Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The Special Assembly for the Middle East began today. Its focus is pastoral, not political. However, it must reflect “upon the present and future of the faithful and of the communities of the Middle East,” focusing “on the aspects that pertain to their mission,” said Benedict XVI as he explained the significance of the Synod of Bishops that opened today in the Vatican until 24 October in the presence of 177 synodal Fathers and about 70 priests from various ecclesiastic rites and traditions. To highlight the pluralism of rites and the universality of the celebration, the Gospel was chanted in Latin and Greek. Choirs sang in Latin and Arabic.
In his homily during today’s Eucharistic celebration in Saint Peter’s, Benedict XVI said that he “welcomed the proposal of the Patriarchs and Bishops to convene a Synodal Assembly”, after visiting Turkey, the Holy Land (Jordan, Israel and Palestine), and Cyprus “where I was able to see close-up the joys and preoccupations of Christian communities”.
The region’s 3 million Catholics (and 14 million Christians) are negatively affected by the political situation, which includes violent persecution and economic problems that compel them to emigrate. The Pope is aware of all these situations but he wants all the participants to the Synod to see the Middle East from a more specific point of view. “God views this region of the world from a different perspective, from “above” as it were. It is the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the land of exile and return from exile`; the land of the Temple and the Prophets; the land where the Only-begotten Son was born to Mary, where he lived, died and rose; the cradle of the Church, created to bring the Gospel of Christ to every corner of the Earth. As believers, we took look at the Middle East this way, from the perspective of the history of salvation.”
“Looking at this part of the world from the perspective of God,” he said, “means recognising in it the ‘cradle’ of a universal plan of salvation based in love, a mystery of communion that is realised in freedom and thus calls on men to give an answer.”
The Synod must deepen the Churches’ “communion and witness” as denoted by the title chosen by the Synodal Assembly “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness. ‘The community of believers was of one heart and mind (Acts, 4:32)’.”
“Without communion there can be no witness. The great witness is precisely the life of communion.” This is happening even if Christians are a minority in the region. “In Jerusalem, the first Christians were few. Nobody could have imagined what was going to take place. In addition, the Church continues to live on that same strength which enabled it to begin and to grow. Pentecost is the original event but also something that is permanently dynamic. The Synod of Bishops is a privileged moment during which we can renew the grace of Pentecost in the path of Church, so that the Good News may be directly announced and welcomed by all the nations.”
Reviving the communion among all the members of the Church (patriarchs, bishops, priests, religious, people of consecrated life and laity) will be ecumenically fruitful “in relations with the other Churches” and “the dialogue with the Jews, with whom we are indissolubly linked in the long history of the Covenant, as well as with Muslims.”
“Everyone wants the faithful to feel the joy of living in the Holy Land, a land blessed by the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and his glorious Pascal mystery. Over the centuries, these Sites have drawn legions of pilgrims as well as male and female religious communities, who saw living and bearing witness in the Land of Jesus as a great privilege. Despite the difficulties, Christians in the Holy Land are called to raise awareness that they are the living stones of the Church in the Middle East, near the Holy Sites of our salvation.”
For this to happen, the Christians of this region must enjoy “a fundamental human right, that of living with dignity in their homeland.” Hence, it is necessary to promote “conditions for peace and justice, which are necessary for the harmonious development of all those living in the region”.
“Therefore,” the Pontiff said, “everyone is called to make their personal contribution: the international community, by supporting a stable, loyal and constructive path towards peace; the main religions in the region, by promoting spiritual and cultural values that unite men and exclude any expression of violence.” At the same time, “Christians will not only continue to contribute to socially-valued activities, through their educational and health care facilities,” but they will especially do so “with the spirit of the Evangelical Beatitudes that underlies forgiveness and reconciliation. therefore, they will always receive the support of the Church, as solemnly demonstrated by the presence here of the Delegates of the Episcopates of other continents.”
Benedict XVI ended the homely entrusting everyone to the saints of the Middle East and the Virgin Mary, “so that the upcoming days of prayers, reflection and brotherly communion may bring fruition to the present and future of the dear communities of the Middle East. To them, we address our augural greetings: “Peace be with you, my brother, and with your family, and with all who belong to you (1Sam, 25:6)!’”
When the Pope addressed thousands of pilgrims in Saint Peter’s Square for the Angelus, the Synod of the Churches of the Middle East was also the main topic of his thoughts. Benedict XVI reminded those present of the synod, of communion and witness in countries “sadly marked by deep divisions and torn by years of conflict.”
“This is a hard task,” he added, “since Christians in the Middle East often face a difficult life at a personal, family and communal level. This should not discourage anyone. More necessary and urgent than ever, the everlasting message of Christ comes out of this context: ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel (Mk, 1:15)!’ In my recent trip to Cyprus, I handed over the Instrument of Work of this Synodal Assembly. Now that it has arrived, I urge everyone to pray, and ask God for many gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
After noting that the month of October is dedicated to the Rosary, Benedict XVI ended saying, “Dear friends, we all know how much the Virgin Mary is loved and venerated by our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. Everyone looks upon Her as an attentive Mother, close to every suffering, a Star of hope. To her intercession we entrust the Synodal Assembly that opens today, so that the Christians of the region may get stronger in communion and bear witness to the Gospel in love and peace.”