Old and New Rome

Recently I’ve been very much enjoying reading through the archives of the blog What Does the Prayer Really Say? which is run by Father John Zuhlsdorf, a Roman Catholic priest living (mostly) in Rome. If you see reference to “Fr. Z” on a Catholic blog, it’s to him. His wry commentary on the atrocious English translations of ancient Latin prayers, and his explanations in numerous posts of various of these wonderful old prayers, are quite enjoyable, as are the descriptions of local life in Rome. I remember from my childhood (I grew up Catholic, was even an altar boy for a time, and wanted to grow up to be a priest) some of those watered-down, apoetical, drivelly prayers, along with one longhaired and bearded guitar-playing young priest who preferred “mass” in the school gymnasium to the chapel. Ugh. It sounds like the Latin translators are getting their English translations back in line, though. It’ll be interesting to have a look at the new translations once they’re published. I’m sure we’ll be able to find some parallels to a number of Orthodox prayers.

But the vicarious sights of Rome put me in a peculiar mood. The stunningly beautiful churches in Old Rome, the history running up and down every noisy street, over every bridge, through every piazza, all brought out heavy sighs for the loss of even more magnificent such sights lost to us forever in what was sometimes called New Rome: once Constantinople, now Istanbul. Think of the magnificent Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles, where not only the relics of the Twelve lay in magnificent sarcophagi, but the emperors, empresses, and various other saints were also interred amidst rare stone in all their finery. This church was desecrated looted and destroyed by the horrific and rightfully excommunicated crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, beginning in 1204. Later, the desecrated site was covered over with the Sultan Ahmet mosque, where the Ottoman sultans are interred. Constantinople’s history, its arcades, its icons, its public sculpture, the traditions of its daily processions, all the magnificent regalia of the old Roman Empire, was destroyed between the combined efforts of that Fourth Crusade, and even moreso through the Ottoman Turkish “liberation” of the City, which has led to its churches having become ruins, storage space, shopping malls, mosques (Lord have mercy!), and the greatest of all churches, the Church of Holy Wisdom, was not only desecrated by becoming a mosque, but is now a museum in which it is forbidden to say a Christian prayer or cross oneself. Had neither the Fourth Crusade or the Turkish conquest occurred, that City would be an even more magnificent city of churches than even Old Rome is now, or at the very least one as full of history, churches, and beautiful reminders of the past. Alas.

But there is something good in all this. The Orthodox Christians of Constantinople had decided that their faith was more important to preserve than their City, the tattered remnants of Empire, their human dignity, even their very lives, rejecting theological compromise with Old Rome, and thus denying themselves the potential of Roman-encouraged allies against the Turks. The decisions made in the last years of the City’s existence as the seat of the Roman Augustus led to the abandonment of the worldly trappings of state-sanctioned power and wealth, and led the Orthodox Christians of all the original lands of the Gospel in the East into several centuries of intense suffering, often referred to as The Turkish Yoke. Every Orthodox Christian bore a cross, though never a visible one. Innumerable martyr saints were glorified. The subtle, insinuating horror of relentless oppression sapped the worldly strength and wealth of the Orthodox, but their spiritual wealth was all the while being stored up in heaven. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of modern states out of its carcass, things for a time seemed to improve, and in some places certainly have, particularly Greece and those islands with her. Yet another imperial scourge was soon wielded to humble the Orthodox, in the Bolsheviks and their godless state, which we are only recently rid of. Millions more were martyred, more new saints glorified in less than a century than in all the foregoing ages of the Church. Now we are freed of this one, and now, once again the old foe of Islam is driving the Orthodox Christians, and all but its own, out of the East altogether. More crosses to bear…

And I think about Old Rome, and even more about my own home here, in the chaotic spiritual and moral and cultural whirlwind of the United States of America. In Old Rome, would the desire for la dolce vita, the sweet life, which they so clearly have, have overcome the faithfulness of the people in an oppression like that of the Ottoman Turks? Would their witness be like that of the Orthodox after nearly six centuries of oppression? How would Americans fare under such, with our Extreme-Ultra-Enriched-Plus Sweet Life™©®? It seems rather that the people of both have instead been giving up their faithfulness with no compulsion at all, which is all the more sad, inexplicable, and damning. How the Orthodox saints of the last few centuries must shake their heads, and how they must pray for all of us the more.

With all of this, I think, too, about the reunion between the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is, in the current discussions, a pipe dream, an impossible hope, I am genuinely, deeply sad to realize. Some of the very doctrines, by the rejection of which the Orthodox lost everything in the world and suffered for centuries, although to our spiritual benefit (for we are even yet one Body, all alive in Christ), are still at issue. This strength is one fortified through an unparalleld martyrdom of centuries. There will be no budging on these issues by the Orthodox, no wafflingly-worded Anglicanesque resolutions accepted: the filioque, papal primacy and infallibility, immaculate conception, azymes, and the Uniate churches. Nothing less will be accepted than for the Roman Catholic Church to reject these and concomitant developments of its past millennium alone, living separately from the Orthodox. Communion could be restored then, but cannot be until then, for that is what is required at minimum by the Orthodox for this to happen. And how likely is that, truly? Not likely at all, I think. God may move the movers among the Roman Catholics in Vatican City in that direction. His ways are wonderful. But our human ways are not. And although this makes me humanly inconsolably sad, I am able to take refuge in Christ my God, in His Body the Church, and to find in His Communion, His Body and Blood, that consolation that I need. For He is one.

So, now, no matter what the situation is, whatever glumness may attend, whatever hopes may be dashed, I will always try to remember the simple prayer: Glory be to God for all things!