Pope Benedict XVI listens as Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Damascus, Syria, left, speaks during his visit to St. Paul's Basilica in Harissa, Lebanon, Sept. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
impossible not to notice the colorful, varied display of liturgical vestments
and clerical garb during the recent papal visit to Lebanon. The rich cultural
diversity among Christians in the Middle East gives witness to the Apostolic
traditions which began to develop almost immediately and independently from
each other at the very beginning of Christianity. As the Apostles spread the
gospel and worship of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the known world,
distinct liturgical traditions naturally burgeoned as local churches took root.
liturgical traditions of the Catholic Church were conspicuously present by the
end of the fourth century and are still celebrated in Lebanon and throughout
the Middle East today: the Liturgy of St. Mark (Coptic and Ethiopian), the
Liturgies of Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil (Greek Melkite), the Liturgy of St.
James (Maronite, Syrian, and Syro-Malankara), the East Syrian Liturgy (Chaldean
and Syro-Malabar), the Armenian Liturgy, and the Latin Mass.
XVI strongly affirmed this diversity of traditions as a harmony within the unity
of faith in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation “The Church in the Middle East,”
which was signed and distributed to the major hierarchs during his recent visit
Like my Predecessors in the
See of Peter, I wish here to state once more my desire to ensure that the rites
of the Eastern Churches, as the patrimony of the whole Church of Christ in which
shines forth the tradition coming down from the Apostles through the Fathers,
and which, in its variety, affirms the divine unity of the Catholic faith, are
observed and promoted conscientiously.
Pope Benedict dedicated a large portion of
this exhortation to urging the different Churches to pray, learn, and work
together in order to promotes true communion among Christians and true peace,
which he defined as “the state of those who live in harmony with God and with
themselves, with others and with nature.” He invited the Catholics of the
various ecclesial communities to foster relationships with each other and to be
mutually engaged in one another’s traditions.
In describing the harmony that the various
Churches share he reflected on the Church as both universal and particular. In
beautiful language, he spoke of the presence of the whole in each of its parts.
But he challenged the Churches with these words, “The sincere recognition of
the goodness of the other [Churches] includes acting in harmonious cooperation
Pope Benedict suggested several means of
cooperation. For example, he encouraged Catholics to pray with other Catholic ecclesial
communities and upheld the lay faithful of the Middle East, who already live
this spiritual communion with their brothers and sisters in Christ by attending
liturgical services outside of their own Church.
suggested that an authentic renewal of liturgical text and celebrations be
carried out in conjunction with the Orthodox Churches, as much as possible. For
example, he encouraged common translations of the liturgical text and universal
prayers, like the Our Father, to ensure that various Christians from different
communities would be able to pray together using the same words. On the other hand, Benedict clarified,
“Ecumenical unity does not mean uniformity of traditions and celebrations.”
Cooperative Bible studiesCure for
brilliant idea was Benedict’s call for cooperative Bible studies among the
Churches. To understand the genius of this proposal one must know something of
the history of the ancient Churches in Antioch, Syria and Alexandria, Egypt.
These two patriarchal sees were the cultural and theological centers of the
Christian world for the first four centuries Anno Domini.
emphasized the divinity of Christ, Antioch his humanity. Alexandria focused on
the anagogical and allegorical interpretation of Scripture, Antioch on the
literal and historical interpretation. Each school produced great saints and
fathers of the Church, and each school suffered its share of errors and
misapprehensions. Antioch was the school of Arius and Nestorius, for example,
while Alexandria produced the controversial theology of Monophysitism. For
centuries, the two schools battled to have their theological vocabulary
understood. Alexandrian theology dominated the first three ecumenical councils
(325, 381, 431); Antiochian theology was integrated in the fourth and fifth
councils (451, 553). Each of these schools played an important part in the
development of doctrine.
debate was Christological and centered on the interpretation of John 1:14, “ὁ Λογος σαρξ
ἐγενετο,” (“the Word became flesh...”). The Fathers prayerfully sought language
to describe the mystery of the Incarnation. Without their ongoing
debate during this time period, Catholics would be bereft of the rich theology
we enjoy today. It was not merely a matter of being rightit was a matter of
salvation. Christians must properly understand God’s revelation to mankind if
they are to enter into loving, eternal relationship with the Blessed Trinity.
Christological debate between Antioch and Alexandria was brought to a climax at
the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Ultimately, a consensus was found that
combined the best of both schools. At the insistence of the Roman (Byzantine)
Emperor Theodosius, the Chalcedonian Definition
was written. It drew on the letters of St. Cyril of Alexandria, the Antiochian Formula of Reunion, and Pope St. Leo’s Tome. Because of this council, we use
the phrase “Christ is true God and true man.” Of great significance, the
formula also conceived of making a distinction between the terms physis and hypostasis. The Definition
of Chalcedon stated that Christ is one Son, one prosopon, and one hypostasis,
but two physis: human and divine.
