Benedict XVI Reflects on the Middle East Synod
by Samir Khalil Samir
In his address to the Roman Curia, the Pontiff underlined communion with the Orthodox, the richness of Eastern traditions and the urgent need to reject violence in the context of tension in the Middle East. A comment from the scholar of Islam Fr. Samir (Part One).
Rome (AsiaNews) - Yesterday the Pope presented his Christmas greetings to cardinals and members of the Roma Curia. His address to them covered three points. Firstly, the Holy Father commented on the liturgical formula of Advent: "Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, et veni" = Rouse your power, Lord, and come!Secondly, he focused on the Synod of the Churches of the Middle East which took place from 10 to 24 October. In the third place he reflected on his trip to Great Britain from 16 to 19 September. I would like to examine and comment upon what the Pope said on the second of these subjects.
The Pope's reflections were divided into two parts, focusing first on his trip to Cyprus (4 to 6 June) where he consigned the Synod's Instrumentum laboris to patriarchs and bishops, then on the Synod itself, which was held in the Vatican.
Benedict XVI's ideas are very concrete, being rooted in his deeply-felt experiences in the countries he visits and with the people he meets.
Ecumenism with the Orthodox
Cyprus is a country with an overwhelming Orthodox majority, at least in the Greek part of the island, and the Pope gratefully recalled the unforgettable hospitality of the Orthodox Church. At the same time he also made an ecumenical comment of immense spiritual and theological richness: "even if full communion is not yet granted to us", he said, "we have nevertheless established with joy that …" and he went on to list four characteristics.
This premise means two things: firstly, that communion with the Orthodox Church does exist, though it is not yet perfect and complete; and it is important that the head of the Catholic Church should clearly affirm that communion already exists. Secondly, it indicates the Pope's profound desire that "full communion" be achieved. Catholic theology recognises that the communion existing between the two Churches already permits "communicatio in sacris" (i.e. sharing, in particular the Eucharist) in certain circumstances, although for her part the Orthodox Church does not allow this.
As for the four characteristics that unite us, the Pope enumerated them as follows:
- "The basic form of the ancient Church unites us profoundly with one another".
- "The sacramental office of bishops as the bearer of apostolic tradition".
- "The reading of Scripture according to the hermeneutic of the Regula fidei".
- "Finally, our faith in the central place of the Eucharist in the Church’s life".
These four characteristics unite the two Churches profoundly, and listing them so clearly and plainly should act as a solid basis for ecumenical discussions between these two traditions.
The wealth of the Eastern Catholic tradition
When we speak of the Christian East we spontaneously think of Orthodoxy, and this is entirely natural if we compare the number of Orthodox with the number of Eastern Catholics. But not all the Middle East is like that. Such a situation is very evident in Egypt, where there are thirty times more Orthodox than Catholics, but things are different, for example, in Lebanon and in Iraq where Catholics slightly outnumber Orthodox.
The Pope wanted to make it clear that the Catholic Church is also Eastern. Indeed, the Catholic Church of the East possesses a rich and variegated liturgical tradition (and not only liturgical, but also theological, spiritual, canonical, hagiographical, etc.) and has apostolic antiquity. "We witnessed impressive manifestations of the rich Christian culture of the Christian East", the Pope said. And I would note that, by mentioning the Latin liturgy alongside the Maronite and Melchite liturgies, the Pope was suggesting that the Latin Church is just as Eastern as the other Churches. She uses the Western Roman liturgy but the vast majority of her faithful are from the East, often with more Arab followers than other Eastern Churches.
A country divided by violence
Cyprus is experiencing a tragedy that risks becoming permanent: the division of the country between Turks (Muslims) and Greeks (Orthodox). This division has many aspects - linguistic, ethnic, religious - and the Pope experienced it in person, having stayed in the papal nunciature with is located on the line separating the two parts of the island. We were able to experience, during the meeting with the Holy Father in Cyprus, the profound "desire for the peace and communion that had existed before", and the suffering of the inhabitants of the island.
This division is the result of violence. "Everyone knows that violence does not bring progress – indeed violence is what gave rise to the present situation". Cyprus is a kind of negative appeal for non-violence. People who live there become aware that violence brings nothing good, but only destruction and evil, destruction and evil which can last indefinitely!
No-one can resign themselves to this situation, the Pope least of all! Such a situation cannot be accepted! He tells the faithful, and everyone else, that preparing "the people for this attitude of peace is an essential task of pastoral ministry". In doing so he highlights one of the fundamental missions of the Church, especially in places where there is (or has been) war!
But how can peace be achieved, how can it be reached?. How can a single Cypriot nation be recreated for the good of everyone? There is only one way, as Benedict XVI affirmed: "Only in a spirit of compromise and mutual understanding can unity be re-established". Nobody likes the word "compromise", yet in certain cases it is necessary. But compromise, if it is not profoundly accepted, risks collapsing; it must be accompanied by understanding for others. Our mind goes to the situation between Israel and Palestine, which has lasted for more than sixty years: if each of the two sides does not seek "to understand", "to comprehend" the other's position, then there will never be peace.
The Holy Father here returns to one vital aspect of his thinking; that violence, for whatever reason, can never be justified. It brings only distress to individuals and communities and, as he said at Regensburg (and we will return to in part two), it is in opposition to God and the Faith! His is a message of absolute peace, cost what it may!
It is clear that Benedict XVI's theology is rooted in his own concrete experience, an experience he has absorbed, contemplated and reflected upon. It is a profound reflection upon everything he experiences in the course of his trips. In this way he shows himself to be a true intellectual: not in the sense of producing theoretical discourses and abstract considerations, but in the sense of one who reflects on facts in order extract conclusions that are valid for everyday life!