Report on Catholic-Eastern Churches Relations
Mons. Johan Bonny
Need for unity of faith, sacraments, ministry
We have recently celebrated the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ "in Bethlehem of Judea" (Mt 2:1). The geographical location of the narrative of Jesus' childhood extends far beyond the little town of Bethlehem.
Indeed, some "wise men" came "from the East" (Mt 2:1) after Jesus' birth to see and adore him, bearing their gifts. Then, since Jesus was in danger, Joseph "rose and took the Child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt" (Mt 2:14).
Bethlehem, a small village halfway between the Mesopotamia of the Magi who were searching for the Messiah and the Egypt of the flight of the Holy Family from Herod: such is the topography of the Ancient Churches of the East, which are located in an area that still stretches from the Valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Banks of the Nile.
In 2004, what ecumenical activity took place or resulted from missionary action involving these original Churches in Christianity's "birthplace"?
The Oriental Orthodox Churches
The first meeting of the new International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place from 26-31 January 2004. This is an official Commission established in January 2003 at the joint initiative of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Authorities of the Oriental Orthodox Churches (the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church represented by the Catholicosate of all Armenians of Etchmiadzin and the Catholicosate of Cilicia, the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, the Orthodox Church of Eritrea and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church). The Commission must hold meetings once a year.
The Delegation of the Oriental Orthodox Churches has 14 members, two for each of the
Churches represented, and as many Catholic members, Bishops and theologians who belong to the Latin tradition and various Oriental Catholic traditions.
The meeting in Cairo was co-chaired by Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the Metropolitan Anba Bishoy, Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
This first meeting had a double purpose: to review the results of the previous theological dialogues and official meetings between the Catholic Church and some of the Oriental Orthodox Churches; and to establish a more precise and exhaustive programme for dialogue for subsequent meetings.
If it is to be complete, the unity of the Church must be achieved at three levels: unity of faith, unity in the celebration of the sacraments and unity in the apostolic ministry.
With regard to these three goals, substantial progress has been made since the Second Vatican Council, if in varying degrees, in relations between the Catholic Church and some of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The dialogue already has at its disposal a considerable number of studies, points of convergence as well as official agreements, the result of almost 40 years of research and ecumenical conversations.
In the context of the doctrine of the faith, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II were able to sign Christological Declarations with the Patriarchs or Authorities of almost all the Oriental Orthodox Churches.1 Although these Declarations did not resolve all the theological questions discussed by the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, they did at least put an end to the most ancient and profound Christological dispute between them concerning the comprehension of the mystery of Christ, perfectly the Son of God and perfectly the Son of man.
The Cairo meeting noted possible improvements to be made to the Christological Declarations in both their form and their content. Bearing in mind, however, the official and definitive character of these documents, the Commission preferred to give priority to the study of other issues relating to the theology of the sacraments and ecclesiology.
With regard to the sacraments, the theological dialogue with several Oriental Orthodox Churches has also led to some important results. Even if a certain number of theological questions still require deeper examination, the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches are currently striving for the mutual recognition of their sacraments as they are celebrated in their various traditions.
It should also be said that at the outset the division between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches had virtually nothing to do with matters concerning the celebration of the sacraments.
Furthermore, ecumenical dialogue has permitted the competent authorities of the Catholic Church and several of the Oriental Orthodox Churches to sign pastoral agreements on the celebration of the sacraments; the latter enable the faithful of each one of these Churches to have recourse to a minister of the other Church and to receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confession or the Anointing of the Sick when they have no access to an ordained minister of their own Church.2
With regard to ecclesiology, various dialogues between the Catholic Church and several of the Oriental Orthodox Churches have succeeded in opening important new perspectives.3
The ecclesiology of communion in particular, especially in the post-conciliar period of Vatican II, led to a new reflection on relations between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches on their mutual recognition as Sister Churches, on the real, if incomplete, communion that already unites them, and on their progress toward full unity.
Given the importance of a common ecclesiology for the continuation of ecumenical dialogue, the Cairo meeting decided to give priority to this theme for study and dialogue.
A subsequent meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome from 26 to 29 January 2005. The meeting was dedicated to treating the theme: "The Church as communion".
This topic was addressed from the biblical, theological and canonical view points. How should we conceive of the re-establishment of full communion between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches in the context of an ecclesiology of communion?
