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Healing the Church of Antioch: The Greek-Melkite Initiative

The Greek-Melkite Church takes steps to heal the rift between the Catholics and Orthodox of the Church of Antioch.

In July 1996, the Synod of the Greek-Melkite Catholic Church issued “Reunification of the Antiochene Patriarchate,” a document boldly announcing the synod’s desire to heal the rupture between Catholics and Orthodox of the Church of Antioch. Although somewhat unique, this gesture has, historically, had a basis in the life and activity of the Antiochene Church.

Unity in diversity has always existed in the Church of Antioch. During apostolic days when “in Antioch…the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), a variety of traditions and peoples had lived side by side in this cosmopolitan city, now an archaeological site in Turkey.

The Church of Antioch spread throughout the Middle East and was not limited to the city of Antioch, but to the greater area influenced by Antioch: what is now modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, even Armenia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan and the New World.

The Church of Antioch, which was founded by the apostle Peter, embraced a diverse yet united community. Antiochene Jews and Gentiles lived together; many from both communities accepted the Christian faith. Some Christians fully observed the Mosaic law, while others retained but a few Jewish observances. There were some who rejected all Jewish observances. Yet they all lived and worked together despite these differences.

During the patristic era, Antioch was the home of saints as well as heretics. And from Antioch various traditions were born: as a Greek-speaking city of the Byzantine Empire, its customs and traditions influenced the capital, Constantinople, and there helped shape the Byzantine Church.

Antioch’s native Syrians developed two church traditions: the Eastern and Western Syriac. The Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic churches follow the Eastern Syriac tradition. The Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Maronite churches grew from the Western Syriac tradition. Both traditions spread to India, forming the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches.

Antioch influenced the formation of the Armenian Church and for some time Antioch had authority over the Church of Georgia.

The Byzantine Church of Antioch continued to use a secondary nomenclature – Melkite – meaning “royalist,” or “those attached to the Byzantine emperor.” This name was given to all who followed the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451) by the opponents of this same council.

In 1054 A.D., when representatives of the churches of Rome and Constantinople cast excommunications at each other, the Patriarch of Antioch, Peter III, tried to reconcile them, choosing no side in the dispute. Certainly, there was no definitive break between Rome and Antioch as there was with Constantinople and Rome.

The Muslim domination of the Middle East, succeeded by the region’s Crusader dominions, slowly divided the two. Antioch gradually followed Constantinople and the other Eastern patriarchs. Yet, throughout the years that followed, we find Antiochene patriarchs open-minded and friendly to both Rome and Constantinople – these tended to be the indigenous Syriac- and Arabic-speaking patriarchs. Ethnic Greeks tended to be more pro-Constantinople.

With the arrival of Western missionaries to the Middle East in the early 1600s, a new sympathy for the West developed among some of the Antiochene Christians. Realistically, this sympathy was more political and economic than religious. Sympathy was so great that in 1724 two patriarchs were elected for Antioch’s Greek-Melkite community: one pro-Rome and Catholic and one pro-Constantinople and Orthodox. A new rupture had taken place in Christ’s Church, dividing villages, even families. The Catholics called themselves Greek-Melkite Catholics and the Orthodox simply, Greek Orthodox (in the United States, “Antiochian Orthodox”).

The Greek-Melkites had never intended a division in the Antiochene Church; they saw the election of a Catholic as patriarch as a move to unite Catholics and Orthodox. Thus, they attempted to remain firm in their Orthodox traditions, jealously preserving their particular Eastern customs and way of life. It was inevitable, however, that they would experience latinization, but never to the same extent as many other Eastern Catholic churches.

The Greek-Melkite patriarchs have often articulated the sensibilities and concerns of the Eastern Catholic churches. Gregory II Youssef, the Greek-Melkite Patriarch of Antioch during Vatican I (1869-70), never favored the proclamation of papal infallibility. Greek-Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV was known as the “voice of Orthodoxy” at Vatican II, a title given him by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Athenagoras I.

The ecumenical spirit grew in the 1950s and 1960s with four Greek-Melkite Catholic priests, three of whom later became bishops and one a patriarch: Fathers George Hakim (now Patriarch Maximos V), Oreste Kerame, Joseph Tawil and Elias Zoghby. These men tremendously influenced the Greek-Melkites in matters ecumenical and liturgical. A revival began – the “courage to be ourselves” grew within the universal Catholic communion.

This spirit of openness and diversity continues today in the Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarchate. Greek-Melkites are “uncomfortable” with disunity. In 1974, through the efforts of Archbishop Elias Zoghby, Archbishop of Baalbek, Lebanon, the synods of the two Antiochene patriarchates – Greek Orthodox and Greek-Melkite – exchanged visits and formed a joint theological commission to discuss and work toward full communion. Archbishop Zoghby saw the possibility of a dual communion with Catholics and Orthodox. Unfortunately, the disastrous 15-year civil war in Lebanon ended these discussions for a while.

