Archbishop Pat Kelly on the Mid-East Synod

Among the editor of America Drew Christiansen SJ's distinguished contributions to the public life of the Church was to help create, back in the 1990s, the International Co-ordination of the Roman Catholic Church for the Holy Land. The longstanding representative on it of the bishops' conference of England and Wales, the Archbishop of Liverpool, Pat Kelly, has been the Coordination's delegate at the Mid-East Synod in Rome, which concludes tomorrow.

Before leaving Rome I caught up with Archbishop Kelly at the English College to ask him about some of the issues the Synod has raised. But first, I asked him to explain the Coordination and its objectives.


Abp Kelly: The Coordination was set up as a way of offering support for the Churches in the Holy Land and the original invitation was to the presidents of the bishops’ conferences whose countries had had some role in bringing about the present political reality that is the Holy Land. So the major focus was the US and various European countries. Nowadays we have representatives from the bishops’ conferences of the United States, Canada, England and Wales, Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland – as well as the bishop of Andorra.

So the idea is to coordinate the support which the Church in those countries gives or should give to the Holy Land, and to speak with one voice on the issues which affect the area?

What was clear from the beginning was that it was above all to offer support for the Churches, never to be silent in the face of injustices or violence or wrong, but also determined to help those who seek to reconcile. So it was quite a narrow perspective, and that explains why, while we very rightly seek to have conversations with political leaders, we are not a campaigning group, and we always check out with the Church in the Holy Land before we do or say anything, to ask them: will this really help you in your mission as you understand it?

In our visits we’ve had different emphases – focussing on Galilee, say; or Jordan, one year, and another year, Gaza. But we always include Jerusalem, for obvious reasons. We’re able, when we get home, to have an opportunity to speak to the Israeli ambassador in our countries, or talk to politicians. But we don’t aim to be a campaigning group. I think there have been three things coming out of the visits for all the countries involved: prayer for the Church in the Holy Land; pilgrimages – which make a huge difference, and I think England’s record is one we can proud of – and financial support. We tend to use the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre to help us discern where the funds can best be spent. Education used to be important, for example, but now land and property have become more so.

So, for example, the Patriarch of Jerusalem is buying up houses in central Bethlehem?

That’s right, that’s the kind of thing.

The Holy Land includes Israel, Palestine and Jordan. It’s a small area compared to the Middle East in general, and hasn’t figured very much at this Synod. It’s made me realise that it’s part of a much bigger Middle East reality.

In both directions. I think hardly any of the countries whose bishops were involved in the Synod are not in some way touched by the factors in the Holy Land, or whose political leaders are not capable of influencing the situation in some way. You can almost put it as sharply as this: if we accomplish that justice which brings about a secure peace in Jerusalem the other problems go away. It is the key question.

What has struck you about the Synod?

Above all, the vastness of the canvas, including the very different dimension of the Gulf states, where you’ve got immigration from the Latin part of the Church, with all their needs. The other thing that has struck me has been the theme of emigration, which has been a constant theme. And it’s a very difficult one. There is something very specific about the nature of interreligious dialogue in the Middle East, and Christian-Jewish dialogue in the Holy Land. It’s not like Christian-Jewish dialogue in the US, or Muslim-Christian dialogue in, say, England. In both situations - -Holy Land and other areas – the Christians are a very small minority, there is an element of something very theocratic in many of those states which changes the nature of the conversation. And you are touching, in the land, in the physicality of the land, questions which are part of the dialogue; whereas in parts of England the dialogue about Islam in, say, Bradford [in northern England], would never touch upon the status of Temple Mount. But to try and avoid that in the Middle East would be just running away.

And similarly with the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the Holy Land. You cannot but touch on the reality of the state of Israel, settlements and so on, and the complexity of their democracy, in which the present government relies on theocratic-minded parties, which are part of a liberal, democratically-elected government, such that policies can be driven by those parties – which means the dialogue is different. But in the measure that the dialogue is very specific to those lands, by that very token it has more to offer to the more general dialogues happening thousands of miles away.

Talking of theocracy, it’s surprising, isn’t it, to find the Synod calling on the Church to advocate what it’s calling positive secularity, or positive laicité ...

It’s very hard to find the right term.

The language lags behind the idea, doesn’t it? We all know what we’re talking about...

Yes, some synod fathers don’t like some terms because of their connotations, and yet to find alternatives ...

They came up with ‘civic state’ which doesn’t mean anything in English.

The other day we had a discussion about mission. I learned there were two different words in Arabic for 'mission', one of which sounds like proselytism and the other of which has a quite different meaning. So are we talking about the same reality?

Has the subject of positive laicité come up in the working circles?

It didn’t come up in mine, but it seems to me that what was discussed at the Council of Chalcedon, the relationship of the human to the divine, is what we’re talking about in this question. That distinction is absolutely undrawable: you can’t draw what’s separate but which is also mixed up.

Meaning, you can accept that there are two separate spheres, the civic and the religious, but you can’t fix the border between them. 

Exactly. I suspect there’s material for what we’re struggling with in Synod in Pope Benedict’s address in Westminster Hall. I wonder, was it in a sense significant that at the end of his speech he bowed to his audience? It was a gracious way of expressing, as a spiritual leader, the solidity of the political order, acknowledging its due autonomy, or proper sovereignty, but at the same time showing that you can’t divide them. 

