Orthodox Church Highlights Synodality, the Holy Spirit Creating Community
By Father Ronald Roberson
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published March 5, Pope Francis was asked about the significance of the meeting he was planning to have with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the Holy Land in late May. In his response, the pope said that, "Orthodox theology is very rich. And I believe that they have great theologians at this moment. Their vision of the Church and of synodality is marvelous." What did the pope mean by this?
It has long been recognized that the great Eastern and Western traditions of the Church are different, but that at the deepest level they are not contradictory but complementary. In its 1964 Decree on Ecumenism, the Catholic bishops acknowledged at the Second Vatican Council that the traditions of the East offer a different perspective on our faith that should be respected; that the East has its own ecclesiastical laws and customs, its own spiritual, theological and liturgical heritage. They went on to say in paragraph 16 that "this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East […] have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls."
Many theologians in recent times have written that to a large extent these differences between East and West can be traced back to their different perspectives on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Both of them have their roots in the New Testament and both are equally valid.
One perspective, more typical of the West, sees the Holy Spirit as primarily at work in individuals, giving them the strength to accomplish certain tasks or to carry out a mission. Here Christians are thought of as dispersed, as being sent forth by the Spirit to bring the good news to the nations. And so we think of the Holy Spirit at work in the pope, the bishops and other individuals in the Church.
But the other perspective, more typical of the East, sees the Spirit as primarily at work not in individuals but in communities. Here the Spirit is perceived chiefly as the Spirit of fellowship or communion, not as dispersing God's people but gathering them together, especially at the Eucharist. This point of view explains why, in the East, there has always been the strong emphasis on the synodality or conciliarity in the Church that Pope Francis referred to.
In the East, for example, Orthodox patriarchs have very limited personal authority and for the most part can only act with the agreement of the other bishops. Assemblies composed of clergy and laypeople often play a primary role in the governing of these Churches, sometimes even in the election of a new primate. When a bishop ordains a priest, he does so as head of a Eucharistic community, and the new priest is ordained not to be set apart, but to be placed in a specific community within the web of relationships that the Spirit creates. In Eastern parishes, the priest serves as the spiritual father, but the property is owned by an elected parish council, which also plays a role in setting the general direction of the parish.
This emphasis on the Spirit creating communion among Christians explains why in the East it is incomprehensible for a priest to celebrate a private Mass alone, and why priestly ministry ordinarily takes place within the stable bonds of communion either within a family or a monastic community. Russian theologians in particular have presented this ideal of the whole Church as a great "sobor" or council, where the Spirit gathers everyone together, giving each and every person specific gifts that are fruitful only in relation to others in the community.
This is not to say that Pope Francis is necessarily in favor of any of the specific examples of the Eastern understanding of the Holy Spirit's presence in the Church that I have mentioned here. But he clearly has a general appreciation of the Eastern tradition. Both East and West have their own perspective on these matters, and they have much to learn from one other.
Fr. Ronald G. Roberson, C.S.P., holds a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He was ordained a Paulist priest in 1977 and served in Montreal for five years before moving to Rome in 1982. From 1988 to 1992, he was a staff member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, serving as a liaison to the Orthodox churches. Father Roberson now lives at St. Paul's College in Washington, D.C., and is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He staffs the national dialogues with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Fr. Ron is also a member of the international dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.