Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Churches Meet in Annual Dialogue

Roman Catholic Dialogue at Holy Etchmiadzin

Holy Etchmiadzin hosted the recent assembly of Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches, known as the “International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue.” During a special audience, His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, welcomed the visiting clergymen, and offered his encouragement for their past and ongoing work.

Gathered for the meeting were representatives of the Roman Catholic and four Oriental Orthodox churches. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, attended as one of the official representatives of the Armenian Church.

The International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue began 15 years ago.

“I greatly appreciate your willingness to take part in this meeting, which hopefully may become a new and prominent step in our journey towards full communion,” Cardinal Walter Kasper stated in January 2003, during the initial meeting between the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches. This is the only official ecumenical body of bilateral dialogue between the Churches that allows for the presentation and discussion of theological issues in order to find common ground.

During the years since its inception, Archbishop Barsamian has participated annually in this gathering and has seen great strides being made towards the ultimate goal of full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. “On a pastoral level, this dialogue creates more communication, relationships and partnerships with the Catholic Church in certain areas,” said Archbishop Barsamian, providing an example of marriage to where a Roman Catholic priest may now participate in an Armenian ceremony between an Orthodox and a Catholic, and vice versa.

Taking it further, in recent years the Pope has been on the altar at Holy Etchmiadzin while the Catholicos has visited and participated in services in Rome.  Even with regard to the Holy Orders of deacons, priests and bishops, there has been an acknowledgment of ordinations. There was an instance a few years ago where an Armenian Catholic priest wanted to join the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church.  Upon the agreement between the hierarchies of both churches, he was accepted into the Armenian Church, recognizing his original ordination.

This progress towards unification has been achieved during these annual dialogues through in-depth discussions after papers on various sacramental topics are presented by the Orthodox Churches in comparison to the Catholic Church.  The discussion revolves around deciphering whether the differences in sacraments are theological or merely traditions.  “In many areas, we have concluded that theologically we are the same,” Archbishop Barsamian explained.

Respect and Cooperation

This year’s focus was on Penance/Reconciliation, Anointing the Sick and Holy Orders with papers presented on the traditions of their respective church. The Very Rev. Fr. Shahe Ananyan, Director of Interchurch (Ecumenical) Relationships in Holy Etchmiadzin, who was appointed to the Commission in 2013 as the second representative alongside Archbishop Barsamian, presented two papers. The first, on “Holy Ordination or Holy Orders: Armenian Church Tradition” and the second on “The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick in the Armenian Tradition.”

“The legacy of the Commission is to address the special theological documents to the respective authorities of every Church and members of the dialogue, thus creating an appropriate soil for furthering the steps towards deeper collaboration between our churches,” said Fr. Ananyan. The main focus for his papers were on the peculiarities of the Armenian Church’s theological thought and tradition in relation to that of the Catholic and other Oriental Orthodox sister churches.

Archbishop Barsamian indicated that the Armenian Church has been very ecumenically open over the years. “We are respecting each other through these dialogues, allowing for a better understanding and ultimately creating better cooperation amongst the Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Churches,” he said.

In addition to representation from the Armenian Apostolic Church–both the Catholicate of All Armenians and the Catholicate of Cilicia–delegates were present from the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and of course a delegation from the Catholic Church. The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church was not able to attend this year but does participate.

The Catholic Church is also in similar dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The 16th annual Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church is scheduled for late January 2019 in Rome, hosted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.  The topic for next year’s gathering will be looking further into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

–Paulette K. Doudoukjian


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