Brother Robert has identified himself as Eastern Rite Catholic and as Orthodox at different times in his life. As a Franciscan friar he continues to accept Orthodox doctrine as the clearest expression of what he believes about God. He is not alone in doing this. Since the Second Vatican Council, many Eastern Rite Catholics have returned to Orthodox theology, even though they remain in communion with the Bishop of Rome—the Pope.
Around the time of the Reformation, Jesuits and other Catholic missionaries convinced small groups of Orthodox Christians in the borderlands of Eastern Europe to accept the supremacy of the Pope. They promised these groups that they could keep their ritual and most of their theological beliefs. Their hope was that these “Eastern Rite Catholics” would pave the way for the reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that had split five centuries earlier. Instead, Eastern Rite Catholics were forced to conform more and more to Roman ways and became, in Orthodox eyes, the perfect example of what would happen to the Orthodox if they submitted to Rome.
Interestingly, the current pope, Francis I, prefers to refer to himself as “the Bishop of Rome,” instead of “Pope.” His unexpected humility induced the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Bartholomew I, to attend his installation Mass, the first time this had happened in a thousand years. What were once solid walls between the two ancient Churches are beginning to show cracks and gaping holes, a result of humility rather than political maneuvering.
Reunion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches will not happen over night. There have been too many brash and insulting exchanges between the two groups. Human pride takes a long time to heal. For Eastern Rite Catholics, being caught in the middle of these ecclesiastical fisticuffs is a lot like the experience of a child with divorced parents who pick at one another. Trying to love both, without siding with either one, is a painful, difficult path.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “If I can unite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West, of the Greek and Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided Church.” Perhaps this is the way reunion will actually take place—from the bottom up, from the edges to the center. This is the way change often occurs in religion. It begins at the margins and slowly works its way toward the center, the same way new skin grows around an open wound.
One of the main reasons Brother Robert’s icons are controversial is that they reflect what is happening at Church margins. For centuries icons have traveled the opposite direction, from the center outward. His icons ask questions and challenge ways things have “always” been done, because he realizes old truths sometimes need new expression in order to make sense today. Perhaps when enough artists and theologians begin to look forward as well as behind, differences between Catholic and Orthodox beliefs will no longer seem so great.