The Catholic Church in the Middle East:
PRESENTATION BY THE SECRETARY GENERAL
John Paul II Hall in the Press Office of the Holy See
“The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). This verse from the Acts of the Apostles describes the life of the primitive community, the ideal for every Christian community. This was chosen as the motto for the fast approaching Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops which will take place between 10 and 24 October 2010, on the theme of The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness. The choice of the motto is very meaningful since it illuminates with the light of the Gospel the theme of the Synodal Assembly and because it recalls the close bond between the Church in the Middle East and Holy Scripture. The Holy Father Benedict XVI underlined this as well during his Apostolic Visit to Cyprus, from 4 to 6 June 2010. At the end of the Eucharistic celebration in Nicosia, in giving the working document, the Instrumentum laboris, to the representatives of the Middle Eastern episcopacy, the Bishop of Rome underlined that the “motto chosen for the Assembly speaks to us of communion and witness, and it reminds us how the members of the early Christian community ‘were of one heart and soul”’ (Acts 4:32). With this meaningful gesture the Supreme Pontiff ideally opened the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops that will in reality begin its work on 10 October 2010. The Special Assembly for the Middle East is the result not only of the request formulated by various bishops of the region, but also of the Apostolic visits of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to Turkey from 28 November to 1 December 2006, to the Holy Land (Jordan, Israel and Palestine) from 8 to 15 May 2009, and to Cyprus in 2010, during the course of which he was able to see personally the joys and sufferings of the members of the Catholic Church who are in need of particular attention at this moment of history.
I am delighted to briefly introduce this important ecclesial event that will see the bishops of the Middle East united around the Holy Father Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome and Universal Shepherd of the Church.
Catholic Church in the Middle East
In the first place, it is helpful to specify that by Middle East we mean the following states: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Palestinian Territories, and Yemen. This vast region of 7,180,912 square kilometers is home to 356,174,000 people, of whom 5,707,000 are Catholics, representing 1.6% of the population. At the same time, the number of Christians is about 20,000,000, that is, 5.62% of the population.
It is necessary therefore to remember the particularity of the Catholic Church in the Middle East that is expressed in a multifarious unity. Other than the Church of the Latin tradition, since earliest times there have been 6 Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, each with its own patriarch, father and head of the Church : Coptic Church, Syrian Church, Greek-Melchite Church, Maronite Church, Chaldean Church and Armenian Church. These are “Churches distinguished for their venerable antiquity, in which remains conspicuous the tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers and that forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church” . The variety of traditions, spirituality, liturgy and disciplines is a great source of wealth to be conserved not only for the Eastern Catholic Churches, but for the whole of the Catholic Church presided over in charity by the Bishop of Rome and the Universal Shepherd of the Church.
Calender of work
From a careful look at the Calender of the Special Assembly it becomes clear that the synodal assembly will be characterized by the prayer of the Synodal Fathers, who, in turn, will be accompanied by the spiritual union of the members of their communities in the Middle East and the Diaspora, as well as by the numerous Christians who care deeply about the conditions of the Church that makes its pilgrimage in the Holy Land and the Middle East.
The opening of this important event will take place with the solemn Eucharist on Sunday 10 October. It will be presided over by the Holy Father Benedict XVI and will be concelebrated by all the Synodal Fathers and participating priests at the Synodal assembly. It will close too in the sign of the Eucharist which is at the center of Church unity and is the inestimable gift of Christ to his people. Both celebrations will take place in the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter’s following the Latin rite, but significant elements, such as the Gospel and some of the hymns, will follow Eastern traditions. In the middle of the synodal assembly, Sunday October 17, six Blessed will be canonized: Stanislaw Soltys (Kazmierczyk), André (Alfred) Bessette, Cándida María de Jesús Cipitria y Barriola, Mary of the Cross (Mary Helen) MacKillop, Giulia Salzano and Battista (Camilla) Varano. The Synodal Fathers will not miss taking part in such an important ecclesial event that highlights the call to sanctity, pronounced in the Holy Land in the Old Testament: “Be consecrated to me, for I, Yahweh, am holy” (Lv 20:26) that Jesus Christ brought to fulfilment in the Beatitudes: “You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). The words of the Lord Jesus have a universal importance, just as the call to sanctity is universal: “All the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state” .
The work foresees 14 general congregations and 6 sessions of the minor circles. Information on the Synodal activity will be provided by 4 operators in Arabic, French, English and Italian who will meet with journalists every day, apart from Monday 11, Monday 18 and Saturday 23 October, when there will be press conferences with the participation of the Synodal Fathers.