The Malankara Churches in Kerala
The two dialogues with the Malankara Churches have continued along their normal course. The Joint Commission for Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church met at Kottayam, Kerala, India, on 11 October 2004. The meeting above all considered the question of the Church as communion; two papers on this subject were presented and discussed, one Orthodox, the other Catholic.
Subsequently, the Joint Commission for Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church met, also at Kottayam, on 13 and 14 October 2004. Two themes were treated: the liturgical tradition of Kerala Christians until the 20th century, and the ways in which the Petrine Ministry was exercised in the first four centuries.
The two Joint Commissions also prepared several pastoral projects for "a common witness" involving the Christian communities in Kerala. The ecumenical initiatives include: a day of sharing and of prayer for men and women religious, a day of reflection for families; and a pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle St Thomas, venerated as the Founder of the Church in Kerala.
The Petrine Ministry was also the principal topic of the Seventh Consultation of the "Syriac Commission" of the Viennese "Pro Oriente" Foundation, held at Kunnunthanam, near Changanassery, India, from 4 to 7 October 2004. Representatives of all the Orthodox and Catholic Churches whose origins date back to the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch are members of this Commission.
The Seventh Consultation of the "Syriac Commission" treated the theme: "The primacy in the Syriac tradition — Historical research on the concept and exercise of the primacy in the Churches of Syriac tradition until the 16th century".
This Consultation shows the ecumenical interest aroused today, especially in academic circles, by the issue of the Petrine Ministry. It also shows how consultations can contribute to progressing from the non-official stage to official dialogue.
The Assyrian Church of the East
The annual meeting of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East was held in Chelsea, London, England, from 19 to 22 November 2004. The meeting addressed two main topics.
In the first place it treated the matter of the theological tradition proper to the Church of the East.
During the first centuries, several authors from the region of Mesopotamia made a great contribution, in their own way, to the development of Christian doctrine and the teaching of the Church. Their historical significance has been highlighted in many academic publications.
The Commission focused attention on the way in which the Oriental Church today reads and understands the ancient authors who have authority in her tradition.
The second topic addressed concerned the Church as communion.
On the Assyrian side, a document was presented on the various models of communion known in the tradition of the Oriental Church, from the apostolic age to the 16th century.
On the Catholic side, four papers were presented on the current teaching of the Catholic Church on the theme of the Church as communion.
The members of the Joint Commission were able to note how close to each other, from the ecclesiological standpoint, are the traditions of the Catholic Church and the Oriental Church.
History, moreover, offers a very interesting picture of relations as they existed and developed down the centuries between Rome and the Church in Mesopotamia. The study of these points of convergence will continue at the forthcoming meetings of the Commission.
On the occasion of the Chelsea meeting, several representatives of the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East — that is, the two particular Churches, the one Catholic and the other Orthodox, whose origins date back to the Ancient Church of Mesopotamia — have decided to do what is necessary to reactivate their Joint Commission for Unity. The task and the programme were included in a protocol signed in 1997 between the Patriarchs of these two particular Churches.
The reactivation of the Commission should assure among the local communities a better reception of the results of the international dialogue.
Many Christian communities live in the land where Jesus was born and where Christianity came into being, which extends from the Valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Banks of the Nile. What a price of hardship and suffering must these Christians pay as they strive to stay faithful to their Baptism? How many factors of division must they face every day in order to safeguard the unity of the Body of Christ?
Let us entrust to the Lord the Oriental Churches and Ecclesial Communities, and their journey towards full communion.
1 Cf. Common Declarations signed by Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III [Coptic Orthodox Church], 10 May 1973; by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Ignatius Jacoub III [Syrian Orthodox Church], 27 October 1971; by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Zakka Iwas [Syrian Orthodox Church], 23 June 1984; by Pope John Paul II and the Catholicos Karekin I [Armenian Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin], 13 December 1996; by Pope John Paul II and the Catholicos Aram I [the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia], 25 January 1997.
2 Cf. Common Declaration signed by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Zakka Iwas (Syrian Orthodox Church), 23 June 1984; cf. also the Common Accord on Pastoral Guidelines for Mixed Marriages, approved by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Zakka Iwas on 25 January 1994.
3 Cf. "Principles for Guiding the Search for Unity Between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Protocol Enclosed with the Principles". This document was drafted by the members of the Joint International Commission for Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church, dated 23 June 1979, and was approved by Pope John Paul II and Pope Shenouda III.
Weekly Edition in English
23 February 2005, page 10
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