The participation of the Oriental Fathers at the Second Vatican Council
Almost 200 Oriental Rite bishops participated in the Second Vatican Council (in this reflection, by Oriental I mean the Catholics of the ancient traditions of the East. However, this is in no way reductive because it was the Council that wished them to act as a bridge opening on to the vast world of the Christian East). And there were over 2,000 Latin bishops who wanted to offer a significant teaching, now contained in various texts: the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium (n. 23) highlights the apostolic origin of the Eastern Churches and in particular of the Patriarchal Churches. The Decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum is wholly dedicated to the Eastern Catholic Churches (and nn. 24-29 regard the relationship with the Orthodox Churches). The Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, on ecumenism — directly concerning the Orthodox Churches and the Ecclesial Communities which arose from the Reformation — refers to Eastern Catholics in n. 17 The Decree Christus Dominus, which in nn. 23-38 describes the pastoral solicitude asked the Latin Rite bishops towards the Eastern Rite faithful who reside in their respective dioceses and for those Eastern Rite Christians who live in territories where several Churches of different rites exist. Finally, the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis (n. 16) addresses celibacy and married priests of the Eastern Churches.
Among the bishops, the Greek-Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV was outstanding. He pointed out that the reasons for the Orientals' ecumenical interest should be sought in the providential elements of their vocation, as well as in the atmosphere of freedom which Popes John XXIII and Paul VI were able to give to the Council's deliberations. As a first datum he indicated his wish to reserve a place for the "absent", for that orthodoxy they derived from and never disavowed, but had sincerely believed it necessary to establish a union with Roman Catholicism. Indeed this contact meant they could draw nourishment not only from the exclusive sources of Western thought, but actually go back to the living and life-giving sources of Christian truth, establishing a relationship especially with the Fathers of the East, known and experienced through a liturgy where the entire thought is concentrated, which they had tried to preserve pure from all distortion.
The contribution of the Oriental Rite Christians was crucial for the two Decrees: Orientalium Ecclesiarum and Unitatis Redintegratio. Imbibing themselves on the Council's ecclesiology, they described the identity of the Oriental Churches in the Catholic communion and their ecumenical mission, thus forming the immediate source of the successive Code of Canons — distinct from that of the Latin Church.
In 1990 Bl. John Paul II promulgated The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO), distinct from the Latin Code. Yet, the true pearl was the recognition of the Oriental Catholic Churches' apostolic origin. Its special aspect is full communion with the Apostolic Church of Rome. For this reason the Decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum sets the Oriental Churches within the one Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, in a wondrous communion, such that their diversity, not only does not threaten unity but, what is more, it manifests it. For this reason the Council was solicitous for the well-being of the Eastern Churches, living witnesses of this tradition and expressed the wish that they thrive and acquit with renewed apostolic vigour the mission which had been confided to them. Furthermore, the Decree on Ecumenism attests this: in it the Council declares, thanking God, that the many Eastern sons and daughters of the Catholic Church who preserve this patrimony and wish to live it with greater purity and fullness already live in full communion with their brethren of the Western (Latin Rite) tradition, that this entire spiritual, liturgical, disciplinary and theological patrimony — in its different traditions — belongs to the full catholicity and apostolicity of the Church. Oriental Churches and the Latin Church form the one Catholic Church and thus are equal in dignity and enjoy equality of rights and duties.
Until Vatican II one still sensed the praestantia ritus latini, a phrase of Benedict XIV, even though this matter had been made clear in pontifical documents, starting with Leo XIII. The underlying reason was that the Latin liturgical rite alone guaranteed the fullness of the catholicity of the true Catholic faith. The Council ushered in a new outlook, declaring that both the Churches of the East and the West (the Latin Rite Church) enjoyed equal dignity, so that neither of them enjoyed a preeminence over the others by reason of Rite. Their ecclesial and ritual identity accompanies Oriental Christians everywhere! The Council exhorts them always to preserve the legitimate liturgical rites and discipline, permitting changes only for motives of an organic development.
The Dicastery for the Oriental Churches, therefore, published on 6 January 1996 Instructions for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, in order to help them in this regard. It is the challenge of faithfulness: to Christ and to the Church, to the unchanging Gospel, but also to man and to history, which are instead variable; fidelity to the origins yet also to the present projected to a future which the current day is already building and which is secure if it is well anchored in its own beginnings. This necessity becomes even more binding when one considers the inexorable phenomenon of migrations, which is a real "sign of the times". To safeguard the Eastern Rite faith ful the right to vigilance of the major archbishops and patriarchs throughout the world to oversee is recognized. It is interwoven with the solicitude of the Apostolic See through the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.
We have thus reached the true synthesis of the Conciliar message for Eastern Rite Christians. Religious faithfulness to the ancient traditions — in conjunction with prayer — to the examples of life, to mutual and better knowledge, to collaboration and fraternal respect for things and people: these contribute greatly so that the Eastern Churches, which are in full communion with the Roman Apostolic See, may carry out their duty to promote the unity of all Christians, especially those of the East — this was the Conciliar mission!
It is this preoccupation for unity which we must incessantly ask of the Spirit of the Risen One for the Oriental Churches. Bl. John XXIII's heart was revealed when he opened the Council and urged the Church to rejoice on account of the communion of so many of her children (Gaudet mater Ecclesia!) and he pro- posed the "medicine of mercy" — avoiding condemnation the anathema sit — in order to draw them nearer. He asked that error be fought but begged that the wayward be saved.
From this concern springs the joy of evangelization, taught by Paul VI. We recognize it as being present in this Year of the Faith, which places everyone — and at what a level, the Christians of the East — on the often narrow paths — though Gospel paths and thus secure — of the New Evangelization. Bl. John Paul II breathed this air as a young bishop at the Council. We find proof of this in the Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen, as well as in the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint. Furthermore, together with Patriarch Teoctist in Bucharest he heard and never forgot the cry of the entire Romanian people: Unitate! Unitate! [Unity! Unity!].
Pope Benedict XVI fully shared this yearning for unity: his admonition to our Congregation, when he visited it, remains unforgettable when he reaffirmed beyond a doubt that "the commitment of the Catholic Church to the search for Christian unity is irreversible" and that the traditions of the Christian East are the patrimony of the entire Church, including the Latin Rite Church, and an indispensable reference point for the future.
We may thus conclude with Pope Francis' recommendation to all Oriental faithful — Catholic and Orthodox — in the message of unity which he delivered on Good Friday at the Colosseum: "Christians must respond to evil with good, taking the Cross upon themselves as Jesus did. This evening we have heard the witness given by our Lebanese brothers and sisters... we saw the beauty and the strong bond of communion joining Christians together in that land and the friendship of our Muslim brothers and sisters and so many others... It was a sign of hope. We now continue this Via Crucis in our daily lives. Let us walk together along the Way of the Cross carrying in our hearts this Word of love and forgiveness. Let us go forward waiting for the Resurrection of Jesus, who loves us so much. He is all love!". The Cross brings us all together!
Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches at a conference for the Year of Faith at the Pontifical Romanian College, Rome, on 18 April