Harissa (AsiaNews) - The Greek Melkite Basilica of Saint Paul on Mount Harissa was the perfect backdrop for the signing ceremony by the pope of the Apostolic Exhortation, written in the wake of the Synod of the Churches of the Middle East of October 2010. As the beautiful arches and byzantine mosaics lit up the walls, a choir of monks accompanied the pontiff as he entered the building carrying a byzantine cross. As he moved, he blessed priests, monks and nuns standing along the wings until he sat before the iconostasis accompanied by the patriarchs and bishops of the whole Middle East.
The exhortation is meant to build bridges with Jews and Muslims. As if to underscore its ecumenical vocation, the ceremony was attended by Sunni, Shia and Druze representatives as well as the Lebanese president and other political and cultural figures.
Afterwards, His Beatitude Gregory III Laham, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, welcomed the Holy Father mixing Arabic, German, Italian and French, in a traditional sign of Lebanese cosmopolitanism.
Following the introduction by the Synod secretary, Mgr Nikola Eterović, and the opening moments, Benedict XVI spoke, thanking everyone, Catholics and Orthodox, Muslims and Druze and representatives of civil society. "Your presence," he said, "makes my signing of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation 'Ecclesia in Medio Oriente' all the more solemn; it testifies that this document, while addressed to the universal Church, has a particular importance for the entire Middle East."
Moved by today's feast day, the exaltation of the Holy Cross, a tradition born in the East to celebrate the Basilica of the Resurrection built by Constantine the Great on Golgotha and Christ's tomb, the pope said, "It seems to me that the Post-Synodal Exhortation can be read and understood in the light of this Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and more particularly in the light of the Chi-Rho, the two first letters of the Greek word 'Christos.' Reading it in this way leads to renewed appreciation of the identity of each baptized person and of the Church, and is at the same time a summons to witness in and through communion. Are not Christian communion and witness grounded in the Paschal Mystery, in the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ?"
The difficulty situation in the Middle East after the Arab spring, the civil war in Syria, the tensions and violence caused by an anti-Islamic and blasphemous movie about Muhammad, widespread Christianophobia and Christian exodus raise the possibility of social and political conflict. Instead, the pope took everyone by surprise by proposing an exhortation, 'Ecclesia in Medio Oriente," which "makes it possible to rethink the present in order to look to the future with the eyes of Christ." The "Exhortation points out a path for rediscovering what is essential: being a follower of Christ even in difficult and sometimes painful situations, which may lead to the temptation to ignore or to forget the exaltation of the cross. It is here and now that we are called to celebrate the victory of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, service over domination, humility over pride, and unity over division. "
In the pope's view, the Middle East's difficult situation requires a new and broader approach to deal with its problems. "In examining the present situation of the Church in the Middle East, the Synod Fathers reflected on the joys and struggles, the fears and hopes of Christ's disciples in these lands. In this way, the entire Church was able to hear the troubled cry and see the desperate faces of many men and women who experience grave human and material difficulties, who live amid powerful tensions in fear and uncertainty, who desire to follow Christ-the One who gives meaning to their existence - yet often find themselves prevented from doing so." At the same time, "How can we fail to thank him for the flame of his infinite love, which you continue to keep alive and burning in these places, which were the first to welcome his incarnate Son?
"In the light of today's Feast, and in view of a fruitful application of the Exhortation, I urge all of you to fear not, to stand firm in truth and in purity of faith. This is the language of the cross, exalted and glorious! This is the "folly" of the cross: a folly capable of changing our sufferings into a declaration of love for God and mercy for our neighbour; a folly capable of transforming those who suffer because of their faith and identity into vessels of clay ready to be filled to overflowing by divine gifts more precious than gold (2, Cor 4:7-18)."
"Ecclesia in Medio Oriente provides some elements that are helpful for a personal and communal examination of conscience, and an objective evaluation of the commitment and desire for holiness of each one of Christ's disciples."
Christians' faith should "act concretely in a way which configures us ever more fully to Christ, in a way which helps the different Churches to reflect the beauty of the first community of believers (Acts, 2:41-47: Part Two of the Exhortation); in a way like that of the Emperor Constantine, who could bear witness and bring Christians forth from discrimination to enable them openly and freely to live their faith in Christ crucified, dead and risen for the salvation of all."
"The Exhortation," he added, "shows openness to authentic interreligious dialogue based on faith in the one God, the Creator. It also seeks to contribute to an ecumenism full of human, spiritual and charitable fervour, in evangelical truth and love, drawing its strength from the commandment of the risen Lord: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt, 28:19-20).
"The Exhortation as a whole is meant to help each of the Lord's disciples to live fully and to pass on faithfully to others what he or she has become by Baptism: a child of light, sharing in God's own light, a lamp newly lit amid the troubled darkness of this world, so that the light may shine in the darkness (Jn 1:4f. and 2 Cor, 4:1-6). The document seeks to help purify the faith from all that disfigures it, from everything that can obscure the splendour of Christ's light."
Referring again to Constantine the Great, and the vision of the cross that promised him victory, Benedict XVI said: "Fear not, little flock" (Lk, 12:32) and remember the promise made to Constantine: 'In this sign you will conquer!' Churches of the Middle East, fear not, for the Lord is truly with you, to the close of the age! Fear not, because the universal Church walks at your side and is humanly and spiritually close to you! It is with this hope and this word of encouragement to be active heralds of the faith by your communion and witness, that on Sunday I will entrust the Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente to my venerable brother Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops, and to all priests, deacons, men and women religious, the seminarians and all the lay faithful. 'Be of good cheer' (Jn, 16:33)! Through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the Theotókos, I invoke God's abundant gifts upon all of you with great affection! God grant that all the peoples of the Middle East may live in peace, fraternity and religious freedom! May God bless all of you! (Lè yo barèk al-Rab jami'a kôm!)