Eastern Catholicism in the Middle East
Fifty Year after Orientalium Ecclesiarum
Observation – Analysis – Evaluation
Turmoil, Divisions and Hopes For Unity in the Church of Antioch
Bishop Nicholas Samra, Eparchial Bishop of Newton
University of St. Michael’s College
In the University of Toronto
October 18, 2014
My presentation on Eastern Catholicism in the Middle East fifty years after Vatican II’s document Oreintalium Ecclesiarum needs an introduction that begins long before Vatican II. It actually begins in the early Church centuries when the faith was being formulated in human languages, especially through the seven ecumenical councils as well as many other local councils. These early centuries witnessed great discussions as well as what have become known as many heresies.1
I speak mainly of the Church of Antioch, the major city of the Roman Empire in the East – in the area which was known as Greater Syria: present day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, modern day Israel, and parts of Southern Turkey. It was the Patriarch of Antioch who had jurisdiction over this vast area. The designation of Jerusalem as a Patriarchate became more honorary to a very limited area.
Even though Greek was the major spoken language in the entire Roman Empire, local languages still existed, particularly in villages outside of populated cities. Aramaic and Syriac were predominant in the Christian villages and had a variety of dialects. Arabic was unknown in this area until the coming of Islam hundreds of years later and did not become the more commonly spoken language until the 17th century especially among Christians.
Without getting into dates and council declarations, very early on the Church of Antioch became very diverse. From its common core, numerous Churches developed. The main liturgical setting of the Church of Antioch was the Liturgy of St. James, however others developed. The East Syrian Church used the more ancient Anaphora of Addai and Mari, noted because it does not contain an announced institution narrative.
A large part of the Church of Antioch followed the Nestorian issues, although today we do not use that term as a designation. This Church of the East spread from what is modern day Iraq into the Persian Empire (Iran) and all the way east and south to China and India. At one point in history it was larger in numbers than the spread of the Roman Church in the West. A very evangelical Church, it almost went into extinction in many areas, but developed in others, particularly India.
The West Syrian Church developed into the Syriac Church, which through theological debates divided more. Parts of it followed the Nestorian heresy. After the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) the Syriac Church divided into Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches. Those opposed to the Council dubbed those who accepted it “ the Melkites,” a word from Syriac (Malko) meaning the King or Emperor – or royalists since the emperor accepted the Chalcedonian doctrine that Jesus Christ was true God and true man. At that time “Melkite” was considered a derogatory term. The non-Chalcedonians had a different understanding in the unity of Christ – God and man. And I note that it was not until almost 1900 years later that it was recognized as a mainly semantic issue and not a theological misunderstanding.
Another part of the Chalcedonian Church, the Melkite, now divided again into what is known as Maronite and Melkite. The Maronites at first were not pure Chalcedonians. According to some historians (of course mainly non-Maronite) they were for a time Monothelites – another bad word today. But for the sake of starting a public controversy, I will not pursue the theological debate but just emphasize two more Churches, each distinct, were born.
The Church of Antioch spread into Asia Minor and gave its initial liturgical life to Constantinople – the seat of the empire, where it was more hellenized and stylized. John Chrysostom was Patriarch of Antioch before his election to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Byzantine Church developed, although much of the liturgical life of Palestine passed directly to Constantinople unaltered.
After the Muslim conquest in the 7th century and the Crusades which were initially meant to check its presence, more divisions developed. The Crusaders ousted the legitimate church leaders – Patriarch and bishops – in favor of Latin appointees. The Patriarch of Chalcedonian Antioch fled and took refuge in Constantinople where his Church was more hellenized. After several hundred years it lost its Syriac liturgical traditions to the more Hellenized traditions of Constantinople, sometimes called the Byzantine Church.
Jump ahead several hundred years and we see the Church of Rome, the Latins, sending missionaries to the Middle East beginning in the 1600’s. If it was considered to convert Muslims, it was not successful because Islam prohibited conversions to Christianity and protected itself with fear of death to any Muslim who even considered conversion. In actuality a tremendous proselytizing took place among the Orthodox faithful and new Churches were born of unions or communions with Rome – derogatorily called “uniates”, now Eastern Catholics. The Romans or Latins now opened their own churches and because of the financial support of the west, won converts to the Latin churches, a poor means of evangelizing.
