Sunday, December 23, 2007

History's Long Shadow

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the genealogy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Gospel reading. However it is also a day when many (especially in the Greek Church) commemorate the founding of the Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) which in its day was the greatest church in Christendom. It is one of the great tragedies of history that what at one time might have qualified as one of the Wonders of the World was twice sacked and pillaged. First in 1204 by the Roman Catholic Fourth Crusade and two and one half centuries later (1453) by the religion of peace who, after massacring the clergy and worshipers, turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

The first atrocity was part of the premeditated sack of the capital of the Roman Empire, instigated by the Venetians for political and commercial motives, and willingly carried out by most of the Crusaders. The Latin bishops present granted absolution in advance to the soldier of the Crusade for any crimes they might commit and assured them of heaven should they die. The violence of the attack was on a scale truly shocking even for that bloody age. For days there was unrestricted pillaging, murder and rape (of both sexes). After control was restored the more organized looting began as the crusaders (especially the Venetians) began the carefully planned mass removal of the city's vast artistic and religious treasures to the west.

Although Pope Innocent III initially reacted with horror at what happened and excommunicated the perpetrators he quickly moved to take advantage of the situation. The excommunications were rapidly lifted and most of the plunder from the churches of New Rome found their way into the Vatican or other Roman Catholic Churches. Much of the prosperity of Venice over the next five centuries was owed to the incredible wealth that was carted into that city from Constantinople. Indeed Venice today remains one of the largest repositories (after the Vatican City) of stolen property anywhere in the world. But the massive migration of looted wealth, relics and holy objects was hardly limited to Venice and Rome. It would have been a rather poor western parish or monastery indeed that could not get at least a relic from the great feat of arms of the Crusaders. The Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens was built to house the head of John the Baptist stolen from New Rome.

Following the capture of the city the Crusaders installed one of their own (Baldwin) as a puppet emperor and imposed a Latin patriarchate on the city which remained in place until 1261 when the Latins were expelled. All of this was carried out with the approval of the Holy See. Reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches was achieved. This crime which fatally weakened the Empire and hastened its eventual and final collapse in 1453 remains a point of deep bitterness to most Orthodox. A positively visceral hatred for Roman Catholicism became normative in many Orthodox countries symbolized by the famous expression "Better the turbin than the tiara."

To his credit Pope +John Paul II became the first Pope in history to apologize for the sack and the role the Roman Church had in it. He also made a symbolic gesture by returning to the Greek Church a few of the relics taken from Constantinople. However many Orthodox can not help but look at the churches and museums of Venice and Rome whenever talk of restoring communion comes up. History casts a long shadow.


Alice C. Linsley said...

A long shadow indeed. On this Christmas Eve I'm reminded of another long shadow: the murder of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.

May God have mercy.

Stephen said...

John, the sin of the crusades was that they were as much responsible for dividing the churches as other issues like the filioque; that there were material and emotional disruptions as well is only important from a historical perspective. If we Orthodox use them as a scab so that we can always reopen the wound, then shame on us. What is truly temporal, must be accorded a lower status (which ultimately is no status) than that which is timeless, such as dogma.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. It does raise a serious question that I have had for a long time and would appreciate your thoughts.

I have stood outside of the Orthodox Church for a long time and this is one of the questions that has troubled me. From my understanding of being a follower of Christ, one of the marks of spiritual maturity is the ability to forgive which is hard enough, but Christ asks us to forgive even our enemies.

But as I have read many writers reflect on this incident many centuries ago there is still a bitterness and anger. The Orthodox Church has now held onto this for centuries. Why do you think there is such an inability to forgive which should be a mark of the Christian community? I am sincerely interested in your thoughts. Thank you, Steve

Hieromonk Gregory said...


i agree with you that there are certain orthodox Christians who still rally behind old grievances, but this is not reflective of the Orthodox Church. It is the Orthodox Churches that were among the first to enter the ecumenical movement, often compromising in the minds of some that we are but just another denomination. Personally I agree with Bishop Hilarion (Alfeev) that we must concentrate our dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, since most ecumenically minded protestants are not in line with historic Christian doctrines, or allow for extreme divergence from such doctrines.

Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous,

While I am a Roman Catholic, I would advise you not to be too influenced by rotten apples, be it in the Orthodox or RC Churches. Think of your own salvation first.

There are pretty bitter people just about in any religion in the world. Learn to forgive these people first and see the beauty in Orthodoxy or RC for its Truth.

While I most certainly will get into trouble for saying this (haha) I do believe that if one is a struggling Protestant who's seen the light, one should not think twice (bogged down by the sins caused by human elements) about joining either the RC and Orthodox faith.

I don't want to sound dogmatic about this but honestly, it's either Rome or Orthodoxy if you're a believer in Tradition. The distinctions between these Churches are huge of course, but these two compared to modernity is a huge gulf indeed.


Adrian said...

According to Roman Catholic moral theology, the sin of theft is not forgiven unless a full restitution is made. How then, can we Orthodox forget this vicious crime when no full restitution has been made even according to Catholic standards? Of course, since Constantinople is in Turkish hands, it would be difficult to return the Vatican's stolen loot. But, if the Catholics solemnly promise to eventually return all of the various relics and treasures taken from the Roman Empire during this time of troubles, it would greatly enhance our relations.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Adrian. This is something to pray about. But I do not think this is impossible at all. As long as Benedict XVI reigns, things will only get better in Orthodox-Catholic relations.

While I am not Orthodox, I often feel sad that Constantinople and Alexandria now figure as nothing compared to its past. Now all we have between us is the Old Rome and the Third Rome.


Stephen said...

Adrian and Isaac, what would the return of material possessions accomplish? Really, that's just missing the point. Where is our treasure? It must lie in adhereing fast to what Jesus revealed, the Apostles proclaimed, and the Fathers of the Church guarded. Everything else is not only secondary, but ultimately pointless, disruptive and dilutive.

Adrian said...

Stephen, you're correct. Although returning the relics would be a good step in the sense of worldly relations, it would not change the fact that Roman Catholic and Orthodox doctrines are different. I hope that our bishops will not compromise our beliefs or sell their birthright for a mess of pottage, as gilded as it may be.

Adrian said...

No, wait. I partly take back what I said.

If the "stuff" that the Roman Catholics stole was just a bunch of cattle and gold, it wouldn't matter so much. But what they stole were sacred items, such as icons and relics. It's not just water under the bridge. This is sacrilege.

Michael said...

Wow, what an interesting read. I have been troubled by the Catholic Church for a while now, with the greatest distaste building after visits to St. Peter's and the Vatican Museum. Regarding the current topic, I am all for forgiveness, regardless the extent or size of the transgressions. However, what does it say about the Roman Catholic faith if that institution steadfastly holds onto its ill-gotten bounty? They know the relics and treasures were not gifts to the church so why would they not return such things? If Christ were alive would He not say to the Roman Catholic leaders "return that which does not belong to you"? That wealth could do so much good if it were disbursed to those in need throughout the world. Bottom line for me is this: how can one respect and believe in an institution that does not follow its own rules?

Stephen said...

Where would these treasures go? Certainly not the Phanar, nor anywhere near Turkey. Who else has the resources, infrastructure and funds to maintain them, as well as the venues and skill set to display and tour them? Time has moved on. Leave them be, they are non-essentials, if our treasures are truly in heaven. At most, we should have the capability to ensure truth as to how they got there (but even that could engulf people, becoming an idol of resentment).

Nicholas said...

First, this is a rather lopsided account of the first sack. The fact is Constantinople was already well on its way to sliding into oblivion. They *invited* the crusaders to intervene in what amounted to a civil war. This does not justify the sack, but it makes it less heinous. Also, as mentioned, penalties were levied(1). Returning the relics, even shortly thereafter would have been to hand them over to the Muslims.

So what to do?
1.) Apologize. Done.
2.) Work for some sort of return when the Hagia Sophia is in Christian hands and is once again a cathedral. Working on it. Continue your prayers.

The sack of Constantinople was a secular and not a religious act. It was unfortunate (in the grossly understated sense of the term), but has no place in an ecumenical dialog worth its salt. This is from someone considering converting to Orthodoxy.

(1) We should be careful to remember that the crime here was killing Christians. Both sides, whether under despotic Roman Emperors or petty Western Princes had become experts at that sin.