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An Orthodox Reply to the Opinion of Cardinal Walter Kasper:
'The Orthodox Church does not really exist'.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has recently spoken of the difficulties of the Vatican in ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Church, stating: 'We are increasingly conscious of the fact that an Orthodox Church does not really exist'. He went on to explain his words, saying that the Vatican had expected that the Patriarchate of Constantinople played a similar role in the Orthodox world to that played by the Papacy in the Roman Catholic world. He had realised that it does not. Hence his personal revelation.

Our reply is that the Orthodox Church does really exist, but, it is true, not at all in the Roman Catholic form imagined by the Cardinal. The latter had conceived of the Orthodox Church as a monolithic and basically secular organisation headed by an Eastern Pope, apparently the Patriarch of Constantinople. This statement by a senior Vatican official once more goes to prove how little the Orthodox Church even today is understood in Rome. The very basics of Orthodox ecclesiology, the Orthodox understanding of the Church, and beyond that, the Orthodox teachings on the Holy Trinity and the Holy Spirit, are still novelties to the mind of the Vatican.

Firstly, the Orthodox Church has no Pope or Papacy, a system which was born out of a mindset foreign to the Church. The Head of the Orthodox Church is Christ and Christ alone. True, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has a historic, administrative role or 'primacy of honour' which is recognised by all the local Orthodox Churches. This is a primacy inherited by Constantinople after the defection of the Roman Patriarchate from the Orthodox Church nearly one thousand years ago. Unfortunately, the word 'primacy', used to describe that role, is clearly misunderstood in Rome. Primacy in the Orthodox sense does not mean 'supremacy'. If tomorrow, for example, the Patriarchate of Constantinople disappeared or defected from the Orthodox Faith, the primacy of honour would pass on to another Patriarchate. The Orthodox Church would continue, as of old, but, as one might say, someone else would have to do the occasional office work.

At the present time, for example, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is a very feeble organisation, dependent on a few dozen individuals, with a nominal flock of perhaps three to four million, mainly in the Americas, Western Europe and Australia. It certainly has no 'supremacy' in the local Orthodox Churches in Greece or Cyprus, let alone in Russia, the Balkans, Antioch or Jerusalem, or in the new Orthodox Churches in America, Czechia and Slovakia, and Japan. Even Constantinople's own largest Archdiocese, in North America, is at present seeking autonomy from it. There is clearly no supremacy here, but, however weak the Patriarchate may be, it still has an indisputable historic primacy.

If primacy does not mean supremacy to the Orthodox mind, neither does it mean authority to define the faith. For example, even if we were to imagine that by far the largest and most powerful local Orthodox Church, Moscow, held the primacy of honour in the Universal Orthodox Church, it would still make no difference to the structures of the Orthodox Church. Even if the Patriarchate of Moscow held the primacy of honour within the Universal Orthodox Church, it would still have only a jurisdictional authority even on the territory of the Russian Federation (and even there it might in its present compromised condition be challenged by dissidents). And outside Russia, apart from in a few emigrant parishes in the Americas and Western Europe, the Patriarchate of Moscow would not even have any jurisdictional authority.

Cardinal Kasper does not understand that the Orthodox Church is a family whose members freely associate together through the matrix of the Common Orthodox Faith, Whose model is the Holy Trinity, a pattern of unity in diversity. There is no such thing as authority being imposed from outside, even by some politically powerful or wealthy, secular-style organisation. Authority in the Orthodox Church is not conferred in some secular, legalistic manner, as a result of financial wealth or political power, or even numbers of faithful. Authority in the Orthodox Church is granted by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love. The voice of that authority is heard through Church Councils, whether Pan-Orthodox or merely local, or through inspired individuals.

In other words, authority in the Church belongs to the bearers of the Holy Spirit, the Saints of God, Who live in the Holy Spirit. Thus, for example, at the present time, the most authoritative of all the Orthodox Patriarchs is probably Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Distinguished by his extraordinary humility and also theological acumen, his voice is the one Patriarchal voice which commands authority in the Universal Orthodox Church at present. He certainly has no political power or riches, but he does have authority - conferred by the grace which dwells in him and is expressed by him.

Such has always been the authority of the Church, the Holy Spirit speaking either through Councils of inspired bishops or else through inspired individuals. Church history is full of examples of such authority. It is the only authority recognised by the Universal Orthodox Church in all ages and in all lands. It is that selfsame authority of which they spoke in Capernaum of old: 'What a word is this! For with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out!' (Luke 4, 36).

Moreover, in the same way as He confers authority, the Holy Spirit also confers unity on the Church. The Orthodox Church is a family of free and independent Churches. What we have in common, through space and time, is the same Orthodox Faith. If only Cardinal Kasper could travel through the Orthodox world, over the five Continents, and see our Orthodox life, striving in monasteries and parishes, then he would experience that unity for himself. Going to services, seeing the blood and sweat and tears of the faithful, he would experience for himself the prayer and fasting and repentance of Orthodox Christians, which is and always has been the life and the goal of the Church from Gospel times until this day. As the nineteenth-century Russian Saint, Seraphim of Sarov, put it so succinctly: 'Our aim is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit'.

He should not, therefore, expect to meet this authority or unity at air-conditioned conference centres in Switzerland or in the 5-star hotels prepared for ecumenical delegations at exotic, jet-set locations. If he did expect to meet the Orthodox Church there, then we understand why he has come to the conclusion that 'the Orthodox Church does not really exist'. She exists surely enough, but She is to be found not in secular establishments and secular minds, but in the hearts and lives of the faithful.

O Cardinal, you have been looking in the wrong places! Seek, and ye shall find!

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