And here we are at Synod, soon after Westminster Hall, where the Church is now advocating that, while you can’t divide them, they should nonetheless be separate.

It seems to me you have, for example, the situation in Iran – is the secular really secure? – but you’ve also got the complexity of some of the Eastern churches with a very strong racial, or political, story. You can’t say that it’s just the Muslim world where there’s that lack of autonomy of the secular. You can see even in some of the titles of the Eastern churches, which betray that relationship to the state – Chaldean, Armenian, and so on. So I think they’re wrestling with this as well.

One of the key objectives of the Synod has been deepening communion. Has that been happening?

It's been a very good atmosphere. I get the sense that the Synod is helping relationships between the sui iuris churches themselves, in a good sense it’s a Petrine ministry, where you see the See of Peter enabling a strengthening of communion within the total Catholic family – not comfortable, not easy, because we’ve seen it in our own countries, talking about an agreed text for the Lord’s Prayer, and you’re back in the language question.

What comes home to me is the in the whole of that area, the territorial divisions are really the legacy of politics and history. I was privileged once to visit a leprosy in Tabrisi in Iran run by the Daughters of Charity. I asked Sor Josefina where the patients came from, and she said: oh, they come from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She said as in London you might have said, “Chelsea, Hammersmith, Hampstead” - -she was using words to describe where people live, not countries.

There have been calls for the patriarchs to have more authority over their diaspora communities abroad, and also to have a vote in the conclave. Do you think those are left-field suggestions?

I don’t fully understand the first one. I’m sure there are issues of jurisdiction here, but there is a problem when you have different layers of authority in a particular area; nothing should be done to diminish the strength of communion, especially in our disintegrated world. It shouldn’t be the Church that contributes to that - -so if there are pastoral needs which need new bodies, that’s fine, but do we at this moment in a very divisive time need to lose the slightest elements of communion?

What about patriarchs voting at conclave?

I’m not sure. I’m not sure what it might mean.

Let’s go to the key question of the Holy Land – emigration raising the spectre of a diminished Christian presence. Apart from arguing for positive laicite, what practically can be done – more pilgrimages?

Pilgrimages are very important because they provide trade and employment, and there’s also that feeling that pilgrims indicate to people in power: these people have friends elsewhere. It takes me back to once in Latin America, the time of  the tenth anniversary of the murder of Oscar Romero, and the papal nuncio said to the bishops there that they must make sure they are photographed as often as possible, to make it clear that should that story be repeated, other countries are going to start shouting. It’s that world solidarity – you stand alongside people against injustice, wherever it comes from.

Would you like to see European bishops and their parishes going to the Holy Land with the kind of systematic regularity with which, say, they go to Lourdes?

I would, yes. That's what we're trying to get to. Of course, it’s a lot further and more expensive, and you have to be honest with people and say we can’t be wholly sure of what we’re able to visit until we get there. As long as we’re truthful with people. Many parishes are now twinned with parishes there and good, solid Catholics of everyday who feel very blessed by what they receive from the Holy Land.

It's obviously important for Catholics in Europe to see the realities facing Christians and other Palestinians. But what do you then do with the indignation of pilgrims who see the Israeli checkpoints and the land being taken away, and they say: why aren’t you speaking out about this more?

I always say that the voice of a layperson can be more powerful than that of a cleric. They are voters, and they can write to their MP and say, ‘I’ve seen this, please tell me what issues you’re raising with the Foreign Office about this’. You encourage people to be upfront about what they’ve seen and to share it. I think there’s a slow drip-drip effect of that.

And of course things needn't always get worse ...

Whenever I’m there I always try to cast my mind back to when the Berlin Wall came down. I’m fairly confident that even three days before we didn’t know it was going to come down. All of a sudden, it was gone. There are so many similarities between the Holy Land and Northern Ireland. I’ve now got to pinch myself when I travel with my cousins and they ask where the border is, and I say, “it’s somewhere around here”. When I was a child in Donegal, you would have known exactly where it was, and what there is now would have been inconceivable. Other walls have come down, but always through dialogue. And by people caring, and paying attention. That’s why the visits are so important.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 3 months ago
Thank you, Austen Ivereigh, for writing out and publishing this very interesting interview with Bishop Pat Kelly. Both in your earlier writings and elsewhere I have seen a call to pilgrims to visit the Holy Land. "Pilgrimages are very important because they provide trade and employment, and there’s also that feeling that pilgrims indicate to people in power: these people have friends elsewhere."
Here's the problem I have; always having wanted to visit the Holy Land, I feel myself reluctant to support Israel economically by doing so. Why? Because of the obvious intransigent Israeli stance and ill-treatment  towards the Palestinian people. In fact, I even get angry when I see organized tours to Israel formed for professional people in, say, medicine where I suspect these tours are, "written off" of taxes as so-called professional continuing education. Some of the money no doubt trickles down to the poor Arabs, but why should 'pilgrims' monetarily support injustice in order to encourage justice? I would welcome any insights or corrections regarding my view.
Austen Ivereigh
8 years 3 months ago
John, you can stay in areas which directly benefit the Palestinians. Base yourself in Bethlehem, for example, and visit Jerusalem from there. There are pilgrimages which do this. In the UK, Fifth Gospel Retreats has a terrific itinerary which, while never excluding Israel, allows pilgrims to get to know the Arab Christian Church. See Lots of Americans have been with Della.


The latest from america

In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019
Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019