The Synodal Fathers will also have the opportunity to attend the concert in honor of the Holy Father Benedict XVI which will take place in the Paul VI Hall on Saturday October 16 at 6pm.
Assembly participants at the Special Assembly for the Middle East will number 185 synodal fathers of whom 159 will take part ex officio. Among these there are 101 Ordinaries of the Ecclesiastical Circumscriptions of the Middle East, as well as 23 from the Diaspora, who take care of the faithful of the Eastern Catholic Churches who have emigrated from the Middle East to various parts of the world. We also have to highlight the presence of 19 bishops from the neighboring countries of North and East Africa, as well as from countries with significant communities of Christians of Middle Eastern origin, in particular from Europe and the American continent. Also taking part in the synodal assembly are 14 heads of departments of the Roman Curia most closely connected with the life of the Church in the Middle East. Furthermore the Holy Father Benedict XVI has nominated 17 Synodal Fathers. Then there are 10 representatives from the Union of Superior Generals. Among the Synodal Fathers there are 9 Patriarchs, 19 Cardinals, 65 Archbishops, 10 titular Archbishops, 53 Bishops, 21 auxiliary Bishops, 87 religious 4 of whom were elected by Union of Superior Generals. As for their duties, there are 9 heads of the Synods of Bishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, 5 Presidents of the International Gatherings of Episcopal Conferences - their presence underlines the solidarity of the worldwide episcopate with the beloved Churches of the Middle East - 6 Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, 1 Archbishop coadjutor, 4 Emeritus, 2 of whom are Cardinals, the Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem and 1 Patriarchal Vicar.
As we know, on 24 April 2010 the Holy Father Benedict XVI nominated the members of the Presidency of the Special Assembly for the Middle East: 4 delegate Presidents, of whom two are ad honorem: His Holiness Card. Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, Lebanon, and His Holiness Card. Emmanuel III Delly, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, Iraq; His Eminence Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect for the Congregation of the Eastern Churches and His Holiness Ignace Youssif III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch of the Syrians, Lebanon; the Relator General His Holiness Antonios Naguib, Patriarch of Alexandria of the Coptics, Egypt; the Special Secretary, His Excellency Mons. Joseph Soueif, Archbishop of Cyprus of the Maronites, Cyprus.
The Middle East is also the home for our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, because it also represents the birthplace of two other monotheistic religions. Therefore during the course of the work, we will have the opportunity to listen to the address by Rabbi David Rosen, Director of the Department of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee and the Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding, Israel. Along with the Synodal Fathers, two illustrious representatives of Islam will speak: Mr. Muhammad al-Sammak, Political Councillor for the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, for Sunnite Islam, and Mr. Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, Professor at the Faculty of Law at the Shahid Beheshti University of Tehran and Member of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, for Shiite Islam. They are here by special invitation of the Holy Father Benedict XVI, and their presence is very significant, a sign of the openness of the Catholic Church to continue the dialogue with Judaism, with which Christians have a very special relationship, as well as with Islam, present in the region of the Middle East.
During the Synodal Assembly, 36 Experts and 34 Auditors, men and women, will also participate. Their experiences will represent an important contribution to the synodal reflections.
Particular characteristics of the Synodal Assembly
The Special Assembly for the Middle East has some particularities that distinguish it from other Synodal Assemblies. In the first place, for the first time almost all the Ordinaries of the Middle East will meet with the Bishop of Rome. In 1995, the Servant of God John Paul II gathered the Bishops of Lebanon in a Special Assembly, in which 69 Synodal Fathers participated, 36 from Lebanon. Nine Bishops of the Diaspora were also included. During the Special Assembly for the Middle East, 23 Bishops of the Diaspora will also participate. Therefore, the Ordinaries belonging to the sui generis Eastern Catholic Churches will be 123. There will be representatives of other 6 Eastern Catholic Churches: the Ethiopian Church, the Greek Church, the Romanian Church, the Syrian-Malabarese Church, the Syrian-Malankarese Church and the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Of the 185 Synodal Fathers, the vast majority (140) are of the Eastern Catholic Tradition. Therefore, the Bishops of the Latin Tradition will be 45, of whom 14 from the Middle East. During the Special Assembly for Lebanon, 53 Bishops of the Eastern Catholic Tradition were present, as well as 16 of the Latin Tradition.