The great Alexandrian theologian, St. Cyril, had used the words physis and hypostasis interchangeably, but Antioch had made a distinction.
differences are hard for English-speaking Christians to understand, but to
justify some of the confusion, it is worth noting that the theology of the
seven ecumenical councils was discussed and written in Greek, while native
Egyptians spoke Coptic and the Syrians spoke Syriac. The Greek terms are
confusing enough when translated into English. Physis can mean nature, order, species, origin, or kind. Hypostasis can mean nature, person, being,
substance, individual, agent, or subject. Prosopon
can be translated nature, person, face, mask, or character. Because the Copts
and Syrians used Greek as a medium, it was inevitable that linguistic
misunderstandings would occur. They struggled to understand each other’s
The two physis of Christ were further
articulated at Chalcedon as “unconfused and unaltered” in order to refute the
teachings of the Alexandrian Eutyches. Christ’s physis were also defined as “undivided and inseparable,” which
refuted the teachings of the Antiochian-trained bishop Nestorius. Far from
bringing clarity and union, these distinctions were rejected by Antioch and
Alexandria alike, leading to the first schism of the Church, formally alienating
the Latin (Rome) and Greek-speaking Christians from the Syriac, Coptic, and
Armenian-speaking Christians of the world.
By the end of
the fifth century, Egypt had separated and formed its own church while Syria
divided between those who accepted Chalcedon and were loyal to the Roman Empire
(Melkites) and those who, following Nestorius, developed a Syriac tradition of
their own. This Syriac tradition was cultivated in the ephemeral school of
Edessa, which was closed by Emperor Zeno in 489 and relocated to Nisibis, Persia,
outside the boundaries of the Empire. Here the Syrians focused on translating
and integrating Greek philosophy, sacred Scripture, and other religious texts
into Syriac language and thought. The ideas of Aristotle and Theodore of
Mopsuestia, especially, were the impetus of these later two schools.
refer to those who rejected the council of Chalcedon (Copts, Syrians, and
Armenians) as the Oriental Orthodox. In the last 40 years, much has been gained
through dialogue with the Oriental Churches and the Eastern Christian Churches.
Both sides tend to agree that the Christological differences that caused schism
were essentially linguistic, and that both parties profess one and the same
faith in Christ using different vocabulary. Reunion with the Pope of Rome has
already taken place among a percentage of the members and ecclesiarches of the
Oriental Church traditions, e.g. the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian
It is with
poignant attention, then, that Pope Benedict has now invited the various
Churches of the Middle East to again study the sacred Scriptures together,
drawing on the vast intellectual wealth of the various biblical schools rooted
in the one truth, Jesus Christ:
The exegetical schools of
Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa, and Nisibe contributed significantly to the
Church’s understanding and dogmatic formulation of the Christian mystery in the
fourth and fifth centuries. For this, the whole Church remains indebted to
them. The representatives of the various schools of textual interpretation were
agreed on the traditional principles of exegesis accepted by the Churches of
both East and West. The most important of these principles is the conviction
that Jesus Christ incarnates the intrinsic unity of the two Testaments and
consequently the unity of God’s saving plan in history (cf. Mt 5:17).
The disciples would only come to understand this unity after the resurrection,
once Jesus had been glorified (cf. Jn 12:16).
A second principle is fidelity to a typological reading of the Bible, whereby
certain Old Testament events are seen as a prefiguration (a type and figure) of
realities in the new Covenant in Jesus Christ, who is thus the hermeneutical
key to the entire Bible (cf. 1 Cor 15:22,
45-47; Heb 8:6-7). The
Church’s liturgical and spiritual writings bear witness to the continued
validity of these two principles of interpretation, which shape the ecclesial
celebration of the word of God and inspire Christian witness. The Second
Vatican Council went on to explain that the correct meaning of the sacred texts
is found by considering the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, in the
light of the living Tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith.
(“The Church in the Middle East”, 70)
The successor of
Peter encouraged Christians of the Middle East to know and live their
faith. A study of sacred Scripture is a
sound foundation and can help “dispel prejudices and mistaken ideas about the
Bible which become the source of needless and demeaning controversies.” He recommended
a contemporary presentation of patristic theology which can “compliment and
enrich the teaching of Scripture.” Benedict XVI also recommended serious
catechesis through a utilization of the Catechism
of the Catholic Church, including a study of the spiritual life as
presented by the Catechism and the
Fathers of the Church. And like the cooperative Bible study idea, he would also
like to see the Church communities working together in catechesis.
In short, Pope Benedict is evidently calling the
Christians of the Middle East to unite and see themselves as one people, laying
aside their differences with the one goal of uniting humanity in Christ.
Simultaneously, he suggests as a means to this end not an egalitarian, lowest-common-denominator
Christianity, but a vibrant sharing of ideas and a fruitful cultural and
intellectual exchange that will unite Christians in authentic personal
communion and meld them through respect and mutual esteem for each other’s
traditions. There seems to be wisdom in this exhortation that could also be
pertinent to English-speaking Christians. One doesn’t necessarily have to
pilgrimage to the Holy Land to encounter the Eastern Catholic Churches and
experience the wealth their traditions have to offer. One or two may be nearby
waiting to be explored.