The photograph of this icon was taken at a Russian Catholic Parish that meets in Denver, Colorado. It is a beautiful and fitting testimony to our heritage as Eastern Christians in Communion with Western Christians, and it is a timely reminder of how Byzantine Catholics can embrace and show strong devotion to Western Saints such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who is commemorated on October 4th. The iconographer juxtaposes two great saints of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, where Saint Francis of Assisi is joined by his Russian brother in the faith, Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Their shared union with God as reflected by union with all of creation is beautifully depicted by their standing with a wolf and a bear, as each Father was able to find a miraculous harmony with these creatures. Ecclesiological conundrums aside, the spirit of what it means to be an Eastern Christian in Communion with Rome shines naturally through this icon.
Despite having differences that are tangible and visible at times, Eastern Catholics hold out that the core of our faith is immutably one, shared and lived out uniquely between different particular Churches. The tragedies of schism are conquered, and the flaws of history are surmounted through the love of God who unites all in Christ. And so, as Blessed Pope John Paul II noted in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (CTH, pg 18), Byzantine Catholics not only embrace their Western Catholic brethren with whom they are in communion, but like Blessed John Paul, we have the ability to call St. Seraphim a saint, despite his canonical status of being in communion with Moscow, not Rome.
In a previous post, I tried to call attention to the fact that if the Rosary has replaced the Akathist in Byzantine Catholic parishes, then the Akathist may have no true home. Nevertheless, if Eastern Catholics are in communion with Rome but have no appreciation of the holiness and majesty of their Western Brethren who are on earth and in Heaven, our intercommunion will be little more than a canonical detail, as significant (or insignificant) as the minimum age for one to be a godparent.
By celebrating and having true devotion to saints such as St. Francis, Eastern Christians can live out the mystery of union in the midst of unique spiritual gifts and perspectives. Just as men and women have unique perspectives and strengths (and weaknesses!), and yet they can be joined together in a mystical union, so too the diversity of Churches manifests the reality that the love of God conquers all in Christ. This is the truest mystery of all, as St. Paul notes in his Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph 5:32).
Holy Fathers Francis and Seraphim, pray to God for us!