The Joint St. Irenaeus Orthodox-Catholic Working Group was founded in 2004 on the initiative of the Johann Adam Moehler Institute for Ecumenism and some Catholic experts on Eastern Churches from Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands. The Working Group consists of 13 Orthodox theologians from various Orthodox Churches (Constantinople, Antioch, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, America) and 13 Catholic theologians from Roman Catholic churches in various countries (Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Malta, Poland, USA).
The members of the Working Group are not sent as delegates from their churches, but are selected on the basis of their theological competence. New appointments – for example after a member has withdrawn – are made by a vote of the entire Working Group. The Irenaeus Group is therefore not an official dialogue commission, but sees itself as an unofficial discussion group, meeting with the intention of promoting Orthodox-Catholic dialogue at an international level. The co-Chairmen are a Catholic bishop (since 2004: Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, Germany) and an Orthodox bishop (2004-08: Bishop Ignatije Midic of Braničevo, Serbia; 2009-12: Metropolitan Youhanna Yazigi of Western and Central Europe, now Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch; and since 2013: Archbishop Job Getcha, Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe – Exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate).
The members of the Irenaeus Group, as an international Working Group that transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries, consider it to be their task to investigate the profound differences in mentality, ways of thinking and of doing theology which are related to current problems in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, to understand their character, and to try to see how both traditions can enrich each other without losing their own identity. They hope that in this way they will be able to work for a growing mutual understanding in their respective churches, and they commit themselves to personal involvement towards this aim.
The participants of the inaugural meeting in Paderborn (Germany) chose St. Irenaeus of Lyons as spiritual patron of the Working Group, because he is revered as a patristic father in both the Eastern and Western Churches; he grew up in the East (Asia Minor) and served as bishop in the West (Lyons), and his biography thus represents an example of the spiritual connection between the churches in East and West, which the Working Group seeks to promote through its discussions.
Following the inaugural meeting, at which the Working Group initially analysed the status of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue at different levels (international dialogue, national dialogues, unofficial initiatives), the second session dealt with the relationship between local church and universal Church in Orthodox and Catholic ecclesiologies, as well as with the respective view of the ecclesial status of the other churches. After that, the Working Group decided to take a chronological look at church history, investigating the way in which the relationship between primacy and synodality has evolved throughout history. In particular, the Working Group considered it important to examine the development of the doctrine of primacy in the context of its actual practice. In studying primacy, the Working Group came to the understanding that the doctrine formulated in historical sources did not always reflect reality – and vice versa.
The Irenaeus Group has met regularly once a year since 2004 for a four-day conference to discuss issues which the members consider to be of central importance for the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. Meeting locations alternate between Catholic and Orthodox settings. Thus, the Working Group subsequently gathered at the following locations:
- 2004: Paderborn (Germany)
- 2005: Athens (Greece)
- 2006: Chevetogne (Belgium)
- 2007: Belgrade (Serbia)
- 2008: Vienna (Austria)
- 2009: Kiev (Ukraine)
- 2010: Magdeburg (Germany)
- 2011: St. Petersburg (Russia)
- 2012: Bose (Italy)
- 2013: Thessaloniki (Greece)
- 2014: Rabat (Malta)
The results of the annual meetings are summarized in communiqués and presented to those being responsible for the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.