Dialogue With Ancient Churches of the East

Author: Fr Johan Bonny


Fr Johan Bonny, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

The Spirit is always capable of new surprises

Ecumenical Celebration of 18 January 2000

At the dawn of the Year 2000, the Ancient Churches of the East wished to take part in the opening of the Holy Door at the Basilica of St Paul-Outside-the-Walls and in the Ecumenical Prayer Service on 18 January.

Pope John Paul II had the joy of welcoming delegations from the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, the Armenian Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin, the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia and the Assyrian Church of the East. On the threshold of the basilica, Pope John Paul II received the Gospel book from an Orthodox deacon and showed it to those present, while the choir sang: "Christus heri et hodie, Finis et Principium, Christus Alpha et Omega, Ipsi gloria in saecula!". Three representatives of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities then approached the threshold of the basilica and repeated the Holy Father's act, displaying the Gospel book to the four points of the compass, while the choir continued singing: "Christus heri et hodie". Metropolitan Amba Bishoi of Damietta, Egypt, representing Pope Shenouda III, made this gesture in the name of the oldest Eastern Churches. What an eloquent and prophetic sign of spiritual communion! The Christian East and West, united in a common proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ, were also united in a shared enthusiasm for evangelization. The liturgy of 18 January 2000 hallowed several decades of fraternal rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the East, while opening new ecumenical prospects for the third millennium.

Jubilee pilgrimage to Egypt and Mount Sinai

As he had announced in his Apostolic Letter on Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation, Pope John Paul II hoped to follow "the traces of the history of salvation in the land in which it took place".

Since it proved impossible for various political reasons to go to Ur (Iraq) in the footsteps of Abraham, the Holy Father wanted to participate, as the first act of his Jubilee pilgrimage, in a commemoration of Abraham "Our Father in Faith". This commemoration took place on Wednesday, 23 February 2000, after the General Audience in St Peter's Square. Assyrian Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of Western California (USA), accompanied by several priests and seminarians, represented the Assyrian Church of the East.

The day after this celebration of Abraham "Our Father in Faith", John Paul II left for Egypt. On the first day of his journey, Thursday, 24 February, he called on Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, at his residence in Cairo's Amba Roueiss neighbourhood. On Friday, 25 February, Pope John Paul II took part in a Liturgy of the Word celebrated at the new Our Lady of Egypt Cathedral in Cairo, together with Pope Shenouda III and the heads of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. Crowds of the faithful of other Christian communities filled the cathedral's nave.

Paying homage to Pope John Paul II, Pope Shenouda III said, among other things: "Thank you, Your Holiness, for coming to Egypt. We would like you to have time to visit all the holy places in our country and all the great historical monuments of the great civilization of Egypt, our country, visited by Abraham, the grandfather of the fathers, by Jacob, by Joseph, by the 12 tribes, and lastly, crowning everything, by Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Joseph. We love our country and we love you, Your Holiness. We pray that we may beone in Christ and pray at one altar to obtain unity, unity of faith".

In his homily, Pope John Paul II referred to the process of ecumenical reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches in these words: "Now, in the course of the 20th century, the Holy Spirit has brought the Christian Churches and communities closer together in a movement of reconciliation. I recall with gratitude the meeting between Pope Paul VI and His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in 1973 and the Common Christological Declaration which they signed on that occasion. I give thanks for all those who contributed to that important achievement, especially the Pro Oriente Foundation in Vienna, and the International joint Commission between the Roman Catholic and the Coptic Orthodox Church. Please God, this International Joint Commission, and the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialoguebetween the Roman Catholic Church and theOrthodox Church willsoon function normally once more, especially in view of certain fundamental ecclesiological questions needing clarification".

On Saturday, 26 February, Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, Egypt. He was warmly welcomed there by Metropolitan Damianos, Archbishop of Sinai and Hegumen of St Catherine's Monastery. After a private visit to the monastery, the Pope met numerous pilgrims for a Liturgy of the Word in the Garden of Olives.

In his homily the Holy Father recalled the ecumenical vocation of that place and its monastic community: "I pray that in the new millennium the Monastery of St Catherine will be a radiant beacon calling the Churches to know one another better and to rediscover the importance in the eyes of God of the things that unite us in Christ".

