Dialogue With Ancient Churches of the East

Author: Fr Johan Bonny


Fr Johan Bonny, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Progress in overcoming old divisions

The origins of the "Ancient Churches of the East" date back to the first period of evangelization. Immediately after Pentecost, some Apostles and disciples set out for all the regions of the Middle East. Extensive evangelization took place around the Holy Land: in Egypt, Syria and Babylonian territory. The patriarchal sees of Alexandria and Antioch became centres of a strong and flourishing Christianity at the intellectual, catechetical and spiritual level. The names of the Apostles St Mark and St Thomas are still linked to the origins and history of these local Churches. Unfortunately, at the time of the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), a series of doctrinal and political problems caused deep rifts between these Eastern Churches and the other Churches located basically in the Roman Empire.

The first problem to resolve, within the framework of the ecumenical rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the various Ancient Churches of the East, was of a doctrinal and, more specifically, Christological nature. What terminology should we use to express our common faith in the Incarnation, the Word of God made man in Jesus Christ? How can we express together that Jesus Christ is fully Son of God and fully Son of man? The first fruit of the ecumenical dialogue was thus the signing of a Christological declaration between the Catholic Church and the majority of the Ancient Churches of the East. After crossing the first Christological threshold, it has been possible to address other subjects of common interest. We limit ourselves in this article to a few contemporary events in the ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and some of the Ancient Churches of the East.

Several gatherings and assemblies, already part of our common agenda, were also held in 1999. Thus the Holy Father received a number of individuals or groups in audience: for example, H.B. Mesrob II, Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, a large delegation from the Ethiopian Orthodox community of Italy and a Syrian Orthodox delegation from Aleppo.

The Armenian Apostolic Church

Contacts between the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church were particularly frequent and intense in 1999. From 23 to 26 March, His Holiness Karekin I, Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, visited the Vatican for the opening of an exhibition of Armenian history and art. This exhibition was organized for the celebrations for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and the 17th centenary of the Christianization of Armenia. The exhibition opened on 24 March in the Sala Regia of the Apostolic Palace and was presided over by Pope John Paul II, Catholicos Karekin I and President Robert Kocharian of Armenia. The following day, Catholicos Karekin I and his delegation were received in audience by Pope John Paul II. They had a very cordial fraternal meeting, an expression of the profound spiritual communion between the two Church leaders. During the visit of His Holiness Karekin I, Pope John Paul II was invited to come to Armenia and to visit the Armenian Apostolic Church in the near future. Addressing His Holiness Karekin I, the Holy Father accepted this invitation with joy and hope: "Your Holiness, I am delighted by your invitation to come to Armenia, which has also been extended to me by the President of the Republic, and I thank you for letting me know of your wish to receive me as a guest at your Patriarchate of Echmiadzin, to reinforce our ties and to strengthen unity among Christians. I pray the Lord that he will enable me to make this visit".

Following this warm invitation, a pastoral visit was planned for 2-4 July. This visit was to have included, among other events, a prayer service in the cathedral of Yerevan, an ecumenical liturgy at Echmiadzin, a prayer service in memory of the earthquake victims in the cathedral of Gyumri and a Eucharistic celebration at Redemptoris Mater Hospital in Ashotsk. Unfortunately, the pastoral visit did not take place because of the rapidly deteriorating health of Catholicos Karekin I. A fraternal visit by the Holy Father to the Catholicos, who was already seriously ill, was planned for 18 June. The Holy Father would have spent a day there on the way back from his pastoral visit to the Church in Poland. This plan was also canceled, this time because of His Holiness Pope John Paul II's health. Desiring nevertheless to show Catholicos Karekin I his human and spiritual affection, the Holy Father asked Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy to go to Echmiadzin to bring a personal letter from him to the Catholicos. Cardinal Cassidy's trip to Armenia was scheduled for 2 July, but Catholicos Karekin I died a few days before on 29 June.

