Yesterday at the Mid-east Synod

[ROME] Last night, standing outside the Jesuit Curia -- an obvious meeting-place for an America correspondent at the Vatican -- waiting for a colleague, I watched the entrance to the Rome HQ just opposite of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. The cars had been cleared from that part of the Borgo Santo Spirito and white-capped carabinieri milled about the entrance, overseeing the arrival of the Synod participants for a banquet hosted by the American cardinal John Foley. The former head of the Vatican's social communications department is now, to give him his proper title, the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a papal appointee (the Patriarch of Jerusalem is the Order's Grand Prior). I hope photographs of the event get published. What with the Knights in their full regalia, and the dazzling display of headgear and robes of the Eastern bishops, it would have been quite a spectacle. 

The Knights are the major funders of the Latin Church in the Middle East, and especially the 68 parishes of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Founded in the crusading days of the 12th century, it now has about 23,000 members throughout the world, who raise money, organise pilgrimages, and provide other kinds of support.


William Shamali, auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem, told the Synod yesterday that "the Latin Church of the East is not Western, even if it includes many westerners". An Arabic Christian who belongs to the Latin Church feels both completely of the Latin Rite and completely Eastern, he said -- a retort to those who see the the Latin Church as in some way a foreign implant. His speech enumerated the ways in which the Latin Rite is "inculturated" in the Middle East -- not least through its Arabic-language liturgies, which are influenced by the Syrian Maronite as well as the Gregorian traditions.

An Armenian Lebanese bishop yesterday repeated previous calls here for the Eastern patriarchates to have more power. The Orthodox Churches "rejoice more in the powers in all affairs of their patriarchate", said Jean Teyrouz, adding that "not to give the Eastern Catholic Churches more legal powers constitutes a risk in seeing them disappear one day." One of the arguments of the "power to the patriarchs" call at the Synod is that to do so would promote the eventual unity of the Churches -- meaning, in the Middle East, the Orthodox Church. Seeing the way that the Eastern Catholic patriarchates are -- in this view -- disrespected within the universal Catholic Church only adds to the Orthodox suspicion of Rome.

Another regular theme here is the way that large numbers of Christian migrants to the Gulf states are treated. Despite 14 churches being built on land donated by the rulers of the Gulf states, it is hard to provide for the 3m Catholics reckoned by the apostolic visitor of Kuwait, Camillo Ballin, to live in the Gulf states, mostly from Asia. The existence of these Catholics, he said in a speech to Synod yesterday, belies the claim of some Muslims that "the Gulf is the land sacred to the Prophet of Islam, Mohammed, and no other religion should exist there." 

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Haifa, Paul El-Sayah, who is the Maronite Exarch of the Patriarchate of Antioch, addressed what he called "the scandal of the divisions" between the 13 Churches present in Jerusalem, which receives public attention whenever squabbles break out between the different groups -- Latins, Melkites and Armenians -- responsible for areas of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Noting that "the traditions and memories" of the different Catholic Churches in the Holy Land "are more hardened than anywhere else in the world, and their physical and psychological boundaries are very clearly drawn", Archbishop El-Sayah called for the Middle East Council of Churches -- currently, he said, "on the verge of collapse" -- to be revived, as "the only umbrella under which all our Churches come together."

Meeting the "ecumenical challenge" of bringing together the different Catholic traditions "will be one of the yardsticks with which the success and failure of this synod will be measured", he said. 

A Synod is a great place to get interesting statistics and facts about the Church in parts of the world that the news media seldom hear about. What effect, for example, has the Revolution had on the Catholic Church in Iran? The Chaldean Bishop of Salmas there, Thomas Meram, compared figures from 1979 with today. In 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution, there were 51 priests, only one of whom was Iranian, and 73 nuns, of whom two were Iranian. Today, he says, there are 14 priests, six of whom are Iranians, as well as 4 non-Iranian bishops, and 21 nuns, of whom 15 are Iranians. The Church now runs four houses for the elderly and disabled, "which provide services free to these persons from all the Christian denominations without discrimination based on their ecclesial or national identities."

The most heartfelt intervention was without doubt that of the apostolic nuncio to Lebanon, Edmond Farhat. The Muslim world, he said, was in crisis, its frustrations and anger manifest in wars, terrorism, violence, and the appeal to salafiyyah, or a radical interpretation of the Qu'ran. Seeking a target, or scapegoat, said Bishop Farha [my trans from French:]

"The one that that is closest to hand and the most fragile is the Church. Failing to grasp the notion of gratuitousness, it accuses Christians of a secret agenda of proselytism, of being the lackeys of imperial powers. From Iraq to Turkey, from Pakistan to South India, the victims are multiplying, always the most innocent, those who serve others in self-sacrifice: Mgr Luigi Padovese and Andrea Santaro in Turkey, the lawyer assassinated with his family in Pakistan, Mgr Claverie and the monks and nuns of Algeria, the priests, religious and innocent faithful killed during the war in Lebanon -- easy targets all."

The Church in the Middle East, he went on, today suffers "injustices and calumnies" as the "frustrated and the desperate taking revenge on the innocents"; theirs, he said, was "a path of crucifixion and purification, which is leading to renewal and resurrection". Only prayer, he said, could halt the "demons" which "torment our society". Perhaps, he concluded, "we have not prayed enough". 

There were also the two speeches by invited Muslim guests about whom I posted yesterday. Mohammad Sammak (photo -- addressing the Synod), a Sunni Muslim who is secretary general of Lebanon’s Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, told Synod that the declining number of Christians in the region was a concern for all Muslims. “The emigration of Christians is an impoverishment of the Arabic identity, of its culture and authenticity,” he said, adding that maintaining the Christian presence in the Middle East was a “common Islamic duty.”

His speech, as well as that of Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, can be read here.




Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

This week on “Inside the Vatican,” we explore the topic of women deacons.
Colleen DulleJanuary 16, 2019
Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019
In preparation for the gathering in Abu Dhabi, I find myself asking why my conversations with the future Pope Francis so powerfully affected both of us.
Abraham SkorkaJanuary 15, 2019
Photo: iStock
Included on the list is John T. Ryan, S.J., who from 1989 to 1994 was an associate editor for development at America.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 15, 2019