The Malankara Orthodox Church

The Joint Commission for Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church met from 26 to 30 September 2000 in Kottayam, Kerala, India. As usual, the local subcommissions presented preliminary texts on three principal themes: ecclesiology, history and common witness. With regard to ecclesiology, the documents discussed treated of the Church's unity as expressed in the Syrian liturgical tradition. The liturgical sources of the Syrian tradition actually include many implicit and explicit references to the Church and her unity. With regard to history, the various approaches and local presentations of the historic momentof the Coonen Cross Oath (1653) were addressed. As became clear from the discussion, the historical sources concerning this period, preserved for the most part in the archives of Catholic institutions or congregations, have not yet received a common interpretation from the Churches involved. Lastly, in the area of common witness, a new pastoral project was drafted regarding mixed marriages. The project was then submitted for approval to the competent authorities of the Churches involved. The Joint Commission hopes that it has helped the local Churches to resolve a pastoral question which is a growing concern.

The Assyrian Church of the East

The sixth annual meeting of the Joint Committee for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East took place from 12 to 14 October 2000 in Arezzo, Italy, thanks to the hospitality of Bishop Gualtiero Bassetti of Arezzo-Cortona-Sansepolcro.

As the first item on the agenda, the members of the Joint Commission completed the final text of a "Common Document on the Sacramental Life". The Joint Committee thus ended the second phase of its activity, which had begun in 1995 after the signing of the "Common Christological Declaration" in 1994 by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV. As planned, the third phase of this dialogue concerns the constitution of the Church. As an introduction to this third phase, two documents have been prepared and discussed: one on the concept of "communion" from a biblical perspective, and the other on the Council of Florence and its ecumenical significance.

Lastly, to clarify certain doctrinal questions related to the first Ecumenical Councils, the Joint Committee also discussed the controversy of the "Three Chapters" and its connection with the condemnation of Nestorius.

Also worthy of mention is the fact that the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East decided to celebrate the Jubilee of the Year 2000 together from 23 to 31 October 2000 in Iraq. During those days Patriarch Mar Raphael Bidawid and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV participated together in many liturgical celebrations or fraternal meetings. On 25 October the two Patriarchs, with the Bishops and faithful who had accompanied them, visited Rabban Hormiz Monastery near Alqosh, where the Patriarchs of the Church of the East had their residence for several centuries and where their tombs are preserved. Meeting in the historical cradle of their particular Church and commemorating together their Pastors and predecessors in the Christian faith was a highly symbolic and moving experience for all the participants.

The Armenian Apostolic Church.

The visit that His Holinesss Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, paid to the Church of Rome and to Pope John Paul II on 9-10 November 2000 was considered an important event of the Jubilee Year in Rome. The delegation accompanying the Catholicos consisted of 15 Armenian Bishops and Archbishops and the Minister for Religious Affairs of the Armenian Republic. On Thursday afternoon, 9 November, Pope John Paul II received Catholicos Karekin II, accompanied by his entourage. At the end of this audience the two Church leaders signed a Joint Communiqué in which they declared: "We now look to the future, With hope and confidence. At this juncture in history, we see new horizons for us Christians and for the world. Both in the East and in the West, after having experienced the deadly consequences of godless regimes and lifestyles, many people are yearning for the knowledge of truth and the way of salvation. Together, guided by charity and respect for freedom, we seek to answer their desire, so as to bring them to the sources of authentic life and true happiness".

On Friday morning, 10 November, during an Ecumenical Celebration held in St Peter's Basilica at which Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II presided, a relic of St Gregory the Illuminator was presented to the Armenian Church. The relic, which had been kept in the Convent of St Gregory the Armenian in Naples, was intended for the new cathedral in Yerevan, which will be particularly dedicated to St Gregory. The consecration of this new shrine is scheduled for 21 September 2001, as the culmination of the celebrations for the 1,700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as the State religion in Armenia.

In his homily, Catholicos Karekin II expressed the following wish to the Pope: "Last year our people prepared with great enthusiasm and affection to welcome Your Holiness to our homeland of Armenia, where freedom is now being pursued under the gaze of Mt Ararat. Alas, the health of the blessed Catholicos Karekin I reached a crisis, and your visit could not go forward at that time. But our hope to play host to Your Holiness remains strong, and our people look forward to celebrating the 1,700th Jubilee of the Armenian Apostolic Church in your comforting presence".


In his Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte, Pope John Paul II wrote: "The ecumenical journey is certainly still difficult, and will perhaps be long, but we are encouraged by the hope that comes from being led by the presence of the Risen One and the inexhaustible power of his Spirit, always capable of new surprises" (n. 12), The Jubilee Year was indeed marked by several surprises in the relations between the Catholic Church and the Ancient Churches of the East,  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 February 2001, page 10

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