Saturday, March 7, 2015

Memory and Ecumenism

"So maybe there is hope after all for the Orthodox and Catholics too, but until hearts and minds are changed, none of our other ecumenical efforts will amount to anything of substance for the unity of the Churches of God. Let us not doubt for one minute that this has repercussions for humanity that go far beyond the question of Christian unity. One thing the 20th century, and especially the Holocaust, has taught us is that there is no such thing as ideological neutrality. One is part of the solution or part of the problem, an instrument of peace and love or an ideologue of division and hatred."

Something must have possessed Father Michael Winn, of Royal Doors, to reprint and offer as a pdf file the 21st Kelly Lecture, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, Canada, 1 December 2000, by the Very Rev. Archimandrite Robert F. Taft, S.J., then Vice-Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, entitled: "Anamnesis not Amnesia – The Healing of Memories and the Problem of Uniatism". My best guess would be that given the events of the past year and repeated harangues in very public fora by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev of the Russian Orthodox Church, dementis from Moscow denying that an encounter between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill could possibly be in the works, and now after months of rumors about the possibility of a visit by the Cardinal Secretary of State to Moscow, the communique concerning his state visit to Belarus... very simply stated, relations at least with the Russian Orthodox could be considered to be rocky, to say the least, and what Fr. Taft said nearly fifteen years ago should be once again read and reviewed.

Father Taft goes to the heart of the matter when he affirms that dialogue, as a step sine qua non toward reconciliation as the only noble goal for ecumenism, must address past offenses to be laid at the doorstep of all parties concerned, as no one is without sin:

"But the past must also be dealt with, for the past is the real problem blocking any future progress. That is why of late Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called for “the healing or purification of memory” as a way of dealing with that past. From my point of view as an historian, that will require each side to confront our common past with historical objectivity and truth, own up to our responsibilities, seek forgiveness, and then turn the page and move on to a hopefully better future."

As I have shared with many friends here in Ukraine since my arrival and immersion in the reality of Catholicism as it is lived out here, what Pope St. John Paul II was trying to teach by his call for “the healing or purification of memory” had essentially remained a book closed with seven seals for me. I found incomprehensible the possibility of a corporate memory, poisoned by a bitterness or rancor toward the other and passing from generation to generation. I am talking about something vile and very different than being acquainted with all the tribulation imposed upon him by others, which still failed to stifle the great bard, Taras Shevchenko. Not all painful memories are necessarily wounds in need of healing; sometimes they can actually edify or encourage a person or a nation.

I think the difference between such edifying, though painful, memories of the collective consciousness of a people, or even in the life of an individual, and bad memories, exuding a poison still ready to kill or wipe the other in his seventh generation from the face of the earth, is perhaps more "amnesia" than Father Taft would like to believe. I think that "anamnesis" is selective and perforce limited or choosy this side of Heaven. Once past the "Royal Doors" in the glory of the Kingdom, perfection and fullness of time will subsume everything, but here we must choose our memories and forget or bury the rest without scruple.

It should come as no surprise that on this point I have gotten into some very heated arguments (on their side) with "old" Europeans, mostly much younger than I in years, who refuse to forget what by rights they cannot remember because it is not a part of their story or perhaps even of their parents' story. Like the neurotic, they cannot see such rancor as a part of their problem, a self-imposed affliction.

Not that long ago, my sister three years my junior asked me if with my better memory I could give her a year or a context for a family tragedy of my parents' generation, which she proceeded to name by its name, explicitly. I made my best guess as to the year and explained to her that back then (60 years ago almost) silence shrouded the event for reasons involving both fear and profound respect for people older and younger, like myself, who were involved. This side of Heaven, certain memories should die with the present generation, as there is little about them to inspire a hymn of praise.

Central and Eastern Europe is a long and painful litany of accounts of despotic rulers, who for their own reasons either exterminated or displaced whole populations in the quest for domination over a territory; Stalin was, of course, the world's worst, but he had countless accomplices both big and small. From my years in Germany, I remember Cardinal Joachim Meisner  as the unique example of a Heimatvertriebene, driven out of Silesia as a child, who could remember all and celebrate all: anamnesis. Others would have been better off to bury their pain in their hearts or turn it over to God for healing rather than passing it on now perhaps to the fourth generation. Their children and grandchildren have no right to be pained by such.

Without exaggeration, I look to my own mother as an example for me of the kind of "anamnetic amnesiac" who is a light-bearer for the world. The memories she chose to share from her childhood were not laundered, they were pure. Stories of a new dress for dolly at Christmas, of fishing for bullheads with her dad at the mill pond, of following big brother down into an empty cistern only to have the tease pull the ladder up and leave her alone behind, and on and on. Were there painful memories? Were there hurts from the past? No doubt there were, but she did not release them full-blown, fetid and dark into the world of her children. Would that such Christianity would again take the upper hand, that the only type of anamnesis possible this side of fullness, namely a partial one would prevail. Appointments and pills should not be forgotten, but much else should, so as to allow space in the hearts and heads of finite creatures for doxology. 

In the midst of troubled times here in Ukraine, I have been asked more frequently by responsible Greek-Catholics, especially by clergy, what they can do to foster ecumenical rapprochement with the Orthodox. From conviction I respond that it is their duty to be the best Greek-Catholics possible, not only in terms of liturgy and charity, but in every aspect of their family life and in passing on the Gospel to their children. With all due respect to Father Taft and to Pope St. John Paul II, I think I'll try to find a shorthand exhortation for one and all to become "anamnetic amnesiacs" and pray for the same for our Orthodox brothers and sisters here and farther abroad.


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