The Melkite Church at the Council: Preface

At the Second Vatican Council, which has just ended, our Melkite Greek Catholic Church played a remarkable role. Aside from certain criticisms, which were useful to us, and for which we were grateful, public opinion in general has been generous in its compliments, thus encouraging in our hierarchy, in spite of the relatively limited number of its faithful and the difficult circumstances in which it exercises its ministry, the boldness of its interventions, the originality of its theological thinking, its esprit de corps, and the seriousness with which it applied itself to study the problems posed at the Council, to provide the best contribution of which it was capable.

The reasons for this outstanding role played by our Church at the Council should be sought in the providential elements of our vocation, as well as in the climate of freedom that Popes John XXIII and Paul VI gave to the deliberations of the Council.

The cornerstone of our vocation is Eastern Orthodoxy, with which we have never lost contact. At no moment of our history have we considered ourselves a closed community that has reached the final stage of its evolution. We have always reserved, in our thoughts and in our hearts, a place for those who are absent, for that Orthodoxy from which we came forth, which we have never disowned, but which we have sincerely believed would be reunited with Roman Catholicism in a union that we embraced as it was then presented concretely to us. It is only gradually, and rather belatedly, that we have made a distinction between those things that were indispensable, and thus permanent, and those which were accidental, and thus obsolete.

The concern to maintain contact with Orthodoxy has furnished us with distinctive ideas, which in fact were nourished by sources of thought that were not exclusively Western, but which always tried to draw from the living and life-giving wellsprings of Christian truth, above all by renewing contact with the Eastern Fathers, known and experienced through a liturgy in which all the thought of Catholic Orthodoxy is epitomized, and which we have tried to maintain free of all hybrid deformation. Our liturgy has certainly provided us with a great resource.

We have always refused to become “latinized,” even at times when “latinization” appeared to be a title of glory, a sign of progress, a demonstration of evolution and of openness. We have always wished to be ourselves, simply, without any lack of appreciation for the values of others, but also without an inferiority complex.

These things have enabled us, at the Council, to be witnesses of complementary ideas, just as the Council intended. The West, after centuries of unilateral evolution, had reached the limits of its theological reflection. It had arrived at extreme views, from which it could not escape without a return to biblical sources and to that other ecclesial and apostolic tradition, that of the East, in order to provide equilibrium, nuances, and wholeness. We have tried to be as effective witnesses of that other tradition as our small numbers would permit.

It would have been naturally preferable if this testimony had been put forth by our Orthodox brothers themselves, in a new “Council of Union,” which would be free, this time, from all pressure and all purely human concerns. In the absence of a true Orthodox presence, we have wished, without claiming to represent it officially, to bring to the Council to the best of our ability a faint but faithful echo of this presence. This echo has caused surprise. It may have scandalized at times those who could not have reacted otherwise, but on the whole it has aroused interest. It helped those who were seeking escapes from the impasses, from the inflexibilities, from the excesses to which we had been led by late Scholasticism and the Counter-Reformation, and then by the absolutism of the last century. That is why the role played by our Church was notable and noticed.

Should I add to these strong reasons some motives that are rather personal? I shall only say, in praise of my brothers in the episcopate, that among the reasons for our profound influence on the Council must also be included our cohesion, that unity of action among the members of our hierarchy, working together as a synod, collegially, knowing how to surpass oneself, if necessary, or, on the contrary, to hold back in order to maintain unity of action born of a union of hearts, without, however, excluding complete freedom of thought.

This is also the place to mention the presence at our side of devoted collaborators, who made a real contribution to the success of our efforts. I am pleased to cite among them my auxiliaries, Their Excellencies Pierre-Kamel Medawar and Neophytos Edelby, and Archimandrite Oreste Kerame, my Referendary, a pioneer ecumenist of international fame, in our resource group; Archimandrite Adrian Chacour, my secretary, of unflagging zeal; Archimandrite Elias Nijme, Secretary of the Holy Synod, who accompanied me to all the sessions of the Council, and in particular served me as press attaché; and finally Reverend Michel Geday, S.J., Professor at the College of the Holy Family at Cairo, one of the most profound and discreet of our Melkite Greek Catholic theologians.

For the sake of completeness, I should point out the collaboration of many other priests of our community: university or seminary professors, historians, journalists, even if they have not directly contributed with us to the work of the Council. Laymen, too, have given us great comfort through the harmony of their thoughts with ours. Truly, the whole Melkite Greek Catholic Church hierarchy, clergy, faithful brought to the Council the witness of its spiritual patrimony.

