Orthodox Influences on Roman Catholicism


I was wondering. Very often we hear of the influences of Roman Catholicism on the Orthodox. The question I would like to ask is, What effects has Orthodoxy had on the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century?


Perhaps a Roman Catholic would answer in a different manner—I can only speak from my own limited experience—but it would seem to me that there are two areas in which Orthodoxy has had an impact on Roman Catholicism.

The first is the explosive interest in and use of Byzantine-style iconography within Roman Catholicism. There was a time when just about the only examples of Byzantine art to be found in Roman churches were icons of Our Lady of Perpetual Help [in Orthodoxy known as Our Lady of the Passion] and Our Lady of Czestochowa. Today many, many Roman Catholic churches display icons, and one would be hard pressed to find a Catholic book or gift shop that does not sell an assortment. Last May, when my wife and I were in Rome for a conference, we were amazed to see so many icons for sale in gift shops, at church candle desks, and even in the religious article shop in the Vatican. I do not know why the popularity of icons has grown so rapidly since Vatican II, but I can only speculate that with so much traditional Catholic art being disgarded since that time, the lure of Byzantine iconography may have provided a solid alternative to the plaster statue industry.

The second area, although I do not know if it came about due to Orthodox influence or not, is the order of the Rites of Initiation as outlined in the ritual for the acceptance of adults into Roman Catholicism. The period of catechesis, especially during the lenten season, as well as the celebration of Baptism, Confirmation [Chrismation], and the Eucharist at the time of reception is reminiscent of the preparation of the catechumens in the early Church. And, of course, the juxtaposition of the three sacraments in this order—which is different from that observed in the case of infant baptism, in which an individual is baptized first, then receives Confession and Holy Communion, and finally Confirmation—is in line with the Orthodox practice. While I have not seen anything written which states that the inspiration for this was the practice of the Orthodox Church, I have seen it written in Roman Catholic materials that the order of the sacraments is the original, as practiced by the Orthodox Church since ancient times.

Finally, while the millennium is only months away, there may still be another influence on Roman Catholicism after the impending visit of Pope John Paul II to Romania, which is scheduled for May. The Pope was invited by none other than Patriarch Teoctist of Romania. The visit will mark the first time the Pope has visited a traditionally Orthodox land—and, I might add, one in which relations between Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Roman Catholics have not been the best in the past few years. Given the passionate statements made by the Pope concerning his desire to seek unity with Orthodox Christianity by the start of the new millennium, it will be interesting to see what effect being in a traditionally Orthodox land will have on him and consequently on his communion. Within the past few weeks it has also been announced that the Pope has also been invited to Ukraine and Armenia as well.

Of course, it is difficult to objectively detail influences Orthodoxy has had on Roman Catholicism. Very often an individual or a small group of individuals may have contact with Orthodoxy, digest certain things which they discovered, and incorporated them into the life and thought of their communion, generally without the knowledge of the Orthodox. Last May I encountered a Roman Catholic priest from France who operates a school for young adults interested in missionary and evangelistic outreach. He gave me a copy of the school’s magazine, which sported photographs of the school’s chapel, the interior of which was completely frescoed in Byzantine iconography. Other pictures revealed another small chapel filled with icons, as well as the priest himself in Orthodox vestments celebrating the Eucharist. Odd as all of this might be—imagine how one would react to find an Orthodox church in which the Sacred Heart statue was prominently displayed!—it does show that, in many ways great and small, Orthodoxy has had some influence, even if it is only external.

I would caution that Orthodox Christians should not see in these external influences a cause for triumphalism, however. While it may be exciting to see Roman Catholic churches with icons, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, etc., it would be much more exciting to find Roman Catholicism influenced by the love, behavior, and personal witness displayed by Orthodox Christians. In this sphere, which is much more importance and essential, I fear we have had no influence at all. If we Orthodox were as well known for our love as we are for our iconography, a genuine cause for triumph would be in order.