An Open Letter to the Patriarch of Moscow

His Holiness, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia
Danilov Monastery
115191 Moscow
RUSSIA

Your Holiness:

Grace and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Remembering with pleasure our meeting in Washington some years ago, I am prompted to write by what I once hoped was a common concern for the unity of Christ’s Church and a shared commitment to bridging the chasm that opened between America and Russia during the Cold War. I say “once hoped,” because, in all candor, some of your recent public comments on the trials of Ukraine have inflicted new wounds on the Body of Christ while exacerbating tensions in world politics.
I refer specifically to your charge that “the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is engaging in direct political activities, unfortunately, using sharp Russophobic slogans and statements and making sharp statements against the Russian Orthodox Church in its public declarations.” Your patriarchate’s website also quotes you as expressing “regret that some of the national conferences of Catholic bishops, such as the German, Polish and American, also openly supported this position.”
It is difficult for me to recognize the ring of truth in these statements, Your Holiness. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been a voice for moderation, reconciliation and nonviolence since the curtain lifted last November on the drama of a Ukraine seeking national moral renewal in the rebirth of civil society. Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests and bishops risked their lives to minister to civil society activists gunned down by snipers widely believed to be acting with the let and leave of Russia.
Shortly after the canonization of John Paul II – a pope with a deep knowledge of, and profound respect for, the spiritual traditions of Russian Orthodoxy, whose heartfelt desire to visit your country was frustrated by your predecessors – I received a telephone call from Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Archbishop Shevchuk asked me to transmit a “message to Russia,” which I tried to do in two columns distributed around the world on the Internet. As that message seems not to have reached the Danilov Monastery, at least with any effect, permit me to repeat the salient section here.
Major-Archbishop Shevchuk said this, to you and your brethren:
“The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is not an enemy of the Russian Orthodox Church. We are your brothers; we have been born from the same spiritual womb. From the holy city of Kyiv, where our peoples were baptized, we are sending you a message of peace. Do not let politicians provoke hatred and bloodshed among us.”
As for those western conferences of bishops who have offered support to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, theirs have been statements of fraternal solidarity in the cause of tolerance and peace. These bishops, like other western Christians, have not been duped by the extraordinary campaign of lies that has issued from the Kremlin these past seven months; but I expect that the bishops, like all of us who cherish the spiritual patrimony of Russian Orthodoxy, are deeply saddened when you and Metropolitan Hilarion, your chief ecumenical officer, amplify the falsehoods of President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov.
I recognize that your Church does not have the tradition of confronting state power that developed in many parts of western Christianity over centuries. Nonetheless, those of us who honor the memory of your saints, martyrs, and theologians hoped that, in post-communist Russia (where, as you surely know, a 15-year-old today has a life expectancy three years less than that of a 15-year-old Haitian), Russian Orthodoxy would bend every effort to confront the moral hangover of totalitarianism, help rebuild the cultural foundations of Russian civil society, and join in full in the global quest for Christian unity as a fraternal Church, not as an agent of Soviet power, as was the case during the Cold War.
It is precisely because of these hopes that I, and many others, pray that Your Holiness finds a new path into the future.

Yours sincerely in the Lord,
George Weigel

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.