Picking up where I left off introducing my series on the different denominations within Christianity, we will begin looking at the Eastern Orthodox. Last time I stated that the first major division within the Body of Christ, i.e., the Church, occurred in 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox broke away from the Roman Catholic West. This happened when Rome excommunicated the East, and the East excommunicated Rome. Many political, cultural, economic, social, and theological differences led to this break up… more than we have time to deal with here.
For the first 1,000 years following the time of Christ and his apostles, the Church was largely one united body. As the Faith was spread throughout the world, the West was largely evangelized through Rome, while the East was largely evangelized through Constantinople, which had become the new Eastern capital of the Roman Empire. Therefore, most Eastern Orthodox Christians are found in Greece, Russia, Turkey, and other eastern European and Middle Eastern countries. Today Eastern Orthodox Christianity is comprised of 15 independent, or “autocephalous” churches. Each church governs itself and selects its own bishop.
Of all the denominations in Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox are closest to us in belief. Like us Catholics, the Orthodox hold that there are seven sacraments. We also acknowledge that those sacraments are valid. For instance, when they celebrate the Mass, or “Divine Liturgy” as they call it, we believe that their Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of the Christ. This is because their bishops, like ours, still have apostolic succession – i.e. they have an unbroken connection back to the apostles. Because of this apostolic succession, we see their ordination to the priesthood, and therefore, their other sacraments as valid as well. This is not the case in Protestant churches.
While we are very similar in belief to the Orthodox, and we recognize the validity of their sacraments, their liturgy (or Mass) looks very different. It is generally much longer, structured differently, and is more elaborate. The Orthodox devotional life is also heavily centered on the use of icons (flat, painted images of Christ and/or the saints, which represent their presence and intercession for believers. Orthodox churches typically feature and “iconostasis,” or wall of icons, that separate the congregation from the sanctuary of the church.
With the exception of bishops and monks, Orthodox priests may marry. Aside from this and a few other theological differences and emphases, the most significant difference between Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox is disagreement about the authority of the Pope over all Christians.
Most recent in Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical relations was the meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana, Cuba on February 12, 2016. There, the two signed a joint declaration on a variety of topics.