An Experience of Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue

by Fr. Steven Tsichlis

In September 2000, at the turn of the third millennium, 25 parishioners from St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church and St. John Neumann's Roman Catholic Church in Irvine, California, began gathering monthly for a Christian book club that has provided an opportunity to pray and study together, to explore our common roots in the first thousand years of Christian history, and to engage in dialogue at a grassroots level.

Led by Eugene O'Toole, the recently retired director of adult ministry from St. John Neumann's, and myself, pastor of St. Paul's, these meetings have been a structured attempt to explore a common path for Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians in living more prayerful, Christ-centered and Spirit-filled lives. Each meeting begins with a half hour of prayer, as Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians pray the Psalms and read the Scriptures together while remembering the saints of the first millennium that are shared by both communities. Over the years, the group has included people from many different backgrounds: lay leaders from both traditions; former Roman Catholic religious; converts to Orthodoxy from evangelicalism; parochial school teachers; both Latin and Eastern Rite Catholics; and seekers exploring the wisdom of the ancient Christian faith.

"Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians have spoken to each other more in the past fifty years, since Vatican II, than in the previous 500," O'Toole commented. "With the symbolic gesture of lifting the mutual excommunications of 1054 by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras on December 7, 1965, a new era of dialogue began that has been carried forward by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Demetrios, as well as by Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Benedict XVI."

Over the past decade participants have read more than 80 books. Among them have been modern Catholic writers on the spiritual life like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, Paula Huston and James Martin, and such contemporary Orthodox writers as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Thomas Hopko, Olivier Clément, Jim Forest and Kyriakos Markides. We have read books by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI as well as by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. We have read about St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris, St. Silouan of Mount Athos, St. Edith Stein, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We have read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, The Life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure, the anonymously written Way of a Pilgrim, and The Life of St. Anthony the Great by St. Athanasios of Alexandria. We've read St. Augustine of Hippo and St. John Chrysostom.

Our effort has borne fruit in a number of ways. First, the two parishes began doing ministry and outreach together. The people of St. Paul's have gotten involved in the work of Isaiah House, a Catholic Worker house providing shelter for the homeless in Santa Ana. We have hosted a luncheon to provide scholarships to Catholic elementary schools for impoverished children. The people of St. John Neumann have helped raise funds for the building of an Orthodox Church in the Tanzanian village of Kobunshwi by St. Paul's and also for St. Innocent's Orphanage, an Orthodox ministry for homeless boys outside Tijuana, Mexico.

Second, participants have come to recognize the shared roots both traditions have in the first millennium. Jim Cordes, a longtime participant in the program from St. John Neumann, said, "I didn't realize how similar we are in our practice of Christianity. I've come to realize that in so many ways we are more similar to one another than we are different." And Dorothea Love, a member of St. Paul's, added "I've had a deep respect for the Roman Catholic faith all my life and as a result of this class my respect and love have only increased. Many of us have been together now for ten years, since the beginning of our study, and we share the love of Christ as brothers and sisters, truly respecting and caring for one another."

Third, in looking more deeply at one another's histories, Roman Catholics have learned of the many challenges that Orthodox Christians have faced practicing their faith in Muslim countries and the terrible persecution of the Church during most of the twentieth century under Communism; and Orthodox Christians have learned more about the history of Roman Catholicism and the effects of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation on Roman Catholic life, history and thought, as well as the history of western Europe and America.

The books we read together have "given me a heightened awareness of how shallow my prayer life was and that I needed to make my relationship with Christ a deeper one," said Ms. Love. "It's changed the way I pray and I now spend greater time in study and reading of the Scriptures."

Doris Wintrode, a Catholic high school teacher, summed up: "We've all been enriched by our time together. These years of dialogue have been a true gift."

Fr. Steven Tsichlis is pastor of St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church in Irvine, California; a member of the board of directors of Project Mexico; president of the Archdiocesan Presbyters Council and a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship .

Winter Issue IC 55 2010