In the last week of August I took part in a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. I had received an invitation which I accepted, after some initial hesitation. The hesitation was mostly due to the group organizing the pilgrimage, that is, associates of Mrs. Vassula Ryden, whom I had known through some of her writings. She is known in certain quarters as an Orthodox Christian of the Greek diaspora from Heliopolis, Cairo, who, in personal visions, has had conversations with God the Father and Jesus, but also with Our Lady and saints. These visions have been published in several languages, including Greek, and can also be found on the internet. After some thinking and discussions with colleagues in my diocese and the community in which I live, I concluded that I could help the Greek group in particular, so that the pilgrimage could bring spiritual benefit, which is what had been asked of me anyway. Some of my colleagues said: "Go and let us know". Others were suspicious that the pilgrimage was a form of propaganda.
So I found myself, rather hesitantly at first, because this was the first time I had joined that circle, with the Greek group of 30-40 people among a multitude. There were approximately 700 pilgrims, from many parts of the world and from many Christian denominations and traditions. From the very first day when clergy were introduced, I found myself among approximately 80 Catholic priests, including five bishops, five or six Orthodox priests, Armenian priests with a bishop and about 10 Protestant ministers, from different traditions of the Reformation. Organizing such a large group was no easy task and was accomplished in co-operation with a local travel agency. The professionalism of the agency, but also the organizers’ experience from previous pilgrimages ensured that everything went smoothly in terms of the organization.
For the sake of brevity, the schedule included visits to holy places and daily mass. To my surprise, I noticed that praying to the Virgin Mary with the rosary was also included. In the evening, there was Adoration, that is, a devotion in the Catholic tradition, whereby the Blessed Sacrament is displayed, with the guidance of a priest who was clearly experienced in this particular ritual and with many people attending. There were several priests for people who wished to confess. Everyone seemed familiar with these rites. The whole pilgrimage had a marked emphasis on unification, that is, it was stressed that Christian churches should approach one another in a spirit of humility and love, and it is Christ’s will that His disciples are united. A common date for celebrating Easter was emphasized as a tangible move towards Church unity. Generally, there was a great deal of devotion, prayer zeal and a brotherly atmosphere. On the surface, one would not notice anything strange or remarkable throughout the pilgrimage. Right from the start, I felt a profound need to ask how everyone else felt and what motivated them to take part in the pilgrimage and the ceremonies. The Catholics probably had the fewest difficulties. The above-mentioned rites derived from the Catholic tradition and all the Masses were celebrated by Catholic priests from different traditions of worship, that is, not only according to the Roman Catholic ritual but also from Maronites and Melchites. All were invited to take part in Holy Communion.
The Orthodox had to familiarize themselves with an often Catholic phraseology but in the end they did not have any theological difficulty in all that was done during the pilgrimage. Perhaps the most important obstacle is the wider negative attitude of the Orthodox to movements for unity. However, Protestants would face many obstacles. To begin with, the Mass was accompanied by commentary or an introduction and it was about the traditional faith in the actual and not just symbolic Presence of Jesus in this Sacrament. Then there were the various prayers to Our Lady, prayers that the dead may rest in peace and other devotions, alien or contrary to the Protestant tradition. However, there was also constant reference to the scriptures, which Protestants would enjoy, but also an enthusiastic atmosphere, with a willingness to witness for Christ and the Gospel, which is more prominent in Evangelical communities.
So I spoke to different Protestants from North European countries in order to understand their attitude. I realized that through the Messages presented by Mrs. Vassula Ryden many had come closer to the traditional faith of the Church. Some of them joined the Catholic Church, while others remained where they had been, but with a faith based on the ancient tradition, perhaps choosing to witness from that position. It was repeatedly stressed by different speakers that many Christian denominations took part in the pilgrimage. This is true as far as the origin of the pilgrims is concerned, but not with reference to the theology inspiring the whole pilgrimage and the rituals. The prevalent theology was the traditional one. The Protestants - not directly but in practice - were invited to discover and accept elements of the tradition that differentiate them from Catholic and Orthodox Christians. At the same time, it was accepted that by virtue of our faith in Christ, we all belong to His mystical body, as a result of our love in deed for Him, even though as individuals we may err in theological matters or we may have inherited an incomplete tradition. In my view, there was pluralism in the origin of pilgrims but not in theology. I do not think it would have been possible for anyone there to claim in public that it is wrong to pray to Our Lady. If anyone had held such views, he would either have not come, or he would have left on the very first day.
