Vision of Our Church in this Third Christian Millennium
By Auxiliary Bishop Nicholas Samra
Delivered at the Annual Melkite Convention in Providence, R.I. in July of 2003
Seeds for the Melkite Church were planted in the United States in 1889 with the arrival of Fr. Abraham Bechewate in New York City, and Fr. Makarios (Al-Hajj) Nasr in Chicago in 1890. Now after 114 years the Melkite Church is spread over the whole continent – forty five communities: parishes, missions and mission stations.
The focus over these years was survival, which was not always accomplished since we closed at least ten parishes and missions during these 114 years. Some were very small communities, others were lost to the Romans and there are also various other reasons that need not be mentioned now because of time constraints.
Interestingly, on Sunday, July 27, I celebrated a Divine Liturgy, assisted by Fr. James Babcock, in Trinidad, Colorado. There we had a Melkite Church from 1914-1969, served by Fr. Clement Sawaya, BCO. Having no bishop in the USA until 1966, we knew very little about this parish community. Through researching archives in order to prepare a history of our Melkite Church, I’ve had some contacts with a few Melkites in Trinidad. A “Hadad Family Reunion” is scheduled in Trinidad next weekend and I’ve been invited to celebrate the Liturgy with the Melkite families. Our Liturgy will be one of the scheduled Liturgies at the local Roman Catholic Church of Holy Trinity to which most area Melkites go. Interestingly also is that the pastor, a Jesuit priest, is very concerned about the Eastern traditions and would like a Melkite Liturgy there more often. A resurrection of a mission? With the help of God we shall see.)
We formed ethnic communities in areas that later became Middle Eastern ghettos but began to downslide when ethnicity became less a value for a majority of our people and suburban life took them to other churches – Catholic and otherwise.
During these 114 years – we projected good values: family life, sense of community in parishes, strong focus on having a unique liturgy and traditions, etc. But we also lacked many good values by strongly encouraging religious training in (Roman) Catholic schools, dare I say that we lost at least half or more of our people to the Roman Catholic Church.
In some parishes ethnicity was the name of the game. Focus was placed on only those who were born Melkites. This is evident because some of the parishes are now closed and others are on the brink of closing.
We wrongly accepted Arabic as our liturgical language for too long rather than the proper Eastern principle that the language of the people is liturgical We involved ourselves – clergy and laity alike – in the politics of the Middle East which are so diverse and so foreign to our American way of life. We allowed people in our local parishes to divide into camps – unfortunately accepting in our parishes the modern carving out of the Middle East by European powers.
We have struggled to build and keep churches open on fund raising techniques rather than on God’s plan of giving. Priests now become social directors, banquets managers, wizards in fund raising gimmicks and techniques – everything but ministers of the good news and evangelizers for Jesus Christ.
We have allowed the laity to be involved in the churches, bur most times in the wrong roles, never focusing on their spiritual talents. We have down played the ministry of all of God’s people and have become very clerical.
Even after 114 years, many of our communities still struggle to pay their church bills and their priest a due and just wage.
Many of our people, a majority, I beg to offer – are not evangelized. I have served as a priest for thirty-three years in four parishes and over six missions and now fourteen years as bishop within the family of parishes that make up the local eparchial Church of Newton. I have transcribed Baptism and Marriage registers from Arabic to English in each parish I have served. Dare I say 85 to 90% of those recorded are unknown to us today in the parishes. Each and every one of our parishes should be tripled and quadrupled in size by now after 114 years; or better yet, we should have had several churches in each of the major cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and others.
I offer a vision for this third Christian millennium. We need to live it today:
- We need a stronger and direct role of the laity. Through Baptism and Christmation each is a part of the royal priesthood; you share in the work of evangelizing and spreading Christianity. You need to live the Liturgy that is celebrated in church and in the world after you leave the church. We need to evangelize those we have within our parishes and welcome others into our communities.
- We need to recognize our gifts and talents for the building up of the body of Christ.
- We need to emphasize stewardship, the proper use of our God-given gifts, for the life and growth of the Church,. I speak of our gifts of Time, Talent and Treasure. Stewardship is not a program but a way of life.
- We need to re-focus on religious education, especially for the adults from whom the youth learn. In this area our Church is almost sterile; we have good people but they are very poorly formed spiritually.
- We need to emphasize spiritual leadership; our churches are not businesses like IBM or General Motors – they are houses of God and need to be run in a businesslike manner but never become businesses. How can we expect laity to lead without formation programs?
- We need to use language as a medium of communication – whether it be Arabic, English, Spanish or others. We must pray in the language of the people and not use foreign language because we like its sound or because of its antiquity or history with in our Church. The Russian and Slavic peoples would not be Christian today if Cyril and Methodius forced Greek upon them. The largest Eastern Catholic Church is the Ukrainian, with 5 million people. Following them is the Syro-Malabar, with nearly 4 million. These people are Christian because they were evangelized in their own languages. Arabic is important for those who need it and properly understand it. One of the reasons for losing so many young people is the language. If they do not understand Arabic they will filter way from our communities and go where they can understand. English is the language of our country and should be the major focus.
- We need to worry less about haflis and tabooli – it is not the task of our churches to propagate Arab culture. The Church’s task is to propagate Christ.
- We need to return to financial stewardship, or God’s plan of giving. We call this plan tithing. We must reeducate our people about this biblical system blessed by God. As soon as possible we need to delete the gambling and drinking fund raising techniques and teach our people to put God first. He is our hope and trust. This task is awesome and probably the most difficult, but without it we are heading towards financial and spiritual bankruptcy.
- We need to keep and maintain our proper traditions that are based in the East, and are so needed by our diverse communities today.
- We need to break the bonds of animosity, jealousy and competitions with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. We need to work on a grass roots level to prepare for our full unity.
- We need to say “yes” once again to the man who has a genuine vocation to the priesthood and yet is married. If God calls a person to service and we say no – how damned we shall be for rejecting what God wants.
I could go on and one with other dreams and visions but I will end with naming just these few.
Is there hope and life for our Church beyond the year 2003? YES, an emphatic YES! I strongly believe so and to it I am strongly committed.
But the Church is in our hands today. You young and you elders alike take up the arms of Christ: His Word and His Eucharistic Body and Blood, and revolt against the many unchristian ways we have accepted. Renew your communities and renew your eparchy – do this for the sake of God and His Holy Church, which is His Body today.
I conclude with a paraphrase of the words of a famous U.S. president, John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your Church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Church.”