Historic Middle East Congress Looks to Future

Fr. Drew Christiansen

BEIRUT, May 21, 1999. Special to CNS. The First Congress of Patriarchs and Bishops of the East ended with the celebration of a solemn Byzantine-rite Mass yesterday at the richly mosaicked Basilica of Saint Paul in Harissa. Ninety-two year-old Maximos V Hakim, patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, presided in the company of the patriarchs of five other oriental Catholic churches and the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem.

In his homily, Sephanos II Ghattas, patriarch of the Catholic Copts, declared the Congress a "truly historical event" for the Middle East and "a new Pentecost at the threshold of the third millennium." He noted that the goal of the meeting had been "to learn how to deepen the communion between our Churches while preserving the proper identity of each, to treat shared problems and to coordinate common pastoral activities."

Patriarch Stephanos took special note of the solidarity of the bishops with the small Churches of North Africa and of the Churches' option for the poor and the marginalized. He also took note of the concern of the bishops for ecumenical relations with the Orthodox, a special concern of the Churches in this region, and for dialogue with Muslims.

Stephanos the bishops had debated "the need to guarantee the conditions for peaceable co-existence" with Muslims, "in the conviction that interreligious dialogue is neither a tactic nor a simple, passing courtesy, but an integral part of the very nature of the Christian and of the evangelical mission of the Church."

Among the concelebrants was Newark's Roman Catholic archbishop, Theodore E. McCarrick. "The Congress has been an historic moment for the Church," he said, noting that it was the first time since the second Council of Constantinople (553 A.D.) that the bishops of the region had come together. "We talk about 'affective and effective collegiality.'" he observed. "This has been an exercise in both."

Responding to skeptics, who question whether the dwindling and long divided Churches of the Middle East could come together, he said, "Something has been set in motion. This is not just a exericse in dialogue."

From the beginning, in general sessions, work groups and in private conversations, bishops professed their hope that the Congress would produce concrete results. "The faithful," one said, "expect practical initiatives from us." Several bishops also commented that the Congress was true beginning of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council in the beleaguered, tradition-minded Eastern Churches.

Lending support to this practical purpose, the first document the Congress voted to approve was a proposal for a "comite de suivi" or commission on implemetation.

While the bishops approved eighty-four individual proposals for consideration by the Council of Patriarchs, the final results of the Congress must await the publication of a pastoral letter by the Council.

In this and other respects, the Congress was structured on the model of the Roman synods. Interestingly, it will be the Council of Patriarchs, rather than the Pope, whose pastoral letter will conclude the proceedings of the Congress.

While the heads of several Vatican dicasteries assisted at the Congress, including Jan Cardinal Schotte, Secretary General of the Synod, Vatican officials were quite discreet in their comments. The Congress seemed to be left wide latitude to conduct its own affairs. Even the usually unrestrained Schotte assumed a low-profile throughout.

The relative independence of the Congress may possibly be explained by the role of the eastern Churches as links between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Churches. Commenting in a letter to the Congress on his hopes for dialogue with the Orthodox world, Pope John Paul II recalled his invitation in the encyclical Ut unum sint "for church leaders and theologians to search with him for adaptations"--of church organization and procedure--"so that the Petrine ministry may be able to achieve a service of charity acknowledged by all."

In the Congress's Final Communique, the members identified three types of challenges facing the churches of the region. First, they cited the test of living in fidelity to the gospel in the wake of the globalization of material culture.

"We should not lose our role and our vocation to be leaven in the world," they said. They immediately add, however, "This in no way signifies a rejection of moderity, of which we retain all the positive aspects, especilly the development of our societies and the organization of our works."

The second challenge, they noted, is to avoid self-isolation of their distinct traditions. "While their rich traditions incarnate the gospel in distinct ways," they observed, "their legitimate diversity should in no way legitimate living in isolation from one another." If that were to happen, they said, "we would lose our identity as church which is, in reality, sharing and communion."

The third challenge came from worries about the future of the Church in the Middle East. Among the causes for anxiety, they cited "stalled peace processes, diminished democratic practices or the fear for liberty, human rights and dignity." These problems, they contended, are at the root of Christian emigration from the region described by the patriarchs as "a hemorhage menacing our communities and their future and exposing them to dissolution and disappearance."

Among the directions the Final Communique signals for the future are: intensified cooperation among the commissions of the several churches; setting a common date (with the Orthodox) for the celebration of Easter, a practice already found in Jordan and the West Bank; within the context of Muslim-Christian dialogue, to work for societies where "Christians are an integral part of the national community (with Muslims), equal in rights and obligations"; a recommendation that the well-to-do invest in development for the poor, and a reminder to employers to respect the rights of migrant workers, particularly domestic help.

With respect to issues of peace, the Congress said, "War, violence and conflict exhuast our strength and our resources that we ought to put to the service of our people. They destroy the human person and ruin the future."

The Congress called for "a global and just peace" for the region which would address the multiple dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause, as well as Israeli occupation of the Golan and South Lebanon. The Congress also called on the United Nations to lift the embargo against Iraq for which, they said, "the civilian population, women, children, the old, the ill and the poor pay a very high price."

Expressing its gratitude for the hospitality shown by civil and religious authorities in Lebanon, the Congress called for "liberation of its occupied soil, so that the counrty may be permitted to recoup its liberty, sovereignty and full independence."

Commenting on the key role played by the Lebanese and especially the Maronite Church, in hosting the meeting, Archbishop McCarrick, who heads the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Policy, commented, "The Congress shows the importance of the Church in an independent Lebanon for the survival of Christianity in the region. Without the resources of the Lebanese church, without its personnel and organizations, the Congress would not have taken place."

The archbishop added that U.S. policymakers do not appreciate the importance of national pact between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, the continuing potential of Christians for the evolution of the region, and the indispensible role of the Lebanese Church in strengthening the other Churches in the Middle East.

In addition to Patriarch Hakim and Patriarch Ghattas, the patriarchs presiding over the Congress were, Cardinal Nasrallah-Pierre Sfeir of the Maronites, Mar Moussa I Daoud for the Syrian Catholics, Mar Rahphael I Bidawid for the Chaldeans, Jean-Pierre XVIII Kasparian for the Armenians and Michel Sabbah, patriarch of Jerusalem for the Latins (Roman Catholics).