To recap then in this long introduction, from the one Church of Antioch the following developed:
- West Syrian:
- Syriac Orthodox/Catholic
- Maronite – all Catholic
- Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox, known as Greek Orthodox in the East and Antiochian Orthodox in the West.
- East Syrian:
- Chaldean Catholic and Church of the East (the non-Catholic branch) which does not use the term Orthodox but rather Apostolic Catholic Church of the East.
- Syro-Malabar Catholic and Orthodox in India – following the Chaldean tradition.
- Syro-Malankara Church in India – Catholic and Orthodox following the west Syriac tradition.
Let me add to this unique Church of Antioch, now divided into different Churches, the Church of Armenia – a national Church, even older than the Church of the Empire. The Armenian tradition is a mixture of Syriac and Byzantine elements as it developed across Asia Minor. There are two Churches: Catholic and Orthodox, also called Apostolic Armenian.
So what developed were six Orthodox Churches and seven Catholic Churches all from the one Church of Antioch – not counting the proselytizing Latin churches.
I take another leap to the Ottoman Empire. In order to conquer and rule, the Ottomans who ruled in the Middle East, the Balkans and Greece 400 years, made each Church a “nation” or in Arabic a “Taifat,” in Turkish a “millet”. The patriarchs and bishops of each “nation” or community were civil heads over their individual churches. Ottomans interfered to collect head tax and when a Christian killed someone. All other issues were resolved by the Church heads. Christians were heavily taxed and even had to pay to have bishops and patriarchs recognized by the civil authorities. Thus many patriarchs and bishops were elected more for their civil know-how and not necessarily for their spirituality.
To save their own lives, many Christians learned the bad aspects of their rulers – cheating and lying in order to deal with the Ottomans. Many bishops, priests, patriarchs and laity died for their faith during Ottoman times. World War I – the Great War ended the Ottoman rule which had begun to crumble long before with the West’s involvement in the Middle East, yet Christians learned Turkish conniving and scheming.
Historical Evaluation of Divisions
This brings me to today and several issues or problems that I see were predominant. The Church of Antioch was greatly divided and very much competition took place. Jealousies abounded. Each particular Church developed strong individuality and each Church saw itself as the more legitimate heir of the See of Antioch. Three Catholic Patriarchs and two Orthodox Patriarchs claim the title of Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.
Competition and rivalries developed among the Churches, each group thinking itself more authentic than the others. With the existence of the Latin religious communities (Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, etc) each Church had to struggle to keep their own faithful because the Latins began to build churches and homes for the people – in a sense buying them to accept the Latin Church. In Jerusalem the Latin Church is still nicknamed the Church of the Bread Latins! because they became Latin for food and financial support.
Instead of all Christians working together for education and schools, each Church attempted to open their own schools in the cities as well as in small villages where several churches existed.
Enter the Protestant Churches who were financially supported by the West, particularly the United States. Again, money, homes, food, and support distracted Eastern Christians away from their proper roots and traditions.
Orthodox faithful were greatly disarmed and Eastern Catholics were born of divisions from their mother Churches and were greatly Latinized.
Insights to Vatican II Decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum
In the Vatican II decree of which we are speaking, recognition of each particular Church was noted. It speaks of the “Rites of the Catholic Church” and not as the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, as if the Catholic Church was Latin. There is equal dignity among the Churches – none superior to the others – Latin included.2 But recognition of this fact would take years to develop, coming out of hundreds of years of oppression and a great loss of their faithful. The “unity of action and common endeavor to sustain common tasks; so as to safeguard more effectively the ordered way of life,” took many more years to expand and it is still not flourishing.3
Vatican II calls for the Eastern Catholic Churches to rule themselves. This is still delayed and impeded because of Roman interference. Here I mention one of the difficulties of Roman interference. When there is a head above the head – in other words the pope above the patriarch and synod, in the event a problem is not solved to the likings of the complainers, the “super head” is appealed to. We have a problem in Jordan where several priests did not agree with their proper Melkite bishop and were not satisfied with the Synod’s assessment. So they made an appeal, and Rome named a Latin Rite Auxiliary Bishop to the Melkite Archdiocese in Jordan with full power over the seated Archbishop.
The Vatican document calls the Churches “to preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life.” This is still lacking due to excessive Latinization, theologically as well as liturgically. There is more to dressing up Eastern Catholics in Orthodox clothes and calling them legitimate to their proper traditions.