The funeral of His Holiness Karekin I was held in Echmiadzin on 8 July. When he went to pay his respects to the late Catholicos Karekin I in the cathedral of Echmiadzin, Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy was able to touch the Catholicos' pontifical robes with the letter that Pope John Paul II had intended to send him a few days before.

His Holiness Karekin II Nersessian was elected on 27 October as the 132nd Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians. He was consecrated and solemnly enthroned in Echmiadzin on 4 November. Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy attended as head of the Holy See's delegation. In his message he assured the Catholicos of the prayers and best wishes of Pope John Paul II. At an audience granted to the Holy See's delegation, His Holiness Karekin II was eager to express his intention of continuing his predecessor's ecumenical efforts, especially with the Catholic Church. In view of this ecumenical commitment, His Holiness Karekin II has just established a new office in the Catholicosate of Echmiadzin for promoting Christian unity.

The Malankara Orthodox Church

In his Apostolic Letter Tertio millennio adveniente, Pope John Paul It wrote: "The approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives, so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium" (n. 34). An examination of conscience and fitting ecumenical initiatives: this is what the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity seeks to encourage in the many exchanges between the Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the East. The dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Malankara Orthodox Church occurs within this framework.

On the occasion of the fourth centenary of the Synod of Diamper, the Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Malankara Orthodox Church prepared a common statement on this disputed event. The Synod of Diamper (1599) was the root of a tragic split within the St Thomas Church in Kerala. Instead of being an instrument of communion, this Synod was the beginning of a deep division. The one Christianity of St Thomas was divided into two factions: one in communion with the See of Rome, the other in communion with the See of Antioch. After devoting several sessions to studying the context, the course and the effects of this Synod, the Joint Commission was finally able to prepare an initial common statement. In the context of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, this statement is meant to contribute to "a healing of memories" on both sides. Among other things the declaration states: "Despite certain positive aspects great damage was done to the ecclesial heritage of this local Church by the Synod [of Diamper]. The saddest consequence of the Synod was the loss of freedom and the division of the one apostolic ancient Church in India into two, one section which later came to be known as the Syro-Malabar Church and the other one as the Malankara Orthodox Church. This also led to further divisions and all sections of the St Thomas Christians are suffering from it. This common reading of such a critical historical event in the life of St Thomas Christians takes us a long way in our search for reconciliation and rediscovery of the identity of the Churches of St Thomas tradition. We are happy that some efforts have been initiated towards this. The setting up of this Joint Commission for Dialogue is one. We have already studied and drawn up an agreed statement on Christology; details of an interim agreement on inter-church marriage are being pursued; steps have been taken for a more effective common witness, to mention only a few. So we look forward to the future with hope, assured of the desire of our faithful".

The Assyrian Church of the East

The Mixed Committee for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East has continued its research on sacramental life. Dating back to the first centuries of evangelization in the East, the Assyrian Church has faithfully preserved its own ritual and sacramental identity. This particular identity is part of the one treasure of the universal Church. The Theological Committee's objective is to study the distinctive features and complementarity of the different Assyrian and Catholic traditions in the area of sacramental life. The Committee hopes soon to complete a common document on this subject. The second phase of bilateral dialogue could thus be brought to a successful conclusion. We should also note that the Assyrian Church followed with great interest and hope the preparations for John Paul's image to the "the lands traveled by Abraham", especially in Iraq. She was sorry to learn that the Pope's pilgrimage could not take place, but hoped his visit to the Holy Land would open new horizons for all the Churches and Christian communities in the Middle East.

Lastly, we should note that all the Ancient Churches of the East were represented at the liturgy for the opening of the Holy Door in the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls on 18 January last, at which Pope John Paul II presided. They wanted to cross the threshold of the Great Jubilee with the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II. All this bodes well for the future of the Church, the one Body of Jesus Christ and the one Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 July 2000, page 6

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