There is, therefore, a theological thread, that of Scripture and Tradition as accepted by Orthodox and Catholic Christians. There is also reference to the Messages presented by the central figure of Vassula, who, even though she spoke very little, is the central and charismatic personality. Her writings are written in the prophetic style, that is, says the Lord, quotation marks, etc. Herein lies the central question: What is the validity and authority of all these Messages? On the one hand, their excellent biblical grounding is impressive. So is the prophetic tone, the intensity and clarity of language. On the other hand, it is difficult to accept that twenty years of private conversations with Jesus and His Messages to all are presented and have already added up to a one-thousand page volume. From time to time, the Church acknowledges private revelations to saints or mystics or other faithful, and she does accept that she acknowledges only part of them. However, such "mass" presentation is completely unusual. With my limited theological knowledge, I have not noticed anything that is "amiss", which intrigues me, given the fact that it is hundreds of pages of text. Yet I still remain intrigued.
One of my fears had been what I would do if I found myself in an unfamiliar Mass celebrated by one of the ladies in the Anglican Church etc. However, nothing of this kind happened. Nor was there any likelihood of this happening. Others had been even more conservative than me. The Orthodox priests did not celebrate the holy Mass themselves, even though many Orthodox Christians asked for it. Another question I had was how the whole thing had been organized. Participation amounted to almost one thousand euros. Under the current conditions, this is no small sum. My participation was an offer from some members of the Greek group, but it was obvious that there were other priests who had come from afar and from even poorer countries. The organizers informed me that the pilgrims themselves, by paying fifty euros extra each, contributed to the expenses of priests, especially those in financial hardship.
In the central group organizing or inspiring the pilgrimage, certain people were prominent in my perception, the ones who obviously had been there for many years and were distinguished for their theological learning and their spirituality. I shall mention Mgsr René Laurentin, the well-known French theologian. Even though he is at advanced age, blind and frail, his words were clear, theologically profound and erudite, to the point of giving translators a hard time. There were more, from the United Kingdom, Lebanon, or the USA, Catholic and Orthodox, who seemed to have great experience in new movements and were able to explain, to provide biblical grounding where necessary, to refer to Church rulings or Canon Law. Among the laity, there was devotion and spiritual zeal. They gladly welcomed the commentary on scripture and the introduction I tried to make in the bus of Greek pilgrims, so that our visit to the holy places could be true communion with Christ.
There were, of course, people who had lived a hard life, perhaps with personal issues or psychological infirmities as well. Sometimes, zeal abounds but catechism is lacking. At other times, attachment to religious objects or devotions related to holy water and oil etc. seemed excessive. People find it hard to differentiate between the true faith of the Church and the devout imagination of certain believers. Yet such is the state of affairs in general, and it is no different from what we see in our parishes.
Someone asked me for my view on this ecumenical pilgrimage, and I replied presenting three images: we celebrate Holy Mass and Holy Communion daily like Catholics, we sing on the bus and we praise God like Evangelicals, and rush to get icons, candles, and holy water and oil etc. like the Orthodox.
It is well known that these Messages as well as Mrs. Ryden have been harshly criticized and often derided. In 1995, there was a Notification by the Catholic Church, specifically by the then Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stating that Catholics should not be encouraged to participate in this religious circle and parish premises should not be open to such meetings. A letter by Mrs. Ryden to the CDF then followed, succeeded by correspondence in which the CDF asked from her and received certain clarifications on points of theology and Canon Law. In a subsequent Notification by the CDF in 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger himself asked Mrs. Ryden to publicize this correspondence, at the same time allowing local bishops to handle the matter according to their own discernment.