All this action would have been impossible apart from the atmosphere of freedom and confidence that Popes John XXIII and Paul VI created at the Council. At the First Vatican Council, our hierarchy was certainly less well prepared, but even the small amount of original thought that it would have wished to echo was suppressed by the authoritarianism that dominated that council. One now understands the humiliations undergone by my predecessor Gregory II Youssef Sayour, humiliations concerning which he had the discretion to remain silent for the rest of his life.

We owe to John XXIII and Paul VI the introduction of a new spirit in Catholic customs, an openness, a spontaneity, a humility, that one might have thought to have been forgotten. The Catholic East not only was not humiliated: without any inferiority complex, it entered with its head held high, it was welcomed fraternally, listened to with interest, and understood favorably. For all of that, it was necessary to speak out, to raise our voices, to contend at times, but we were sure that after this effort to provide indispensable information we could count on the goodwill of the Council as a whole.

Hardly any trace remains of the participation of our predecessors at Vatican I, at least in a form accessible to the general reader. My fellow bishops and I have thought that this time we ought not only to make sure that the history of our work will be available, when anyone wishes to write it, but also to inform our priests, our faithful, and our friends of what we were able to accomplish at the Council, by the grace of God and with their help. Some Western theologians have also insistently asked us to do this.

A long time will pass before all the interventions at the Council are published. In addition, our interventions represent only a small part of our effort. The limitation of ten minutes for each intervention did not allow our speakers to do more than outline their ideas. The remainder was sent in writing to the Secretariat of the Council. The Holy Synod, before each session of the Council, met and made detailed observations on the texts of the schemas. These observations were reproduced and distributed among the Fathers. Sometimes we wrote directly to the pope. Those of us who were members of conciliar commissions drafted long notes. We also gave numerous conferences during the Council, interviews with the press and television, etc.

These materials constitute a voluminous collection of documents. It was evident that we had to make choices. We have retained, for publication here, only those which appeared to be what one might call “official,” coming from our Fathers at the Council and addressed to the authorities of the Council: interventions at the Council, either actually spoken or sometimes sent to the Secretariat, comments of the Holy Synod, notes sent to different pre-conciliar or conciliar commissions by those of our bishops who were members, and finally official correspondence of the patriarchate or of the Synod with the Holy See of Rome, relative to questions raised at the Council or, subsequently, concerning the carrying out of the Council’s decisions. All the rest has been set aside and lies in our archives.

In addition to the texts that we are publishing in this collection, it would be easy to draw up a balance sheet of the Council on matters that concern our Church. It can be said that on the whole we obtained what we asked from the Council.

The Church was the fundamental theme of the Council; it was therefore on questions of the Church that we put forth our principal efforts. Starting with the period of the preparation for the Council, we insisted on the necessity of complementing the teaching of Vatican I on the primacy and infallibility of the Bishop of Rome by determining the nature of episcopal power, and of episcopal collegiality in particular. Vatican II can be called in a sense the “council of the episcopacy.” The doctrine of episcopal collegiality was drawn up, timidly enough it is true, but openly enough so that the forward trend of this thought is irreversible. Without this perspective of collegiality, the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome remain incomprehensible in the East. During the Council a certain Roman canonist published in two parallel columns our teaching on collegiality and the definitions of Vatican I, to demonstrate their opposition, and to conclude implicitly that our position should be condemned.

Unfortunately for him, the Council did not find any opposition, but instead discerned complementary ideas, and it was rather the contrary attitude that was condemned. We asked for the creation, at the Roman Curia, of a permanent bureau for ecumenical affairs. The Secretariat for Christian Unity has been founded and assured permanence. As for the new “style” which we sought in the relations between Rome and the other Churches, it is necessary to say that our hopes have been exceeded in this regard: the journey of the pope to Jerusalem, the exchange of official delegations between Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury, the lifting of the anathemas of 1054, the presence of observers at the Council, the beginning of direct negotiations, etc. Who would have thought, as recently as ten years ago, that such things were possible?

In the preparations for the Council, we emphasized the necessity of calling on collaborators outside Roman circles. Although the preparatory commissions remained strongly influenced by the Curia, the conciliar commissions were less so, and the post-conciliar commissions even less so.

On the other hand, concerning the language of the discussions, we failed in our attempt to have the use of simultaneous translations admitted at the Council. But this failure was as good as a victory. The principle was admitted that Latin was not the language of the Church, and we insisted on speaking in a language other than Latin.

