Christ is addressed as the “Good Shepherd” throughout the Chaldean Rite Liturgy. (photo: Rev. Austin Mohrbacher)
Patriarch Paul II Chelkho, who has given strong guidance to the Chaldean Community. (photo: Rt. Rev. Msgr. George Garmo)
Of all the Eastern Rites within the Catholic Church, the Chaldean Rite is perhaps the oldest, both chronologically and in the form of its liturgy.
The term Chaldean, however, is a much later label given to those Christians who form a single tradition and live, for the most part, in Iraq and Iran.
The term is also dear to the history of Iraq: Abraham came from Ur, land of the Chaldees, and the Chaldean Empire of Mesopotamia (Iraq) received more than a slight mention in the Old Testament.
Saints Thaddeus and Mari are traditionally believed to have been the first evangelizers of Greater Syria and Mesopotamia (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq). These disciples journeyed from Jewish community to Jewish community telling of the life and message of Christ, the Messiah.
Those who accepted the good news added the breaking of bread, or Eucharist, to the regular synagogue service. This was true of all the early Christian Jews, but the Chaldean Community has maintained its Jewish flavor more markedly than any other community, right to the present day.
This was mainly due to the fact that the Chaldean Church never enjoyed the status of being a state religion, as the Byzantine, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopic churches did. As such, there was never any need to elaborate the service for the entrance of a king, or to furnish the church interiors in a way befitting high society.
In fact, this community was so harassed that it never even developed a church architecture. Interior furnishings were always fashioned so that they could be quickly dismantled and carried to a new location.
None of this is to say that the Chaldean Church did not play a tremendous role in the annals of the early Church. Missionaries from the Chaldean Church during the first centuries of Christianity evangelized many communities within the Persian Empire. Some even went beyond the Empire into Mongolia and China.
The Chaldean Church had such an impact on Mongolia that the Mongolian language took its alphabet from the Syriac characters of the Chaldean liturgical books. And at least one of the early patriarchs of the Church was a native of Mongolia.
St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have been the first to bring Christianity to India. But it was certainly the Chaldean cloth and spice merchants who reinforced Christianity in Southern India by bringing their rituals and feasts from Baghdad to form the Syro-Malabar Rite. This Rite is thriving today in Kerala.
Monastic life has had a continuous influence on the rites and life of the Chaldean Church. Today, the Church is witnessing a resurgence of vocations, as well as a deeper study of monastic spirituality. There are parishes not only in the area between Teheran and Cairo, but also in cities like Paris, Sydney, Detroit, Chicago and Turlock.
Although the total number of followers is not large (about 250,000), the Chaldean Community is strong, thanks to the sage direction of its Patriarch, Paul II Cheikho, who resides in Baghdad.
The distinct spirituality of a Christian community is of the utmost importance to those seeking the hidden riches of the total Catholic Community. Chaldean spirituality is found mostly in the Divine Office and the Quddasha (Liturgy).
Today, as in the first years of Christianity in Iraq, the Chaldeans are farmers and mountain people. In their childlike simplicity, they have developed a profound awareness of the holiness of God. And conversely, they realize their own non-holiness, or unworthiness to approach the Holy of Holies.
In fact, the movement of the Quddasha is one of a slow progression towards the holy, life giving Mysteries, acted out by the priest in the name of the entire congregation.
In the Chaldean Liturgy, Christ is the one who made it possible for everyone to pass through the tent of our humanity which leads into the sanctuary of His holiness. Throughout the liturgy, Christ is constantly addressed as the Good Shepherd who is always trying to draw us back to Himself.
The story of the Chaldean Community deserves deep admiration, both for the chapters on its heroic missionary activity and for its quiet but persistent presence in the world of Islam, another unique spirituality of the Middle East. It is a Church fully alive to the needs of each and every one of its members as can be seen in a Third Century prayer still relevant enough for todays Quddasha:
O Christ, peace of heavenly beings and calm of earthly creatures, make your peace and serenity reign over the four corners of the earth, and particularly in Your Holy Church. Scatter the people divided by the spirit of warfare, so that tranquility may reign on the earth in all purity and fear of God.
Dennis Como S.J., a Chaldean-Rite priest, has spent ten years in the Middle East. He is presently the Chaplain at Fairfield University.