Vatican City (AsiaNews) - At the beginning of the Synod of the Churches of the Middle East it is very important to analyze the address Benedict XVI gave yesterday during the solemn liturgy in St. Peter’s basilica. Some of his emphases are essential in order to understand the social and ecclesial situation in the region.
The Pope first mentioned the fact that the Middle East has seen "ever since the days of Jesus until today, the continued presence of Christians."
The pope wants to emphasize the apostolic nature of the churches in the Middle East and the fact that churches are alive. The Church of Antioch, there where Christians for the first time receive this name from others (Acts 11:26). The Church of Jerusalem, which experienced the historical fact of Jesus and knew the Apostles. The Church of Alexandria, where St. Mark the Evangelist was martyred. These churches did not receive the faith by missionaries sent from Rome, but from the Apostles themselves, and thus are witnesses to the original message. This, for our Churches, is an important spiritual force. If they disappear, it would be a loss for Christians everywhere.
Cultural and religious pluralism: a treasure, at times particular
The Pope continues: "In those lands, the one Church of Christ is expressed in variety of liturgical, spiritual, cultural and disciplinary traditions."
Then he talks about the variety of traditions. This variety must be emphasized: we have no less than seven Patriarchs in the East and seven liturgical, cultural, spiritual, disciplinary, and I would add theological traditions. Dogmatically there is unity, theologically there is a great variety which are its greatest treasure. In exegesis for example, with the two great schools of interpretation: that of Alexandria, more allegorical and mystical, with Origen at the end of the second century, and that of Antioch, more grammatical and literal.
Even the theological positions are multiple from the outset. The variety of the liturgy is well known; however the spiritual is seldom deepened while the cultural variety reveals a great wealth of languages and traditions. The East’s great cultural diversity is a source of great wealth but also political and theological conflict.
Instead in the West there was only Rome, as a capital of great culture. The others had no weight, neither political nor cultural. Instead, in the East, even well before Christianity, there were important centres: Alexandria, Edessa, Jerusalem, Antioch.
This variety comes from the historical structure of the East. And the consequences are felt to this day. The unification in the West (and perhaps its homogeneity) came about over the course of time, in our case it was the opposite. Each Church is proud of its past, even pre-Christian, they all know they are the heirs of prestigious civilizations!
This variety is a great treasure, but sometimes it causes particularism or nationalism to creep into the Churches as well as internal divisions that weaken.
The Papacy and Church Unity
The problem of the papacy will also be raised, I know, by some bishops. Some feel that Rome is overly involved in their affairs, without needing to be, simply out of a habit of centralism, or sometimes out of the conviction that the Roman practice is of a higher level than ours. Others point out that it takes a single leader, especially in cases of conflict, to solve problems. But everyone agrees on one point: respect our differences, our cultures. In the Catholic East, for example, there are married priests and celibate priests, and many points ...
And this is one of the things that the pope wants to address. If there is no communion, there is no witness. Our witness is our communion. As the Gospel says: By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13, 35). If each rite stresses its own specificity, it could led to division or neglect of others to save their own culture. The East insists on its particularity rather than unity: a balance is needed.
Even the West is returning to the particular: Germany, France, Spain, are claiming specific beliefs and ways of governing the Church, not to mention the African and Asian traditions.
In the U.S. there are particularistic tendencies with regard to male-female relationships, which put many things in question. Anglicanism has split in recent decades because the African churches have refused to accept American or British decisions on this point. How can you maintain the unity of the Church, while respecting the culture of each?
This is a fundamental problem: it concerns schism or unity, and this is where the Eastern Churches can make a contribution. Because we are Eastern, with are many traditions, but we are Catholics, recognizing the principle of unity that is represented by the Bishop of Rome.
This model of the Eastern Churches could be a suggestion for the world of Orthodoxy. If the Orthodox see that the Catholic reality is lived in a rich and positive way, then they could move closer to unity. And vice versa: A bishop confided to me yesterday that the Orthodox see unity at a bureaucratic level, not as a relationship between the patriarchs and the pope, this would distance them from unity.
Eastern faithful immigrants in the West
At one point in his speech, the Pope speaks of the faithful of the diaspora, and this raises a problem within the Catholic Church, because bishops in Europe often want to have jurisdiction over the Eastern faithful immigrants. For example, there is a rule that prohibits the existence of married Eastern priests in the West. They can have them in the East but not in the Western Diocese. This decision was taken - it was said – so as not to scandalize the faithful. But all this must change.
Originally, the patriarchates were geographical, but now the fact of migration is raising several issues. Yesterday, the pope spoke of "all the faithful entrusted to their pastoral care (ie of the Patriarchs) in their own countries and also in the diaspora." It is a small point but an important one. This is also a problem for the Orthodox, the Church of Moscow. Who do the Orthodox of the diaspora depend on? Once it was the Ecumenical Patriarch who had responsibility beyond territorial boundaries, now they want to restrict it to Turkey.
