[ROME] I arrived this morning to find the 185 Catholic bishops summoned by Pope Benedict to discuss the Middle East deep into their discussions. It's day three of the two-week Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, and they are beginning the discussion in small groups intended to flesh out the key themes identified in both the working document and the speeches so far.
The Synod's title, "The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness", contains two big-picture ideas.
The first focusses attention on the Catholic presence in the region which is -- in ecclesiological if not cultural terms -- astonishingly diverse. Ranged across 16 countries (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey and Yemen) are 5.7m Catholics belonging to, in addition to the Latin Church, six sui iuris -- that is, with their own laws and rites - Catholic Churches, each headed by its own Patriarch. Communion between the Coptic Church, the Syrian Church, the Greek- Melkite Church, the Maronite Church, the Chaldean Church and the Armenian Church -- and these, in turn, with the Latin or Roman Church -- is no small task, however much this diversity is and should be celebrated.
Given that this Synod is an extremely rare opportunity for the 123 bishops of the six Eastern-rite churches to meet together, let alone mingle with the other 45 Latin bishops and leaders of the other Eastern Catholic Churches -- the other churches, that is, in addition to the six sui iuris ones above, namely Ukranians, Ethiopians and so on -- it is hard to see why it is also the shortest Synod ever, lasting just 14 days.
"There's been just no time for talking," a US Maronite bishop complained to me today. "It's as if we've imported into the synod out society's obsession with productivity". The reason given for the synod's brevity -- "we do not want to keep the Shepherds from their flocks for too long", according to the Synod's Croatian secretary-general, Nikola Eterovic -- is a little hard to square with one of its principal objectives.
Building on unity is witness -- something even more important at a time when the Catholic population of the Middle East (5.7m out of 356m, or 1.6 per cent; Christians as a whole make up 20m or 5.6 per cent) is shrinking at a rate which calls into question the future existence of Christianity in the land of its birth. How can this many-layered, ancient, but fast-shrinking Church witness to the Gospel in a land dominated by Islam and Judaism? What is its place, culturally and politically, when it is being squeezed from all sides?
One big lesson I learned today: the large-scale Christian emigration from the region means that this Synod is not just about Catholic Christians in the Middle East but also about Middle East Catholics outside the Middle East present in expanding diaspora (the term some prefer here is "extension") populations especially in North America.
Hence the presence here of the heads of dioceses in US and Canada with large Middle East populations -- Archbishops Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Allen Vigneron of Detroit, and Thomas Collins of Toronto -- alongside the heads of Eastern churches of the diaspora in those same dioceses (the Maronite bishop of LA, the Chaldean bishop of Detroit, and so on). A press conference organised this afternoon by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) brought together a number of North-American bishops (of both Eastern and Latin Churches) attending the Synod, to consider some of the complexities of this; I'll come to their remarks in the next post. But this demographic shift also lies behind the speeches focussing on the restrictions of the exercise of the authority of the patriarchs over their flocks abroad -- which is in some cases where most of their flocks now are.
Here's my attempt at a sum-up of some of the big themes of the Synod which are likely to be discussed in the small groups which began today. I've gleaned them from the past three days of speeches, delivered in Arabic, French, English and Italian, which are available online at the Vatican site here and at Vatican Radio's here.
1. The call for a "positive secularism". The Church must argue for a healthy separation of religion and politics, building common cause with moderate Muslims and Jews against the theocratic tendencies of the Israeli state and radical Islam, in order to promote religious freedom and human rights. The Church must be the architect of religious freedom and human rights, not just in the interests of Catholics and other Christians but for the common good of all, argued the Egyptian Coptic Patriarch, Antonios Naguib, who as the Synod's Relator will have a leading role in shaping the Synod's conclusions.
2. The prospect of extinction. Despite an influx into the Middle East of Filipino and south Indian immigrants, the traditional Catholic populations of the region are shrinking fast, forced often to choose between "invisibility and exile" -- in the words of Archbishop Georges Casmoussa of Iraq -- faced with Islamic integralism and Israeli expansionism. Although these pressures are outside the Church's control, the neglect of Middle East Catholics by the rest of the Church worldwide are adding to them, it has been argued here.
3. Ecclesial reform. There have been calls for changes to the way that papal and Roman curial authority is exercised. These reforms -- extending the authority of Eastern patriarchs over the diaspora populations outside the Middle East; allowing married men in those diaspora populations to marry be ordained, as is allowed in the region; giving patriarchs the right to vote in conclaves -- would, it is argued, help to protect the integrity and vitality of the Eastern Churches. Of the 23 Churches making up the Catholic Church, said Bishop Vartan Waldir Boghossian, the Argentina-based bishop for Armenian Catholics in Latin America, only the Latin church does not have its authority and power confined to the Churches' ancient geographical borders.
4. The need for unity. This was stressed especially in Pope Benedict's opening address to synod, and was also a theme of Patriarch Naguib's speech. "The division among Christians is a scandal," he said, before calling for "prejudices to be overcome, memories purified, unity sought”. There have been concrete proposals, for example, for a single 'Our Father' in Arabic (at the moment each of the Churches has its own version), and for joint celebrations for Christmas and Easter.
Many of the concrete proposals and ideas put forward in the speeches so far have turned on one of these four areas.
Tomorrow I'll post on details of the small groups which will be discussing these and similar themes. There will be about 10 groups of around 20-25 synod fathers in each; two of them will be in English, the rest in the other synod languages.