On the Orthodox side, there is harsh criticism and often rejection - as in the letter shortly before summer by the Office of the Patriarchate of Constantinople - without specific charges which the party concerned could respond to or rebut. On this matter, the phrase that comes to mind is "Why are you bothering this woman?" Reading these books has been spiritually beneficial. They represent the passion Jesus has about the salvation of every single soul. He is delighted with every act of faith, hurt by every sin. It is Jesus as in the Gospel. We often think that after His Ascension Jesus left the earth and has ever since watched what happens in this world from above and from a distance. In this case, Jesus is represented as "always at work", which touches the modern believer. The Church does not present private revelations as compulsory articles of faith. However, it can accept these writings as useful and spiritually beneficial reading. Likewise, it can acknowledge the prayer and charity groups already organized in different parts of the world, under the designation of "True Life in God". I see no reason to treat the above in a hostile manner.
Of course, there is the fact that, in these circles, believers receive Holy Communion and in a way they have already made Church unity and the one cup a reality. This contravenes certain church rules. However, if this is done in a private context with no intention to scandalize or provoke, it can be acceptable from a Catholic point of view as an act paving the way for unity and promoting it. In addition, we are infinitely tolerant to words and actions that undermine unity and cause schisms. Let us also be tolerant to some - even controversial - acts of unity, especially when they revive people’s faith.
Discussions with certain people indicated to me that we should be very cautious when talking about matters that concern the spiritual lives of other people. When a lady says "we had never been part of the Church. Through these Messages, Jesus picked us up from the trash and brought us to His Church," I understand that this is a profound spiritual experience that changes someone’s life. Such matters should not be discussed light-heartedly, because they are not an opportunity for gossip but deeply personal issues for some people. For others, this experience comes at a high personal cost in their family and social lives. After all, many Greek Orthodox Christians were reprimanded by Holy Land clergy because they took part in an ecumenical pilgrimage.
Certain rituals reminded one of charismatic communities; that is, there was invocation of the Holy Spirit, in a ritual unlike any that I have ever attended. It was led by a British Catholic priest, who performed his task with clarity, ease, and authority. I was later told that he is or was an exorcist in a diocese. Following a brief rite of repentance and reconciliation with each other, all clergy were invited to come forward and stand one next to the other and bless those who came forward by laying hands on them. It was also mentioned that if anyone fell down, it did not matter, as this was temporary. I stood apart, as I did not know what was going on, and watched from a distance. Indeed, about fifty priests stood next to each other and when someone approached a priest, the priest blessed them by laying hands on them, and then they returned to their seats. Then I saw a lady near me who began to fall as soon as the laying of hands had taken place. I and another person helped her fall gently on the floor and held here there for a while. I did not know what to do, but I saw that the other person was more experienced. Gradually, more people began to fall, as if they had lost consciousness. Within two or three minutes, they began to rise. Praises were sung, and this went on for about half an hour. Everything went on smoothly and quietly. Many gave a blessing, clergy to clergy, but later laity too. Losing consciousness seemed to be something natural. Approximately, one third of the people lost consciousness for a while. In the end I decided to approach and get the blessing but at the same time I was thinking that I did not wish to lose consciousness. Indeed, I received the blessing without anything happening. Then there was a song of praise and it was all over. There was an atmosphere of ease and euphoria at the end. This ritual and the invocation of the Holy Spirit is common in charismatic communities, but I was not aware of it.
On every pilgrimage to the Holy Land we feel as if we come closer to Jesus and get to know Him better. In this case, there was an attempt to also get to know and come closer to our neighbour, not only in a social, but also in a church sense.
Fr Theodore KontidisThis article appeared in the bimonthly Catholic magazine published in Greece, "Anichti Orizontes", issue 1083 (Sept-Oct 2013)