A graduate student of mine is currently writing a thesis on St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and she reminded me that he (who died c. 202) had to contend with a problem that still bedevils Christians in 2015. This great figure of the second century came from the East to minister in the West, where he was caught up in the debate over how and when to date the annual celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. This question was divisive even before Irenaeus was on the scene, and it remains so today, as Pope Francis has recently noted. It seems to evade all solutions.
I have been involved in the ecumenical movement for a quarter-century now, and the question of the dating Easter or Pascha has been discussed at every event I’ve ever attended, and has been discussed, moreover, for most of the century before that. I’ve lost count of the number of ecumenical conferences since where Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all agree that we must find a common date for Easter—and even agree on one or more proposals to do that—and then we all go home and nothing happens. Consequently, when people ask me about when we will have a common date, I reply with disgust, “Never!”
Recently, however, in his inimitable fashion, Pope Francis has raised the question again with, reportedly, a novel solution that may be able to cut the Gordian knot. The pope has apparently raised the prospect of simply adopting the Julian paschalion. In other words, the Catholic Church would be open to calculating the date of Easter according to the pre-Gregorian formula still used in the Eastern Christian world today—both Byzantine and Oriental Orthodox, as well as most Eastern Catholics. This is a brilliant solution—not without paradoxes—and it seems very clear to me that this is in fact the only solution with any chance of success today. (The other proposed solution one sometimes hears, namely to fix Easter permanently on the first or second Sunday of April, is already dead in the water according to recent statements from the Russian Orthodox Church.)
We do not know yet if the pope will go ahead, but let me go on record strongly hoping that he will. If he does, it will be greatly to his credit for manifesting what we call “kenotic ecumenism” at its best. “Kenosis” is the Greek word St. Paul uses in his famous “hymn” in Philippians 2:5-7, describing Christ’s unfathomable humility: “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself [ἐκένωσεν], taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
All Christians are called to such kenosis, such self-denying service; but the pope of Rome has a long-standing and special role to play. In the famous formula going back to Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, which eloquently sums up the kenotic service demanded of the papacy, the bishop of Rome is the servus servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God. In one of his letters, Gregory expanded what he meant by saying of his relationship with the Eastern patriarchs and the other bishops of the universal Church, “My honor is the honor of the whole Church. My honor is the firm strength of my brethren. I am truly honored when the honor due to each and all is not withheld.”
In adopting the Eastern or Julian dating for Pascha rather than insisting on the Gregorian (and thus papal—for the so-called Gregorian calendar, of course, gets its name from Pope Gregory XIII who adopted it), Pope Francis is showing a wonderful generosity and a noble giving way to others rather than insisting on his own way. His honor is the honor of the East, and when the East is honored, we are all honored. In the Christian economy of grace, honoring is not a zero-sum game where you win if I lose.
If the pope goes ahead with this, his decision will be not only kenotic, but also, frankly, smart politics. Absent adopting the Eastern calculations, we will not in fact have unity on this question any time soon. For it has been clear to me and other scholars for some time now that Orthodoxy in its post-1991 manifestations, especially in certain Athonite and East-Slavic contexts (as well as among some converts in North America) has been slowly poisoning itself with an anti-Western ideology. Thus to expect Orthodoxy today to adopt the Western/Gregorian dating for Pascha is a non-starter.
Such pessimism is confirmed when one considers recent history on this question. As the Orthodox scholar Patrick Viscuso has shown in his fascinating 2007 book A Quest For Reform of the Orthodox Church: The 1923 Pan-Orthodox Congress (InterOrthodox Press), many Orthodox leaders gathered in Constantinople in 1923 and debated the calendar question. Some Orthodox went on to adopt the Gregorian calendar but many resisted. And those who adopted the Gregorian calendar soon found that they had split their own people: some resisted so fiercely that they were willing to go into schism over this question, and they remain in schism today. Thus we have today the so-called Old Calendarists, small groups of which still exist in Greece, Romania, and other places.
I find the notion of going into schism over a calendar ineffably absurd and wholly without logic. But we are not in the realm of logic here, and on this matter Eastern Catholics have no reason to feel smug. For I have seen entire Ukrainian Greco-Catholic parishes divided into two, and sometimes three, different communities that just happen to share the same building. One group is Julian calendar and celebrates in Ukrainian at 8 am; one is Julian calendar and celebrates in Slavonic at 10 am; and one is Gregorian calendar and celebrates in English at noon. Calendar questions are thus real landmines in Eastern Christianity for reasons that have little if anything to do with scientific calculations of solar or lunar cycles, or other factors. These are neuralgic issues having to do with questions of identity.
If Pope Francis pursued this proposal, the identity of the papacy itself will be highlighted in a way Eastern Christians will surely find paradoxical. For among the most common criticisms of the papacy is that it has too much power. Indeed, in some rather silly Facebook pages of self-identified Orthodox “traditionalists” I frequent, they refuse any name to Catholics other than “papists,” a term my grandmother also heard regularly from Protestants while growing up in interwar Scotland. Among some Orthodox (and perhaps a few hardcore Calvinists) today, the papacy is merely the “advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire” (in the words of the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart) set to impose itself on everyone through unimpeded power and a desire for universal domination. The pope’s power is not, of course, as vast as the fevered nightmares of anti-Catholics would have us believe. And yet, were the pope to use some of his power to adopt the Orthodox dating for Easter, would Eastern Christians really be so churlish as to complain?
Would Catholics complain instead? I do not expect much complaint from Catholics as it is not a live issue for most. And let us recall that Rome has for many years already encouraged Catholics in countries such as Greece, Egypt, or Russia with substantial Orthodox populations to adopt the Julian dating, and Catholics have done so without any complaint that I have encountered. Let us hope, then, that the pope goes ahead with this, if only for the simple reason that it will take what should be a non-issue off the table, freeing us to continue to devote our attention to other vastly more substantial issues.