"Salvation is universal, but it passes through a determined historical mediation”
At one point, Benedict XVI commented on the readings of the Mass and spoke of the two lepers, both non-Jews [Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5.14-17) and the Samaritan (Luke 17.11-19)], who are cured because they believe the word of God’s messenger and this heals them. He commented: "They heal in body, but are open to faith, and this heals their soul, that is, it saves them."
The pope raised the issue of conversion. Going further, he said: "salvation is universal," all are called to be saved by God's love. For us Christians, this is of vital theological importance with regards to Muslims. It is not a race, a people who are saved, God wants universal salvation.
But he said that this salvation comes through Judaism, and then through Christianity. "Salvation is universal, but it passes through a determined historical mediation” And he emphasized this by using the word "door": "the door of life is open to all." In short, Benedict XVI reaffirms that salvation is in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10), and this is an obligatory passage.
In contemporary theology, there is often opposition to this. Some say: salvation is universal, so there is no need of Christ, others say there is no salvation outside the Church.
With a simple vision, starting from the biblical texts, Ratzinger resolves this objection: salvation is Christ, announced and prepared by the historic Israel, and prolonged by the spiritual Israel which is the Church. The role of the Church is therefore essential, although not absolute.
We need mission to rediscover the meaning of our faith
All this is important for us in the Middle East. From the sociological point of view we feel unable to engage in mission to Muslims, who are the majority of our people, inviting them to discover the Gospel and the salvation that comes from the absolute Gospel, because the laws forbid it.
Yesterday, I saw the Bishop of Algiers, who told me that he spent two hours speaking with the Minister for Religious Affairs on this issue [anti-proselytizing laws that hamper the freedom to proclaim]. To the point that some bishops and many missionaries refuse to baptize Muslims who have been asking to be baptised for years, because they are afraid that by doing so they will lose elements of their culture!
From the theological point of view the pope's discourse corrects those theologies (some in India and many "theologies of religions" popular in the West) that preach that it is not necessary to switch to the Christ. A missionary once said to me, the Second Vatican Council established that everyone can be saved in their own religion, so why baptize them?
Our Churches in the East have lost their sense of mission because they are focused on their survival. But the body will not survival if I concentrate on the physical problem alone: it becomes a form of asphyxia. And this is what is happening to our Churches, we are so interested in saving our culture, our particularity, our survival, in the end we focus on little things, instead of seeing our world mission.
We are even dying in Europe because the missionary age, when from Italy and France we went out everywhere, is no more. Today we are so concerned about ourselves and our problems that we have lost the sense of mission. We must recapture that sense. We also tend to reduce mission to charity, commitment to development is not satisfactory.
Continuing, Benedict XVI spoke of a salvation tied to the land: "God reveals himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6), who wants to lead his people to 'land' of freedom and of peace ". But - he added - "this 'land' is not of this world."
These statements are very important for the Middle East where a theology and a politics based on "land" is rampant: the question of Jerusalem, the Israel of today (or that of the Zionists, to the Nile and the Euphrates), Palestine ... The whole issue of land is crucial. And each side claims it for themselves. The Jews claim the Holy Land in the name of the divine promise of the "land", the Muslims claim it as part of the "Dar al-Islam," the House of Islam. But the Pope says; there is a land not of this world.
Yet Jerusalem for Christians - more than for anyone else - is the land where Jesus lived, preached and died. But the Catholic Church has never laid claim, at least in modern times, that it is a Christian land. It has only ever claimed freedom of access, even at the time of the Crusades.
Instead, the Jews in their majority, they say: No, we will never leave this land (and there are settlers who are militarily fighting to occupy it!). In truth it must be said that there are also Jews who spiritualize their relationship with the earth. The Muslims themselves say that what was once a Muslim, can never be abandoned. The Eastern Christians will always have to emphasize that this "land" is not of this world. This is our contribution to peace and justice.
The Middle East, "land" of all
Even Benedict XVI’s vision of the Middle East is special "it is the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land of the exodus and the return from exile, the land of the temple and the prophets, the land where the only begotten Son was born of Mary, where he lived, died and rose again, the cradle of the Church, formed to bring the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the world".
This enumeration in five elements is wonderful! The Pope links this vision (from “on high”, from God’s perspective)
We can not exclude any dimension from the Middle East, but we neither can we forget that this is all oriented toward mission. I can not keep this wonder of the revelation of God in Christ to myself, even Muslims are entitled to know Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: The design of the Universal Love of God
Finally, one last point: looking at the Middle East from God’s perspective means that there is "a universal plan of salvation in love". Salvation is expressed in love and freedom and it can not be proselytizing. It is all fulfilled in Jesus Christ, a son of this land. From his heart and his spirit, the Church was born (an allusion to the death of Christ on the cross, with water and blood flowing from his open side), she is a pilgrim in this world who takes on her universal salvific role: sign and instrument, that is, the sacrament of Christ. The Church's mission is to communion and witness.
The message of salvation is the proclamation that God is love. Man, created in God's image, has the task of recognizing the true nature of God, and to save himself by living and spreading this love. The Church is sign and instrument only if she is a communion of love.
"The Catholic Church in the Middle East: communion and witness," is the motto of this Synod, exactly as developed by Benedict XVI yesterday in his homily.