This week I attended the 14th annual Orientale Lumen conference, held at the John Paul II cultural center in Washington, D.C. This was my third year attending, and it was quite enjoyable and informative this year. I am a very enthusiastic supporter of these conferences, as I believe that they foster, on a grass-roots level, the effort to have the Church breathe with both lungs, East and West. The path to unity is two-fold: official dialogue at the highest levels of the Church, and growing appreciation and acceptance of each other’s traditions in the pews. The OL conference works to make the second of these two objectives happen.
The theme of this year’s conference was “the councils of the church” and each of the speakers reflected on the work of the councils in the life of the Church from different perspectives.
The first plenary speaker was Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C. He began by commenting on Christ’s question to the apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” and then noted that the first four ecumenical councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon) were the Church’s dogmatic answer to that question. One of the key events in Church history, according to Archbishop Wuerl, was Nicea’s decision that truths about Jesus could be expressed in non-biblical language. Today, we take this for granted, but this was a momentous decision at the time.
The next plenary speaker was Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America. I heard His Beatitude at last year’s OL conference, and he is my favorite hierarch today. As someone said to me, he is “charming and disarming.” His talk was a paper on the relationship between conciliarity and hierarchy in the Church. While his talk was interesting, the Metropolitan really shines during question and answer. He never avoids a question and can be quite blunt in his answers. In all his answers, one thing comes out: he is devoted to following Jesus Christ and making him the focus of all his activities. He returns to this focus on Christ constantly no matter the topic, and I found it quite refreshing.
On Wednesday morning, Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. gave the third plenary talk. His presentation was a paper on the development of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and how the councils affected that development. Those who are familiar with Fr. Taft know that he is not shy about giving his opinions and he didn’t disappoint in this regard at the conference. He was actively engaged in all the panels and shared many useful bits of information on a wide variety of topics. However, I will say that I found some of his denigrating comments about what he called “right-wing conservative wackos” (i.e. traditional Roman Catholics) to be uncharitable and stereotypical. One can disagree with other viewpoints without demeaning those who hold them and unity will only come about when we charitably engage all elements in the Church. But Fr. Taft has done a tremendous amount of good in the Church in regards to East-West relations, and we should all be thankful for his work over the years.
The Wednesday afternoon plenary was my favorite. Given by Fr. Peter Galadza, it had the provocative title “How Many Ecumenical Councils? A Test Case for Eastern Catholic Theology.” In his talk, Fr. Galadza contended at the “ecumenical” councils after Nicea II (the 7th ecumenical council) should be considered “general” councils of the West and therefore not on the same level as the first seven councils. This might sound crazy, maybe even heretical, to the ears of many Roman Catholics, but for those who know the history of the councils, he is not as far out on a limb as may initially appear. In fact, the council of Constance in the 15th century (considered ecumenical by Roman Catholics) distinguished between the first eight councils, which they called “ecumenical,” and the next six councils, which they called “general.” Fr. Galadza gave a very balanced presentation, noting reasons why councils such as Lateran I-IV or Constance should not be ecumenical but stressing that they are still authoritative and useful in many respects.
The fifth plenary talk was a bit different, as it was given by a layman, Orthodox iconographer Elias Damianakis. I liked the change, as it gave a different perspective to the issue of the councils. Damianakis concentrated his remarks on how the councils have personally affected him in his faith life, as well as focusing on some lesser-known individuals associated with the councils.
The speaker for the final plenary could not make it, so instead a video from the OL conference held at Seton Hall a few weeks ago was shown. Fr. John Behr, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, gave a great talk about the differences between “universal ecclesiology” and “eucharistic ecclesiology,” and how the two can be reconciled. While I disagree with some of his conclusions, I thought Fr. Behr was incredibly insightful in his analysis. I only wish he were there to take questions. Fr. Behr also noted the fact that the Pope was absent at all the universally-recognized ecumenical councils. While this may have started as a historical accident, Fr. Behr thinks it might have more meaning than that. By not attending, the Pope remained “above the fray” and was therefore able to remain a court of appeal, even to a council. Fr. Behr then gave a great quote: “Perhaps we Orthodox have not called an ecumenical council in over 1200 years not because we don’t have an emperor to call it, but because we don’t have a pope who won’t be there.”
All in all, the talks were all fascinating and informative. But the OL conference is not just about the talks, it also consists of liturgical services and fellowship. And on this count, this year’s conference was exceptional as usual. The liturgical services (Matins, Vespers and an Akathist) were beautiful and prayerful, and the opportunity to talk with other participants and speakers is always a highlight of the conference. I was actually one of the few Roman Catholics there, so it was great to speak to many Eastern Catholics and Orthodox about their perspectives on East-West relations. I especially enjoyed an afternoon discussion with Elias Damianakis over a range of topics. You should make an effort to visit his website, www.orthodoxiconography.com.
Next year’s conference is the 15th annual, and director Jack Figel has big plans for it. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware already has committed to it, and Jack is working to get some (very) big other figures in East-West relations to come as well. Make an effort to attend next year!