliar with caste, it can be helpful to think in terms of racism as a parallel construct.