I cannot speak for all the Churches but I can speak for mine – the Greek Melkite. After Vatican II, our Synod returned in 1968 to the practice of communicating newly baptized and chrismated children, but you will still see First Communion ceremonies at age 7 throughout the Patriarchate. They may now call them “Solemn Communion” but let us not be fooled. Ask the laity what is celebrated! The identity has not totally been integrated. The U.S.A. Eparchy instituted this in 1970 with the coming of Archbishop Joseph Tawil and we took pains to reeducate our faithful in this matter. After Tawil the custom redeveloped in a few parishes with a few priests, and three years ago after I became Eparchial Bishop, I had to reissue this proper tradition via a Pastoral Letter,4 stronger than the first time around.
The feast of Corpus Christi, a distinct Latin feast was adopted by the Melkite Church soon after its communion with Rome in 1724. It was discussed at the Synod after Vatican II. The bishops concurred it was a Latinization but chose to keep it on the calendar – even as a 1st class feast with a pre-feast and after-feast. Their reasoning was still Latinized since the text was composed in a Byzantine fashion, but it boiled down to its social aspect in some eparchies, a religious procession enhanced with street fairs of food and dance and even carnival atmosphere.5
We still have issues with Rome’s involvement in the election of bishops within and outside of the traditional patriarchate which Rome seems to see as the lines of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1995 the Congregation for the Eastern Churches issued a document titled Instruction for the Application of the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.6 I will not get into all of the prescriptions but it is clear that pains should be taken to return to the legitimate customs of the Eastern Churches. This is one of the best documents from Rome on this subject. However, to date, the only one giving Communion to infants after baptism and chrismation is the Melkite Church. It appears as if the other Church synods haven’t even read the document, or if they have, just ignored it, refusing children to participate in the Lord’s Eucharistic table. And that’s just one of many prescriptions and traditions to reintroduce. I have repeatedly asked our Synod to discuss this document and to date nothing has happened. I comment no further.
The question of the date of Pascha still remains an issue. As you know Christians are laughed at and mocked by Islam because we generally have two Paschas. Islam considers this a scandal and sees our divisions, yet sometimes not seeing their own. Yet it remains a scandal that after so long we cannot agree on a date. The Vatican II decree states that the “patriarchs or supreme authorities of a place come to an agreement” but it adds “by unanimous consent and combined counsel of those affected to celebrate the feast of Easter on the same Sunday.”7
This has worked in Egypt and Jordan where all Churches celebrate Pascha with the Orthodox, but it was mainly the civil governments who got this to work. In the Holy Land, Melkites celebrate both dates according to the majority faithful although this may change in 2015 when hopefully all Catholic Christians will celebrate on the Orthodox Pascha date.
When Pope, now Saint John Paul II visited Syria after the year 2000, the common date of Pascha surfaced. There was an attempt for all Churches to be unified and celebrate with the Orthodox. Initially there was agreement, however the Armenian Catholics in Syria pulled back because their sister Orthodox Church had accepted to celebrate the western date internationally. Then the Syriac and Maronite Churches reneged because across the borders in Lebanon they would not be in line with their local churches there. The Melkite Patriarch remained committed but Rome recommended (or maybe imposed) that there should be unanimity among the Churches in one country. So we remain the laughing stock of Islam, crucifying and raising Christ twice.
Orientalium Ecclesiarum speaks about relations with the Orthodox Churches, and urges Eastern Catholics “to promote the unity of all Christians, especially Eastern Christians.”8 The means it offers are “Prayer… example of their lives, by religious fidelity to the ancient Eastern traditions, by a greater knowledge of each other, by collaboration and a brotherly regard for objects and feelings.”9
The document admits Orthodox to the Mysteries of Penance, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick “if they ask of their own accord,” and if needed because of no Catholic priest, a Catholic may receive the same from an Orthodox priest – if the priest is so disposed to do so.10 At a recent ordination of a priest several weeks ago in Placentia, California, a visiting Syriac Orthodox priest approached the Eucharistic table along with my Melkite priests and deacons. The same happened at a Patriarchal Liturgy some years ago in Los Angeles when the Syriac Orthodox Bishop of the west coast approached the Eucharistic table to communicate from the Melkite Patriarch.
