Building Bridges Between Orthodox and Catholic Christians | Christopher B. Warner | CWR
An interview with Archimandrite Robert Taft, SJ, prominent Byzantine liturgical theologian and lifelong healer of Christian relations between East and West
The April 22nd kidnapping of Syrian archbishops Mar Gregorios Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, and the killing of their driver, has reminded us once again of the vulnerability of ancient Christian peoples living in the Middle East. More than 1,000 Christians have been killed to date in the Syrian conflict and more than 80 churches have been destroyed. The majority of Christians in Syria are Greek or Syriac Orthodox or Melkite Greek Catholic. This recent violence in Syria can remind us to pray for suffering Christians in the Middle East and afford us the opportunity to practice solidarity with our Greek Catholic and Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters.
Catholic World Report had the recent privilege of asking Archimandrite Robert Taft, SJ for his perspective on current Orthodox-Catholic relations. Father Taft has been the leading scholar in Byzantine liturgical studies for decades. Taft has devoted his life to preserving the liturgical treasury of the East and building bridges between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. As a young Jesuit, Taft first became interested in the liturgical traditions of the Christian East while teaching at the Baghdad Jesuit College in Iraq (1956-1959).
In 1963, Taft was ordained a Catholic priest of the Byzantine Slavonic (Russian) Rite. He is Professor-emeritus of Oriental Liturgy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, Rome, where he received his doctorate in 1970 and remained to teach for 38 years. The Oriental Institute is the most prestigious institute in the world for Eastern Christian studies.
A prolific writer, his bibliography comprises more than 800 articles and 26 books, including A History of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (vols. II-VI), Orientalia Christiana Analecta, Rome, 1978-2013. Several of his writings have been translated into other languages.
Taft is the personal friend of many prominent Orthodox scholars, living and deceased, like Father Alexander Schmemann and Father John Meyendorff. He has many friends in and ties to the Russian Orthodox community, where he is admired and respected. For example, he directed the doctoral studies for both of St. Vladimir Seminary’s liturgical professors: Paul Meyendorff and Father Alexander Rentel.
CWR: Father Robert, thank you very much for your willingness to share with us some of your recent thoughts on Eastern Christian ecumenism.
Many people who are sensitive to Orthodox-Catholic dialogue noticed that when Pope Francis appeared on the balcony a month ago, he was not only very humble, but spoke of the Church of Rome as the Church “which presides in love” and referred to himself as the bishop of Rome concerned for the Christians of Rome. These past few weeks he has definitely set the tone for his pontificate.
This quotation from the second-century letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Roman Church, “which presides in love,” could not have been coincidence considering Pope Francis’ noteworthy sensitivities to Eastern Christian ecclesiology. Plus, the historically unprecedented response to Francis’ election in the form of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s attendance at the papal installation Mass seems to mark Pope Francis as another welcomed bridge-builder between East and West. As an aside, I think it is beautiful that pontifex means “bridge-builder” in Latin. Perhaps Pope Francis will bring a new understanding of that title through his ecumenical dialogue and his local focus on the duties of the bishop of Rome? Could you comment on how you think Pope Francis’ humble “style” will be viewed by Orthodox Christians?
Taft: Pope Francesco is making a wonderful impression on most of the world by just being himself, the self of a real Christian in love, not with himself or his image, but with what real Christians love…God and all His creatures He died to save, especially the poor and needy and downtrodden. This has come across clearly to all of us, including Orthodox I know, who as real Christians can spot a fellow-Christian a mile away.
In addition, even more interesting from the ecumenical perspective is Francesco’s emphasis on his primary title, “Bishop of Rome.” Because a prelate’s title to his primacy comes from his local primatial see, not from some personal or super-imposed ecclesiological distinction. I can’t imagine that any of our attentive Orthodox observers have missed that!