On dogmatic matters especially, we called for a halt. It was not possible, considering our small numbers, to exert a greater positive influence on the theological thought of the Council. At least we warned the theologians of the Council against the danger of considering their Western theology as the theology of the Church. The Council was alerted to this reaction on our part. Although we were not able to incorporate Eastern theology into that of the Council, we at least succeeded in making the Fathers realize that there was in the Church something besides Western theology. Eastern theology remained for the majority of the Fathers an unknown quantity, but one that was no longer automatically disregarded, and about which henceforth they wished to know more. With respect to the liturgy, we strongly supported the demands of the promoters of the reform of the Latin liturgy. Besides, the example of the Eastern Churches was often the best weapon for demolishing positions that were reputed to be impregnable and for obtaining such important reforms as the use of living languages, concelebration, Communion under both species, etc.

Regarding the setting of a unified date for Pascha, we were not able to do more than alert the Council. We made known our sadness and our confusion about the present state of affairs. The definitive solution can come only through direct negotiation among the Churches. We shall not cease to prod those in authority, for this unification of the date of the “feast of feasts” will be for us, in the Arabic Middle East, the first step towards unity.

On the questions concerning the constitution of the Church, it was nearly impossible to get the West to accept a theology of the patriarchate, which it had lived with the East, but which it had long since forgotten. We and our friends had to be content to offer very vigorous reminders, but these were lost in a sort of historic void, as the assembly could not visualize an order of values other than that to which it was accustomed. Certainly, a great step was made in restoring to the patriarchs of the East, at least externally, the honors due to them, but on the whole the patriarchate remained in the eyes of the majority of the Fathers an honor, nothing more than an honor. At least, the door is not closed. Miraculously, the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches was able to affirm two principles, which appeared mild, but which in reality are heavy with consequences. The first affirms that the rights and privileges of the patriarchs should be re-established as they were during the thousand-year union between the East and the West; the second states that the patriarchs, with their synods, constitute the highest authority for all affairs of the patriarchate, without prejudice to the inalienable rights of the Roman pontiff. These two principles, if they are respected, contain the seed of a restoration of an order of things which could be accepted by Orthodoxy.

We insisted very strongly on a reform of the Roman Curia, in the direction of decentralization and internationalization. This reform has been decreed and will be implemented gradually. Already, the powers of bishops are no longer considered to be Roman concessions, renewable “faculties,” to be extended or limited at will. It is rather the Roman interventions that are to be considered as reservations that are exceptional, rare, and, above all, motivated by the general good of the Church.

Conciliarity, which characterizes the system of government of the Eastern Church, has inspired and sustained the establishment of episcopal conferences. Even more, we were the first to uphold in the Council the idea of a “permanent synod of bishops” surrounding the pope.

We proposed the restoration of a permanent diaconate. As for the married priesthood, which has always existed and been honored among us, we defended it against the unrealistic view which would identify priesthood and celibacy. In this sphere, we remain convinced that the example of our Eastern Church has not ceased to be useful.

We sought and obtained that the door should be no longer closed to an expanded concept of morality, to the problems of family planning and of the innocent spouse. We joined our voice to those who sought the condemnation of nuclear war and a more constructive view of the problems of modern society.

Above all, we concentrated our efforts on the situation of our own Eastern Catholic Churches. Their condition in the bosom of Catholicism has been difficult. Being victims of discrimination, their hands were tied. We sought and obtained the recognition of their absolute equality with the Latin Church with respect to rights and duties, including the right and the duty to evangelize the non-Christian world. We obtained the condemnation of latinization of the East, while leaving a latitude for personal exceptions. We saved our emigrants, by securing the recognition of their right to establish everywhere ecclesial communities and to be governed by their own hierarchy. Through the prerogatives conceded or to be conceded to patriarchs and to their synods, one can see for these Churches, in the near future, the beginnings of a respected canonical situation, which will permit them to exist honorably while awaiting the global union of Churches, which must always remain their supreme reason for being.

On the basis of what we have said at the Council and by what we have already obtained from it, there can be no doubt that we have cleared the terrain and laid out the road for the meeting of Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The length of the dialogue has thereby been shortened.

The anthology that I am happy to present at this time will show future generations of our Church the road that has been traveled, and the distance still to be traveled. We have laid out the path. Much remains to be done, but the forward movement has begun, and it is irreversible. There are doors which the Holy Spirit has opened and that no one will ever be able to close.

Damascus, December 25, 1966

+ Maximos IV

Patriarch of Antioch and of All-the-East

of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

Cardinal of the Holy Church