Two popes visited Syria and Lebanon in the past decades: Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Both called for a greater working relationship among the Churches – first among Catholics and also with Orthodox to give witness to the one Christian faith in prayer and practice. Both went beyond the Catholic communities to our Orthodox brothers and sisters in the faith – a communion that is tarnished but yet can be polished and relived in a united Church. All Eastern Catholics and Orthodox were urged to work together, use common facilities, have common mission and break down barriers of separation.
Here I note a great development in the past 10 years. In Aleppo, Syria and Damascus, Syria, the Melkite Catholics and Greek (Antiochian) Orthodox built common churches by a working relationship with Church officials. Both churches were consecrated jointly by Orthodox and Catholic patriarchs and times for Divine services were set. However, it is well known that Orthodox and Catholic faithful crisscross liturgies and receive communion.
This brings me to my last point in this presentation – ecumenism, called for by Vatican II in Orientalium Ecclesiarum and other documents as well.
In the past several decades the issues that I mention of diversity, competition and proselytizing have been greatly discussed and met head on through the formation and gatherings of the Patriarchs and Bishops. Conferences were formed and even Orthodox/Catholic meetings now take place among the hierarchs of all the Churches in the Middle East.11
Vatican II assisted the Eastern Catholic communities to a stronger working relationship for common issues such as religious education, social gatherings, conferences and service related programs particularly of charity. In education Catholic students study at the Orthodox Balamand University and Orthodox students at the Maronite University of Holy Spirit (Kaslik), Lebanon. A greater focus was placed on working together. This continues to escalate in the past few years especially with the internal strife within Islam, now overflowing severely to affect the Christian presence in the lands of its birth and growth. A new genocide is taking place.
Initially after the partial communions of some Orthodox Churches with Rome, there was great strife within each liturgical family. However the Catholic Churches slowly began to see that partial unions were not the most praiseworthy and a greater working relationship developed between the Orthodox and Catholics.
A great change took place within the Roman Church and it slowly filtered down into the Eastern Catholics. Papal concern began to grow particularly since St. John XXIII, Venerable Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. Meetings went beyond just polite “hellos” and “nice words.” There has been a breakdown to understand how East and West were one and united for 1000 years. New studies developed. Divisions were recognized as more politically oriented than theologically motivated and new dialogues resumed.
I will speak specifically about my Church, the Greek Melkite Catholic and our goals for unity with the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, which is known in the West as the Antiochian Orthodox.
The Melkite Church took an important role in Vatican II as spelled out by Fr. John Erickson and Fr. Brian Daly SJ, earlier at this Conference. It acted as a synod of bishops in their preparations concerning all documents and as a united hierarchy at the Council under the leadership of Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh.12 The preparation work, discourses and memoranda of the Patriarch and his hierarchs have now been published in English by Sophia Press of my Eparchy The Greek Melkite Church at the Council.13 I worked hours upon days to edit this great translation from French. Publication was this year in commemoration of Vatican II – 50 years later. Obtain from our website Melkite.org – books in Sophia Press, $30.00.
The “Zoghby Initiative”
In 1975 a prophetic voice arose in the Melkite Synod. Archbishop Elias Zoghby of Baalbek, Lebanon, was already known at Vatican II for his forward thinking about the Eastern Church’s concept of divorce and remarriage. He now proposed to his synod a project of double communion with Rome and Orthodoxy for his Melkite Church. It would allow the Greek Melkite Catholic Church to reunite with the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch while remaining in communion with Rome.
Initially the majority of synod fathers were not enthusiastic about the project. Rome too had objections. The Catholic and Orthodox synods formed a joint commission to study the project but the long disastrous Lebanese war hindered much progress.
In 1981, Zoghby published a small book: Tous Schimatiques published later in English as We Are All Schismatics.14 It was welcomed by ecumenists but frowned upon by Rome because it questioned the recognition of the infallibility of Vatican I. Zoghby quoted Pope Paul VI who qualified the Council of Lyons as the 6th of the General Synods of the West. Since Paul VI did so, Zoghby extended this thinking to Vatican I.
Twenty years passed and ecumenical ideas matured with Vatican II and the Popes St John XXIII, Venerable Paul VI and St. John Paul II. Zoghby renewed his project of double communion, now known as the “Zoghby Initiative” internationally. He wrote a short thirty one page booklet, Orthodox Uni? Qui! Uniate? Non! (United Orthodox? Yes! Uniate? No!)15
It contained a short profession of faith:
- I believe everything which Eastern Orthodoxy teaches.
