Questions and Answers
Prassas Appointed to Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation
Providence, R.I. — Dr. Despina D. Prassas, associate professor of theology, was appointed to serve on the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation during the group’s 81st meeting in October.
The international consultation, which is a gathering of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Rite Catholic religious leaders, educators, and historians, is a group committed to dialogue between the two churches that seeks to overcome the divisive issues the churches face.
Prassas, a practicing Greek Orthodox who has taught at PC since 2003, recently sat down to answer questions about her faith, her involvement with the consultation, and what it means to Providence College.
Q. How long has the consultation existed and what are its primary objectives? What are the group’s current “hot topics” or major concerns?
The consultation officially began here in America in 1965, but the roots of the ecumenical movement emerged from the mission field, specifically in Africa, and out of post-World War I and World War II Europe. Leaders of several Christian Churches began to engage in more formal dialogue in 1948 through the founding of the World Council of Churches, but it was not until the end of the Second Vatican Council that dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics was heavily promoted and highly encouraged by the Vatican.
Our mandate as an organization comes right out of the Gospel according to John, specifically John 17:23-24: I in them and you in me-so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved even as you have loved me. It is this biblical imperative that we strive for and believe in, that Christian unity should be a defining part of the Christian faith.
As for hot topics, one of our most pressing issues currently is the state of Christians and Christian churches in the Middle East. The media may portray the Arab Spring movement as a great panacea, but it has had very negative effects for ancient Christian communities in those countries. One simply needs to look at what is happening in Egypt. Another issue that is important includes working toward a common date for Easter (currently, the eastern and western Christians determine the date of Easter using two different formulae). The different dates for Easter create problems, especially for our fellow Christians in the Middle East, where they are a minority. This difference in the celebration of the most important event in the Christian calendar displays a very poor witness of the Christian faith. One might ask, if the Christians can’t even agree on when to celebrate Easter, what does that say about Christianity?
Q. How did your membership in the group come about?
My involvement with the ecumenical movement goes back over 20 years ago. I was first introduced to ecumenical dialogue while studying as a seminarian. There was a collective group of seminaries in the Northeast that would bring seminarians from all major religions—Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. We would come together to discuss specific issues and this generated a wonderful dialogue; it is very difficult to explain your faith to someone who does not share your vocabulary, your ethos, your religious logic system. What makes perfect sense to you, with regard to what a specific aspect of one’s religion means, may be completely incomprehensible to someone of another Christian denomination or religion.
Then, while studying for my doctorate, I was appointed to the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), as well as to WCC studies, and after that I spent eight years serving on the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches.
Q. How will your participation in the dialogue enhance undergraduate learning here at PC?
My ultimate goal would be to set up a student-based dialogue here on campus in the coming years. I have been in discussion with one of my colleagues in the theology department, and we both believe that students could benefit from an ecumenical dialogue and consultation, especially due to the presence of students on campus who are members of Christian denominations other than Catholicism.
Q. What are some of the major beliefs or tenets of the Orthodox Church?
The fundamental vocation and goal of each and every person is to share in the life of God. We have been created by God to live in fellowship with Him. The descent of God in the Person of Jesus Christ has made possible the human ascent to the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit. Orthodoxy believes that each Christian is involved in a movement toward God which is known as theosis or deification. Theosis describes the spiritual pilgrimage in which each person becomes ever more perfect, ever more holy, ever more united with God. It is not a static relationship, nor does it take place only after death. On the contrary, theosis is a movement of love toward God which begins for each Christian with the rites of Baptism and which continues throughout this life, as well as the life which is to come.
Q. How does your involvement help to shape the Catholic and Dominican identity of the school?
When I was hired, I received nothing but the warmest welcome from the Dominican Friars. There seems to be an appreciation for Orthodoxy amongst the Dominicans and there seems to be a belief that we have a similar understanding of the basics of the Christian faith.
I think the fact that I was hired at all is a broadening of Catholic and Dominican values, and it says that Providence College is a place for Catholics and non-Catholics alike; as far as I’m concerned, anything genuinely Christian in nature helps to shape the Catholic and Dominican identity of the school. I think it is important to have students who identify with the various Christian denominations and different religions here, and I hope to encourage dialogue between students, since dialogue itself is part of the very mission of the College. Who knows, maybe we could bring the North American consultation here to campus for dialogue one day? Now that would be wonderful!
--Robbie Smith-MacDonald ’12