Here is an instructive contrast: on the one hand, the massive, immediate, and ongoing Western media coverage of the fire of Notre Dame de Paris last year, including commentary from the U.S. president, along with the instantaneous offers from people around the world of hundreds of millions in donations to rebuild it.
On the other hand, the slow, halting, and mostly tepid reactions to the recent news that the Great Church of Constantinople, the church which dates back to the Emperor Justinian in the fifth century, the church of holy wisdom known most widely today as Hagia Sophia, is to become a functioning mosque once more. Fr. Seán Connolly, in an insightful piece for CWR, was one of the first commentators, well before the pope of Rome or, more recently, the American bishops bestirred themselves to respond.
These mostly sluggish responses are not surprising within the context of American Christianity. Such a lack of interest in Hagia Sophia is depressing but not surprising, as most Christians—most Catholics!—in this country have very little understanding of their own monumental history, much less that of other traditions.
When I am teaching my introductory course on the Christian East, as I do every semester, my classes are almost invariably composed of roughly 30% Catholic students of wildly uneven catechesis, another 60% of students from some vague and often vacuous Christian background, with the remainder having a mixture of Jewish, Islamic, atheistic, and agnostic backgrounds. All are welcome in my classroom, but nearly all of them have not the faintest, vaguest, shallowest understanding of Eastern Christianity. Many express shock that Orthodoxy is Christian at all. Others regularly profess their certain belief that all Middle Eastern peoples are “Islams”, as a few of them—not, manifestly, having mastered English adjectives—put it.
My first (and in some ways overriding) task is then to unpack the basics of Christianity as such, starting with its aboriginal geography. We scrutinize a lot of maps, ancient and modern, to understand that Christianity really is an “eastern religion,” even if your local bookstore or encyclopedia never categorized it thus. It began in the eastern end of the Mediterranean and spread out from there throughout north Africa, Asia Minor, and only later into Europe, and much (much!) later to North America. We look at a lot of iconography, too, including my favorite, Ethiopian iconography, to help disabuse students that Jesus and His Mother were fair-haired blue-eyed WASPs avant la lettre.
We move into the Council of Chalcedon in 451, seeing how Christians have a shared and relatively unified “deposit of faith”. Only after that council can we speak of the emergence of the first major divisions into Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian (sometimes called Oriental Orthodox) groups. Only much later do we speak of the emergence of “Orthodox” and “Catholic” churches after the eleventh century (but really after the Fourth Crusade in 1204). And only long after that do we get to Martin Luther and his infamous German hammering, which seems to be the only division in Christianity of which most students have the faintest recollection.
Then I have my students watch (or, pre-pandemic, attend) Orthodox liturgies. When I first started doing this well over a decade ago, I admit that I was a little punch-drunk on the so-called Russian Chronicle, which tells of how the conversion of the East-Slavs was motivated by Kyivan ambassadors witnessing liturgy in Hagia Sophia when it was the greatest church in the world—long before St. Peter’s was anything to write home about, or Westminster Abbey even existed. Those emissaries reported back to their prince Vladimir that, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, but we cannot forget that beauty.”
That, too, was my experience of Byzantine liturgy more than twenty years ago, when I was a student, and so I romantically assumed my students would also swiftly fall in love with such liturgy and its stunningly theophanic beauty. I had not reckoned on how weird it would be for many of them. Americans seem to suspect overwhelmingly that if you are not white, do not speak English, and do not sing (and certainly not chant!) songs on guitars or organs in suburban cinderblock churches surrounded by huge parking lots then are you are not really Christian.
The reaction (or lack thereof) to the news about Hagia Sophia would seem to suggest that my question above is answered in the negative by many people today. After all, what kind of name for a church is Hagia Sophia anyway? “St. John’s” or “First Presbyterian” or even “First Community” are normal names for churches. But “Hagia Sophia”? It sounds too foreign, and we don’t want foreign Christians in this country or care about them in their own. (This latter point is not new, by the way, as a moment’s glance at, say, the history of the Crimean War makes clear.)
Catholics should be different. Catholics should have a greater awareness of Orthodoxy for at least three reasons: first, they are the closest to us in terms of doctrine; second, the popes of Rome for half a century have made outreach to Orthodoxy a top priority; and third, and most controversially, millions of Orthodox Christians in the last 400 years have sought communion with Rome, leading to the creation of the Eastern Catholic churches. For Catholics, Orthodoxy is not some strange “other” but part (proleptically) of the one Church already.
In this light, I want to suggest that Hagia Sophia is and always has been part of the patrimony all Catholics share with our Orthodox siblings. Whatever harms them harms us. Whatever pain they endure we also suffer for we are—as I said four years ago on CWR—all part of the one Body of Christ, present impairments notwithstanding.
So, rather than ignoring Orthodox Christians or disdaining them as a bunch of exotic ethnics with a weird liturgy, let us remind ourselves anew that the Eucharist on Orthodox altars is the same as on ours. The sins shared in Orthodox confessions are just as much absolved as in ours. Those wed in Orthodox temples are truly man and wife. And the fate of those temples themselves should move us to the same solicitude as we have for our own basilicas and cathedrals. Otherwise our lack of care does not bode well for the prospects of Christian unity to which all Catholics are solemnly and irrevocably bound (cf. Ut Unum Sint no.3). Nor, more important, does our inability to weep and mourn make us very blessed in the eyes of our one Lord (cf. Matt. 5:4).
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