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Split in churches rises with Easter; Besides dates, millennia of differences still stand between Eastern Orthodox, Western Christians.

Byline: Bronislaus B. Kush

Like other Roman Catholic priests around the world, Monsignor James P. Moroney probably will take a well-deserved break after today's Easter Day services at St. Theresa Church in Blackstone.

Given all the preparations that must be made for the paschal celebration, Holy Week is the busiest time of the year for Catholic clergy.

But while Monsignor Moroney and his ministerial brethren were hearing confessions, celebrating special Lenten worship services and undertaking other Holy Week tasks, it was business as usual for priests serving the Eastern Orthodox churches.

There were no Holy Week needs to attend to yet, because Orthodox Christians won't celebrate Easter until April 27.

Easter is a movable holy day and the Eastern and Western Christian churches very often celebrate the feast on different dates.

Over the past few years, representatives from both churches have been trying to determine a common date, and there's optimism that Catholics and Orthodox Christians one day will always celebrate Easter on the same day.

The Easter calendar is just one of several major issues that have separated the two wings of mainstream Christianity for centuries.

And while there's great hope for agreement on a universal Easter date, scholars believe the other divisive issues are far more contentious and will continue, at least for some time, to impede efforts to reunify Christianity.

"The churches are divided on a number of matters," said Mathew N. Schmalz, associate professor in the Religious Studies Department at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. "Some of the issues are easier to deal with. But it's going to take time and hard work to find agreement on the others."

The perceptible differences between the Eastern Church and Western Church date to the fourth century A.D.

Many causes contributed to the growing misunderstandings and hostilities between the two groups, and they were rooted in numerous philosophical and sociological differences, customs and political rivalries, as well as heated debate on doctrinal questions.

Even language played a role.

In the early years of Christianity, Eastern Christians primarily spoke Greek, while Latin was the language of choice for the church based in Rome.

Governance was also a sticking point.

The church in the East was shepherded by patriarchs, or bishops, headquartered in the ancient capitals of Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople and Alexandria, while the more isolated church in the West was shepherded by a single prelate, the pope, who was seated in Rome.

Disputes between the churches also arose over rituals, the ecclesiastical calendar, the use of unleavened or leavened bread in the celebration of the Eucharist, the question about whether clergy should marry, and what the creed should include.

Because of the ongoing animosity, historians have difficulty pinpointing when the two churches substantively began to go their own ways, but 1054 is the year when the Great Schism took place.

Tensions were running so high that year that Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius excommunicated each other, formally ripping open the divide between the Roman and Orthodox churches.

Monsignor Moroney, who recently stepped down as executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for the Liturgy, said representatives from the Vatican and the Orthodox churches have been meeting regularly to find common ground on a host of matters, including the ticklish issue of the papacy.

"There's no question that the toughest issue is the role of the pope compared to that of the other patriarchs," the monsignor said. "Catholics clearly see the pope as a successor to Peter, who was chosen by Jesus to lead the church."

Historians say that, in the early days of Christianity, the pope and patriarchs were equals; however, some deference was always given to the pope because he sat in the bishop's chair that was first occupied by the apostle Peter. Over time, the position of the bishop in Rome was elevated by Christians living in the western Roman world because of geopolitical factors.

Mr. Schmalz and others said it will be difficult to reconcile the Western Church's beliefs in the pope's infallibility and central authority with the more autonomous governance and interplay practiced by the Eastern Church's patriarchs.

Putting the problem into perspective, Marc A. LePain, professor of theology at Assumption College, said even Protestants have problems with the rigidity of the papacy.

Still, there's belief the question will be settled.

For example, Mr. LePain said, Pope Benedict XVI recently stopped using the title of "patriarch of the West," one of many associated with the papacy, in an apparent gesture toward ecumenism.

Mr. Schmalz added that the late Pope John Paul II, in one of his writings, asked for input on how the papacy could be viewed in broader terms.

But he said an underlying factor in all the issues regarding reunification is the strong sense of nationalism that permeates the individual Eastern Churches.

"It doesn't matter whether you're talking about the Russian, the Albanian or one of the other Eastern Churches," said Mr. Schmalz. "In each case, there's a link between the church and a sense of national identity. You don't see that in the Western Church, which is much larger."

Scholars said far-reaching religious and doctrinal questions need to be fully addressed before merger is possible.

For example, the "filioque controversy" still fuels dissension.

In an attempt to quash the Arian heresy, church leaders in the West added a phrase to the Nicene Creed, "ex Patre Filioque," which stipulated that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son.

The action irked the Eastern Church because the added phrase altered the official doctrine about the Trinity and violated a fourth-century agreement that there would be no change in the wording of the creed except with the consent of all.

Numerous other dogmatic differences separate the churches, such as the Roman church's belief that the Virgin Mary bodily ascended to heaven.

Divisions are even forged by practices and rituals.

The Western Church, for example, has, since the 14th century, used sprinkling of holy water during the rite of baptism, as opposed to full immersion.

The Eastern Church uses leavened bread during the Eucharistic celebration, while the Western Church chooses unleavened.

Despite what seem to be irreconcilable differences, there's belief that full unification is possible, if both churches simply recognize commonalities.

"The point to remember is that we are all brothers and sisters," Monsignor Moroney said.

That seems to be the attitude the churches are taking in their attempts to pencil in a common Easter date.

Both churches have always agreed that the feast should be marked on the Sunday following the first full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox.

The Western Church, however, uses the Gregorian calendar in choosing a date, while the Eastern faiths use the older Julian calendar.

Other factors confuse the issue further, such as differing definitions of the vernal equinox and a full moon.

The Eastern Church, for example, sets the date for Easter based on the actual astronomical full moon and the actual equinox as observed along the meridian of Jerusalem.

The Western Church employs a fixed date (March 21) for the vernal equinox while defining the full moon on ecclesiastical calculations drawn up by the church centuries ago.

"It's a mess," said Monsignor Moroney, with a chuckle.

Both sides have been working on a solution since they met in 1997 to discuss the matter under the auspices of the World Council of Churches.

In the long run, Mr. LePain said, it may be expanding globalization and time itself that may heal the rift between the churches.

"Let's face it, the world is getting smaller," he said. "Look at intermarriage. At one time, it was a big thing if a Catholic married a Jew or a Protestant. Now, it's not considered such a big deal. Looking at migration patterns, it's soon going to be common to see marriages between Christians and Muslims. From this perspective, one can believe that the differences between the Western and Eastern churches could be worked out."

Contact Bronislaus B. Kush at


CUTLINE: (1) Monsignor James P. Moroney is shown at St. Theresa Church in Blackstone. (2) Preparing for the Easter service, Monsignor James P. Moroney places the paschal candle as the centerpiece of the altar at St. Theresa Church in Blackstone. (CHART) Easter dates

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 23, 2008
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