Potlucks, Eucharist, and Ecumenical Dialogue

In the January 2015 issue of Worship, Archimandrite Robert F. Taft, S.J., appealed to Catholic and Orthodox Christians to reinvigorate efforts for an authentic restoration of ecclesial intercommunion between the two Churches. Taft’s article adds another layer to the growing corpus of positive developments in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue at the national and international levels. Taft’s invitation deserves serious responses, and the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II has provided a platform for experts to reflect on this matter from diverse perspectives. I am glad to belong to an institution that is contributing to this discussion by honoring Unitatis Redintegratio, on March 28, in Los Angeles.

As a lifelong member of the Orthodox Church, I am familiar with the opposing views on interfaith efforts to restore communion. Orthodox Christians who desire restoration call for decisive action by the primates of the Orthodox Churches, sometimes citing progress by joint theological commissions on theological issues that have been historically invoked as justifying division (e.g., filioque, purgatory, original sin, the Immaculate Conception, and especially Papal infallibility).  Orthodox opposed to interfaith dialogue believe that the Roman See is schismatic and heretical, and would require repentance and the recanting of specific points of faith to be restored to the Orthodox Church. In fact, this Orthodox view has been ritualized, as evidenced by the renunciations required by Catholics in variants of the rite of reception into the Orthodox Church via anointing with Chrism. The interest in ecumenical dialogue and desire for restoring communion differs by region among Orthodox people.

I am an advocate for reunion, and I believe that the a renewed sense of urgency for restoring communion would constitute a more faithful response to the eschatological dimension of the Church, and the constant outpouring of the Holy Spirit received by the people at the Divine Liturgy. In fact, I am among the few who would engage a serious discussion on restoring communion before all of the thorny theological issues are resolved, with the understanding that the ecclesial structures and juridical mechanisms of the Eastern Orthodox Churches would not be subject to revision by Rome.

I have many motivations for choosing a more progressive approach to intercommunion, and I will share one of them here. I beg readers for patience, because I am still in the process of organizing my thoughts and am not advancing this anecdote as THE model for reunion, just a source for reflection.

Every day, I drive my six-year old daughter to her Catholic School. I usually leave right away, and I can hear the school praying “Our Father” or “Hail, Mary.” She prays in class and learns the fundamentals of the Bible, God, Jesus, Trinity, Mary, Lent, and Easter. She has been embraced and invited to participate, and the school and host parish have also welcomed us, inviting us to share prayer. We belong to this community. Last week, her Kindergarten class had a potluck supper. We shared food and fellowship. My wife and I were welcomed; we belong.

Afterwards, I realized that we are a community. We live in the same neighborhoods and have the same concerns as the other parents. Our children break bread together every day, and we do as well. Yet we do not share the Lord’s Supper together. And this troubles me.

Is a Kindergarten potluck the Eucharist? It is not my intention to claim equivalence between a potluck and the Eucharist. I am not saying that theological differences are relative or that commissions should cease their work since there are no longer problems requiring resolution. But I cannot dismiss the potluck as “nothing” or “irrelevant.” The experience of sharing life with others is real and meaningful, even if it is fleeting. If we seriously consider the reality we experience when we participate in community life, we cannot sustain the notion of a chasm dividing Catholics and Orthodox which cannot be bridged until all theological differences are satisfactorily resolved. The reality of a Catholic school which welcomes everyone and folds them into the community is the result of serious ecumenical toil within the Catholic Church to heal wounds for reconciliation. The source of this toil is a genuine love for others, especially estranged brothers and sisters in Christ, and a desire to be one. The result is the creation of a community to which one belongs, even if one is a non-Catholic.

The ecumenical dialogues and theological commissions should continue their rigorous work. But perhaps we might pay greater attention to the smaller living communities that are realities experienced on a daily basis by us and our children. Even a school potluck can communicate the love of Christ that alone has the power to rekindle cold hearts and reconcile those who would prefer to remain in division.







5 responses to “Potlucks, Eucharist, and Ecumenical Dialogue”

  1. John Swencki Avatar
    John Swencki

    Meals are eminently a time of fellowship, community and joy, be they Thanksgiving Day dinner or a kindergarten potluck.
    But at the Eucharist we seal the covenant in the Blood of Christ.
    At what other kind of meal does this happen?

    1. Nicholas Denysenko Avatar
      Nicholas Denysenko

      @John Swencki – comment #1:
      This is why I would not equate one with the other, for obvious reasons. But the openness engendered by Catholic school system with the hospitality to join worship extended to non-Catholic Christians mitigates the gap between a community meal and the Eucharist to a certain degree. I can only speak for myself, but I am trying to say that I see the fruit of Unitatis Redintegratio in the potluck I attended which made me think about the urgency – or absence thereof – for restoring communion.

    2. Alexander Larkin Avatar
      Alexander Larkin

      @John Swencki – comment #1:
      A question: Do we seal the covenant or does God seal the covenant in the Blood of Christ? The covenant is God’s initiative. Does the phrasing lead us to different possible outcomes?

  2. Mike Buckler Avatar
    Mike Buckler

    I am a youth minister. Ministry with youth, like all ministry really, is about relationships. It strikes me that building relationships with our Orthodox brothers and sisters would lead to a greater sense of unity which would therefore engender more openness to real dialogue. Of course, the relationship must be entered into for the sole purpose that Christ calls us to love and for no other reason. Not out of selfishness, manipulation, or even the slightest hint of pity or desire to convert. We simply love. We talk to people, we welcome them, get to know them, accept their offerings and kindnesses, like you would at a potluck. In short, we build community. I have always felt this was the key to ministry, as well as honest ecumenical efforts. After we have simply become friends, genuine, honest friends, then we can begin to have deeper conversations about differences. Sometimes it feels like we want to dive into theological discussions but forget that we are called first to love, and to do so unconditionally. Perhaps this is simply the “grassroots” approach, but it increasingly feels like the more practical way to unity. Of course, practical probably means more difficult too. How is it that I desire unity and yet do not know any of my Orthodox neighbors? Your post certainly makes me want to get out of the walls of my parish and meet my brothers and sisters. One can’t host a potluck without first meeting those he wants to invite!

  3. Scott Smith Avatar
    Scott Smith

    I have many motivations for choosing a more progressive approach to intercommunion, and I will share one of them here.

    Any such proposal needs to take seriously the experience of the Anglican Communion, which has been trying for decades to do things like maintain “two integrities” within the one body.

    The evidence there is that it does not work – If anything being in the one structure increases the friction caused by the profound theological differences.

    Nor in the case of the Orthodox would it be expected any such inter-communion arrangement could be adopted without causing material new schisms within Orthodoxy itself (and perhaps within the RCC as well).

    And thus I think it is very hard to argue unity can be advanced by intercommunion with out doctrinal agreement.

    A shared potluck is not nothing – It is a step we can use to get closer to unity. Attempting to ignore doctrinal difference however, does not have so much going for it.

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