- I am in communion with the Bishop of Rome in the limits recognized to the first among the bishops by the Holy Fathers of the East during the first millennium, before the separation.
An Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Archbishop George Khodr of Byblos and Batroun (Lebanon) was satisfied with this Profession of Faith. It was also accepted and ascribed to by another member of the Orthodox/Catholic Dialogue in Antioch, Archbishop Cyril Bustros of the Melkite Catholics.
Twenty five of twenty seven bishops at the Melkite Synod of 1995 signed the document which was done during coffee breaks after each bishop read it and not at a public session of the Synod. Patriarch Maximos V sent it to the Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV and was surprised with his enthusiastic response to proceed with study by his Synod. Then the Melkite Synod spent several days of its 1996 Synod to study more and it unanimously adopted the project and issued a document calling for an end to divisions of the two Churches.16
The Orthodox Synod reacted with a serious study and emphasized that Antiochian unity could not be separated from the restoration of communion with Rome and all of Orthodoxy.
I add a note here that one cannot deny that there was a double communion in Antioch in the 1600’s and 1700’s before the full communion with part of the Church of Antioch in 1724. Latin missionaries confessed and communicated Orthodox laity with the permission of their Orthodox hierarchs and even preached in the Orthodox Churches. Orthodox bishops entered into communion with Rome without being rejected by their confreres.
Ecumenists and many others saw the “Zoghby Initiative” as a door opener. Numerous articles appeared internationally.
In 1997 a letter to the Melkite Patriarch and Synod was presented by Joseph Cardinal Ratsinger, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini and Edward Cardinal Cassidy, representing the Pontifical Dicasteries of Doctrine of the Faith, Eastern Churches, and Council for Christian Unity respectively. Although many interpreted this letter as a rejection of the project, it gave in reality reflections to continue this dialogue “with caution.”17
Proof of this came on September 29, 1998 when Pope John Paul II met with the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs and strongly encouraged them to help restore full unity with Orthodox Churches. St. John Paul II asked them to seek with him the most suitable forms of Petrine ministry, engaging them and also Orthodox Patriarchs and theologians “in a patient and fraternal dialogue on the ways to exercise this ministry of united”. Basically he said and recognized that the Pope was the issue of disunity in sense – so let’s talk about how my ministry can be adapted and properly understood.18
Such an important dialogue has ups and downs – we see this also in the International Orthodox/Catholic Dialogue as well as its forerunner, the North American dialogue.
A damper arose once again over Antiochian Dialogue toward unity. But a new sign appeared just this year. The horrific war in Syria, the near extermination of Christianity in Iraq, the instability of all the countries of the Middle East, particularly in Egypt and Palestine, the severe rivalries among Sunni and Shiite Muslims, once again spilling over to Lebanon which had a majority of Christians until its disastrous war: all this now threatens the existence of Christianity and its faithful. These issues bring a new impetus for the need of walking together, working together and healing our age old problems and divisions.
The new Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John X, met with Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III and asked to visit our Melkite Synod this past June. He also brought up: “we need to look at the Zoghby Initiative once again.” It was a great day on June 19, 2014 when Patriarch John X arrived to Ain Traz, Lebanon with three of his Metropolitans and secretary to meet and speak brotherly love with our Melkite Synod, and he spoke strongly for unity.19
Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III along with other Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch participated at a special conference on the Church of Antioch in July 2014 at Balamand University and Monastery. They were also welcomed to visit at the Greek Orthodox Synod days later.20
Another great ecumenist is the newly elected Moran Mor Ignatius Afram II, Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. Now forty-eight years old, he served as Archbishop of the Eastern Diocese of his Church in the USA for eighteen years. He and I are members of CCT – Christian Churches Together, the largest ecumenical body in the USA.
Good days, bad days, ups and downs, rigidly and flexibility, enthusiasm and calmness – yet we are on a new road to unity within the ancient Church of Antioch which is now spread worldwide.
Orientalium Ecclesiarum of Vatican II is somewhat a weak document but it inaugurated a stronger belief for working Church relationships as well as the need of unity. Could we ask for more?
Thank you for your kind attention.