PROSPECT HEIGHTS — After 441 years, it appears that the East and the West may finally be close to agreeing upon a single day to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord.
Recently, Pope Francis and the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew have voiced their willingness to put aside their differences and find common ground in order to celebrate Easter Sunday on the same day.
While the decision to settle on an exact date will not be easy, both religious leaders have voiced their support to try to resolve the question that has separated the Churches since the 16th century.
According to a report from this past November, the patriarch supports that a common date be set for the year 2025, which will mark the 1,700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea held in 325.
Prior to this, Orthodox Archbishop Job Getcha of Telemessos also suggested that 2025 would be a good year to introduce a reform of the calendar. In 2021 Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that he welcomed the move by Archbishop Getcha and hoped that it would lead to an agreement by Catholic and Orthodox leaders on a common date to celebrate Easter.
A common date for Easter between the East and West is something Pope Francis has called a wish that is dear to his heart. It would also be a significant sign of Christian unity between the churches, harking back to 1582. That is when the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, was introduced to correct some inaccuracies of the Julian calendar, which had been commissioned by Julius Caesar. According to the Gregorian calendar, the dates were rearranged so that the equinox would fall between March 22 and April 25.
The West accepted the new calendar. Pope Gregory tried but failed to convince Jeremias II, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, to adopt it. Today, Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar to calculate the date for Easter. The Julian calendar calculates a slightly longer year and is currently seven days behind the Gregorian calendar.
The roots of the dissension between the East and West stretch back to the Great Schism that divided the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1054. According to a Catholic News Agency report, one possible obstacle to a universal agreement today could hinge upon the war in Ukraine, which is exacerbating ongoing tensions between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
In 2018, the Russian Orthodox Church severed ties to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople after Patriarch Bartholomew confirmed that he intended to recognize the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Father Michael Lynch, vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in the Diocese of Brooklyn and pastor of St. Athanasius Church in Bensonhurst, explained that St. Athanasius was critical to the Council of Nicea “where one of the things that was decided was that Easter should not fall on different dates but rather be celebrated on one day.
“That was reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council, and from what I understand from the council, is that it has always been the Vatican’s position consistently that if Eastern Christians agree on a way to determine a common date that the Catholic Church would accept it,” Father Lynch explained. He also pointed out that 2025 will also be a year in which both the Julian and Gregorian calendars will line up, and Easter will be celebrated by both churches on the same day.
According to Father Lynch, that would lead the way for further unification between the Churches.
“It’s very exciting to see the Patriarchs talking about this kind of serious question at this level and knowing that it has very serious implications for all of us in unity,” he added.
Msgr. Guy Massie, pastor of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church in Carroll Gardens, and the former vicar for the Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Diocese of Brooklyn, echoed Father Lynch’s views and said that he was very happy with the pope’s announcement.
“On the first level, the unification of the celebration of this great and quintessential feast of Christianity being done together is very important and brings us together,” Msgr. Massie said. “It’s also a great sign to the rest of the world that we can do this together.”
He added that while such a move will require a great deal of work and understanding, he thinks it’s obtainable.
Father Michael Ellias, pastor of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bay Ridge, said that he truly hopes that the unification takes place.
“The idea that we can’t agree on a date for the Resurrection of Christ is a scandal for anybody who is not already a Christian,” he explained. “I’m only afraid that the division between the old calendarists and the new calendarists … will not be able to accommodate this. They’re afraid that if you change anything, everything falls apart.”
John Abi-Habib, who serves as honorary consul of Lebanon from New Jersey, has long championed the merging of the faiths. Abi-Habib is Catholic and attends Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Church in Brooklyn, while his wife Sonia is Eastern Orthodox and attends Mass at St. Mary’s.
He said he and his wife share the same belief in Jesus Christ, and while there may have been differences in the past regarding how that message is delivered, today there are “more open-minded clergy and religious leaders who understand the importance of unity.”
“Every Sunday, we both would hear the church bells ring and walk to our respective churches so that we could celebrate Mass,” Abi-Habib said of him and his wife. “After we got married, we kept our faith alive by making our children aware of the two ways of celebrating Christianity, and we would celebrate both Orthodox Easter with Sonia’s family and friends and Catholic Easter with both our families and friends. And we have kept that tradition going all along.”
Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn and pastor of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church in Brooklyn Heights believes that the closer both Churches are to unity, the better off everyone would be.
“You look at what’s happening in Ukraine today, and it is mostly Catholics and Orthodox, and I think that if we can find better communications among ourselves, I really think the whole world would be better,” Bishop Mansour said.
He added that he feels both can achieve a shared holy Communion, which he feels is the next step for unification.
“It’s good to have a few differences, but those differences in my mind are minor today among Catholics and Orthodox,” Bishop Mansour said. “The bridge to cross between Catholic and Orthodox unity today is not very far.”