This will be the shortest ever Synodal meeting, lasting only 14 days. The Special Assembly for Lebanon lasted 19 days, from November 26 to December 14 1995 and before that, the Assembly for the Netherlands, in which 19 Synodal Fathers participated, lasted 17 days, from January 14 to 31 1980. The short period of the celebration is not only the result of the relatively lower number of participants, which during the Ordinary General Assemblies reaches 250 Synodal Fathers; this was also requested by the Holy Father Benedict XVI to speed up the procedures, which is further adapted for the present Synodal Meeting. Considering the rather complex situation in the Middle Eastern Countries, we do not want to keep the Shepherds from their flocks for too long. For this reason the work will be concentrated into14 days.
One of the official languages of the Synod will also be Arabic. During the Special Assembly for Lebanon, the official language was French, even if, during the interventions in the Hall, the other three languages were used: Arabic, English and Italian. During the present Synodal Assembly, these are the four official languages and, therefore, for the first time, Arabic as well, the most common language for Middle Eastern Christians. There will also be two Working Groups in Arabic.
Pastoral goals of the Synodal Assembly
The aims of the Special Assembly for the Middle East are mainly of a pastoral nature. While unable to ignore the social and political picture in the region, the Synodal Assembly has above all ecclesial aims. This fact is also contained in the theme of the Synodal Assembly which insists on Communion and on witness within the Catholic Church, in its relationships with other Churches and Christian communities, other religions and, in general, with their own societies. With reference to the Instrumentum laboris , the goal of the Assembly can be shown in two points:
1) To enliven communion between the venerable sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches that they may offer an authentic, joyful and attractive witness of Christian life. Thanks to Divine Providence, as has already been stated, in the Middle East, apart from the Church of Latin Tradition, there are 6 Catholic Eastern Churches with a true Patriarch at their head. Therefore, 7 practicing Patriarchs will participate in the Synodal Assembly. The Synod workings, in a climate of prayer, reflection and dialogue, should be useful in further intensifying the ties of communion within each of these Churches and between the Patriarch, the Bishops, the priests, the members of consecrated life and lay persons. Obviously, the ties of communion between the single Catholic Churches and the Churches of the various other Traditions should be reinforced. Positive results from this would benefit the entire Catholic Church, underlining the fruitfulness of its unity which is expressed in the multiformity of the respective, venerable Traditions.
Communion then should spread to other Churches and ecclesial communities present in the Middle East - 13 representatives of these will be present during the Synod workings as Fraternal Delegates, as already pointed out. Dialogue and collaboration are also extended to members of non-Christian religions and to all men of good will.
2) To reinforce Christian identity through the Word of God and the celebration of the Sacraments. The Synodal Assembly should confirm the conscience of the faithful in the Middle East as regards each one’s vocation as disciples of Jesus Christ in the land where He was born, lived, and preached and achieved His Paschal mystery. To live in the Holy Land should be increasingly discovered as a privilege connected to a special mission. It is in the best interests of all the Church that the Land of Jesus not become a museum full of monuments and precious stones, but continue being a living Church, built with living stones (1 Pet 2:5), Christians who continue the uninterrupted tradition of the presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land for almost 2,000 years.
Numerically, Christians are a minority in the Middle East. However, they have a unique vocation: being witnesses of the Lord Jesus in a prevalently Muslim environment, except for the State of Israel, where the majority of the citizens are Jewish. This fact requires openness and dialogue with those belonging to the other two monotheistic religions: Judaism and Islam. The experience, very positive from many points of view, of this dialogue could become very important for the whole Church.
The Special Assembly for the Middle East represents a joyous occasion to present the riches of the Eastern Catholic Churches to the entire world, especially for Christians, that they may offer greater support spiritually and materially to their brothers and sisters in the Middle East, in particular those who live in difficult situations because of violence, including terrorism, emigration and discrimination. The Christians of the Middle East are often the artisans of peace and the promoters of forgiveness and reconciliation, which are needed so badly in the area. They wish to live in peace with their neighboring Jews and Muslims with respect for their common rights, including the fundamental one of freedom of religion and conscience.
In union with the Holy Father Benedict XVI, all Christians are invited to pray for the Special Assembly for the Middle East, that it may achieve its goals. This invitation is addressed in a special way to the members of consecrated life and, in particular, the cloistered monasteries. Prayer will reinforce the ties of faith, of hope and of charity among the believers of the Church of God, so that the ideal of the primitive community where the multitude of believers is “united, heart and soul” (Acts 4:32) can be achieved in the best way possible.
 Cfr Vatican Council II, Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, Orientalium ecclesiarum, 9.
 Ibidem, 1.
 Cfr Benedict XVI, Giving the Instrumentum laboris, L’Osservatore Romano, 6-7 June 2010, p. 9.
 Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 42.
 Cfr Special Assembly for the Middle East, 3.