Monday, November 8, 2010

We need to live in solidarity with our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters

Sandro Magister's summary of the recently concluded Special Synod of Bishops on the Church in the Middle East far exceeds any other brief yet comprehensive account of this important gathering I have read. He begins by citing a very important demographic statistic, namely that "that in comparison with the twelve million faithful of the ancient Eastern Churches who today live between Egypt and Iran, there are now about seven million living elsewhere." This number living in what is often called by Eastern Christians the diaspora constitutes roughly 37% of members of these ancient apostolic communities. Further, more Christians leave everyday. CNN reported over the weekend that Syriac Archbishop, Athanasio Dawood, speaking from London (Syriac Christians are not Orthodox, a mistake frequently made by the media who wouldn't know that Chaldean Christians are Catholics), called on Syriac Christians to leave Iraq for their own safety. He went on to harshly criticize the Iraqi government, accurately in my view, for doing little or nothing to protect Christians in Iraq, be they Syriac, Orthodox, or Chaldean Catholics.

Magister observes that at the synod most of the participating bishops were careful and diplomatic when speaking about the situation of their flocks, but the representative of the Chaldean Patriarch in Jordan was courageous enough to speak the truth, which is that there is "a deliberate campaign to drive out the Christians. There are Satanic plans by extremist fundamentalist [Islamic] groups against Christians not only in Iraq, but in all the Middle East." This is very much in line with some extemporaneous remarks of the Holy Father made at the beginning of synod:
"Concerning this battle in which we find ourselves, of this taking power away from God, of this fall of false gods, that fall because they are not deities, but powers that can destroy the world, chapter 12 of Revelations mentions these, even if with a mysterious image, for which, I believe, there are many different and beautiful interpretations. It has been said that the dragon places a large river of water before the fleeing woman to overcome her. And it would seem inevitable that the woman will drown in this river. But the good earth absorbs this river and it cannot be harmful. I think that the river is easily interpreted: these are the currents that dominate all and wish to make faith in the Church disappear, the Church that seems no longer to have a place in the face of the force of these currents that impose themselves as the only rationality, as the only way to live."
Perhaps the most important thing to emerge from the synod is the dire need for Eastern Catholic Churches to work more closely together. Plans to do just this were set forth in several of the forty-one propositions that were given to the Holy Father for inclusion in his post-synodal exhortation, which will likely take a year to produce. A Year of the Bible to be simultaneously observed by the Eastern Catholic Churches is one concrete example.

More urgently, it is important to focus "[t]he attention of the whole world... on the tragic situation of certain Christian communities of the Middle East which suffer all manner of trials sometimes even to the point of martyrdom." Hand-in-hand with this is the creation of a commission "entrusted with the study of the phenomenon of migration and of the factors behind it so as to find ways of stopping it." Most concretely, the "1. the creation of a commission of cooperation between the Catholic hierarchs of the Middle East, which will be responsible for the promotion of a common pastoral strategy, better understanding of one another's traditions, inter-ritual institutions and joint charitable organizations; 2. the organisation of regular meetings between Catholic hierarchies of the Middle East; 3. the sharing of material resources between rich and poor dioceses; 4. the foundation of a priestly association, Fidei Donum, for the mutual assistance of eparchies and Churches."

As a member of Communion & Liberation, one of the so-called New Ecclesial Movements, proposition seventeen takes on much importance. It recognizes that the Movements "are a gift of the Spirit to the whole Church," but they arise from within "the Western tradition" and are "increasingly present in the Churches of the Middle East." But it is necessary for members of these movements, in order "to build up the Church" and "to live out their own charism" to take "into full account the culture, history, liturgy, and spirituality of the local Church." In order to do this the Eastern bishops ask that "these movements... without delay to start working in union with the bishop of the place and to follow his pastoral instructions. It would be desirable for the Catholic hierarchy of each country of the Middle East to work out a common pastoral position on the movements in question, their integration and pastoral activity." Indeed, it seems prudent to require this of these ecclesial movements if their charism leads them to be present and active in the Middle East. In nowise should New Ecclesial Movements be a means of Latinizing Eastern Christians!

Writing about my own Movement, we sometimes become so fixated on what happens in the West that we fail to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are undergoing what can only be described as bloody martyrdom. Large ecclesial Movements can and should do more to bring attention to the plight of the Churches of the Middle East and render assistance, especially the assistance of helping these Churches to remain present in their lands of origin.

Further, it was proposed that Eastern Catholic patriarchs be granted jurisdiction over their whole Churches, whether in their land of origin or overseas. For example, the Maronite patriarch should have papal-like jurisdiction over the Maronite Church everywhere in the world. Eastern Churches should be allowed to send and ordain married priests to minister to communities anywhere in the world. Eastern Churches should be allowed much more autonomy in appointing bishops. Finally, Eastern Patriarchs should be included in conclaves to select a new pope "ipso facto" and "without the necessity of receiving the Latin title of cardinal." This would mean no superannuation at age 80, due to the fact that, like the pope, patriarchs serve until death. This, at least it is hoped, would allow the pope "a new form of the exercise of the primacy inspired by the ecclesial forms of the first millennium." "All of this," Magister points out, is to help bring "the positions of the Catholic Church closer to those of the Eastern Orthodox Churches" with regard to the exercise of papal primacy.

Many bishops also brought up the absolute necessity, even in these difficult circumstances, for the Church to reinvigorate its missionary mandate. The Chaldean "archbishop of Tehran, Ramzi Garmou, delved even deeper into this need. After saying that 'a new missionary impulse' is vital 'to knock over the ethnic and nationalist barriers that threaten to asphyxiate and make sterile the Churches of the East,' he recalled 'the fundamental importance of monastic life for the renewal and reawakening of our Churches.'"

Finally, the always problematic issue of Israel. In short, Eastern Christians need to stop their reactive hostility to Israel and to see in militant Islam the greatest threat to individual Christians and to their churches.

All holy men and women, pray for us


  1. Being seen as a friend of Israel may not help you when you are a despised minority in an Arab country.

  2. “Being seen as a friend of Israel may not help you when you are a despised minority in an Arab country.”

    Jake, pardon me for being so blunt, but this statement is facile in light of what I wrote in this post, not to mention what I have written about the Middle East over the past several years. This subject is too important to reduce to superficialities. Just sticking with what I posted here, let’s differentiate between, as you put it, “[b]eing seen as a friend of Israel” and simply recognizing that not only is Israel not your enemy, but one of your few friends in the region. This means, to borrow from Magister’s analysis, the Church, beginning with the Holy See, must get rid of the faulty assumption “that the ultimate cause of all of the evils in the Middle East is precisely that ‘foreign body’ which is Israel.”

    The detailed analysis of Bat Ye’or, especially in her landmark study The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam : From Jihad to Dhimmitude- Seventh-Twentieth Century, should be enough to do away with contemporary fantasies about how good Christians, not to mention Jews, had it under benevolent Islamic rule.

    In other words, even when you denigrate Israel, pointing to it as the cause of Christian woes in the Middle East and buy into the prevalent ideology of extremist Muslims in the Middle East, both religious and secular, not only are you denying reality, you are still a despised and endangered minority facing martyrdom daily.

  3. In other words, nobody is suggesting flying Israeli flags from Christian buildings and homes, or shouting "I love Israel" from the rooftops. The simple recognition that Israel is not the enemy of Christians and not a threat to the continued existence of these ancient Christian communities would be sufficient, at least for now.