The Archbishop, however, did not give up on unity. In 1981, he followed up with a book, Tous Schismatiques? (Are All of Us Schismatic?). In 1995, he reawakened the unity efforts with a profession of faith on two points:

“I believe in everything which Eastern Orthodoxy teaches;

“I am in communion with the Bishop of Rome, in the limits recognized to the first among the bishops by the holy fathers of the East during the first millennium, before the separation.”

Archbishop Zoghby, presently the Emeritus Archbishop of Baalbek, developed the thinking of ecumenists East and West. Both Paul VI and John Paul II have spoken of looking toward the understanding of the first millennium when East and West were one and united.

Archbishop Zoghby presented his profession of faith to each bishop member of the Greek-Melkite Synod in 1995. All but two agreed to it and affixed their signatures. He then presented it to the Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Maximos V Hakim, and to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV Hazim.

The ecumenical spirit of the Church of Antioch came back to life – a dialogue and a new theological commission were formed among the Orthodox and Catholic bishops. Their goal would be to work toward healing the division in the Church of Antioch.

The 1996 Synod of the Greek-Melkite Catholic Church met in July and studied the new work of the joint theological commission. This commission consisted of two Catholic hierarchs, Archbishops Elias Zoghby and Cyril Salim Bustros, and two Orthodox hierarchs, Metropolitans Elias Audi and George Khodr. The deliberations were positive and a document was produced by the Greek-Melkite synod: “Reunification of the Antiochene Patriarchate.” All the fathers of the synod – the Patriarch, 34 bishops, and four general superiors of religious orders – subscribed to the new unity endeavor. Excerpts follow:

The fathers of the Synod of the Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarchate convened in Raboueh, Lebanon, 22 July to 27 July 1996, and studied the documents presented by the Patriarchal Commission established by His Beatitude Maximos V Hakim on 25 March 1996….

…the fathers of the holy synod are happy to announce the following:

• [We] anxiously look forward to the day when the Greek-Melkite Catholics and the Greek Orthodox in the Antiochene Patriarchate return to being one church and one patriarchate…. this reunification does not mean a victory of one church over the other, or one church going back to the other, or the melting of one church into the other. Rather, it means putting an end to the separation between brothers that took place in 1724 and led to the existence of two separate independent patriarchates, and returning together to the unity that prevailed in the one Antiochene Patriarchate.

• [We] see that this reunification has become possible today through the progress in the communion of faith that has taken place through the grace of God in recent years on the international level through the Joint International Theological Commission between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches…. [We] consider [our] task of reestablishing communion within the Church of Antioch a part of reestablishing full communion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches on the international level.

• The joint commission will discuss one point further, that is, “The role of the Bishop of Rome in the church and in the ecumenical councils.”

On this subject [we] adopt what was stated in Vatican II: “To give due consideration to…the origin and growth of the churches of the East, and to the character of the relations which obtained between them and the Roman See before the separation” (Decree on Ecumenism)….

Concerning the primacy of the Bishop of Rome [we] declare that [we] are inspired by the understanding in which East and West lived in the first millennium in light of the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils, and [we] see that there is no reason for the separation to continue because of that primacy.

• Based on the unity in the essence of the faith [that existed in the first millennium], [we] see that communicatio in sacris is possible today, and that [we] accept it, leaving the ways and means of its application to the joint decisions of the two church synods – Greek-Melkite Catholic and Greek Orthodox.

• [We] announce [we] will remain in full communion with the Apostolic Church of Rome and at the same time will work out with her what is required to enter into communion with the Antiochene Orthodox Church.

• [We] will delegate the Synodal Ecumenical and Theological Commission to research deeply the ways of the unification, and discuss its canonical and pastoral implications, and to hold joint conferences and conventions to include the faithful of both churches on the path toward this unity.

• Finally, [we] ask all the faithful to join with [us] in prayer so that the will of God be fulfilled in all of us and that the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ to his heavenly Father be accomplished: “so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (Jn 17:21)

The document received great press throughout the Middle East, Europe and the U.S.

The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Antioch met in October 1999 and discussed the Greek-Melkite initiative and document. Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim and the bishops of the synod were delighted to see the Greek-Melkite desire to transcend the separation of 1724.

The synod expressed its desire to continue the discussions of church theology on the Antiochene level, while pursuing the work of the international commission between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The synod stated that they do not favor intercommunion because it is seen as the last step in the quest for unity, not the first.

They also questioned how the Greek-Melkites may be in communion with Catholics and Orthodox at the same time, stating that unity with Rome and Orthodox Antioch cannot be separated from restoring communion between the See of Rome and all Orthodox sees; Antiochene unity cannot be realized without the approval of sister Orthodox churches. Their discussions and thinking, however, would not prevent them from continuing good relations with the Greek-Melkite Catholic Church, they said, stressing that their ecumenical commission would continue to dialogue with the Greek-Melkites.

Historically, schisms develop in the local churches. These breaches cannot be healed from the top down; rather they must be healed locally. Antiochene Greek-Melkites have begun such a healing process and Antiochene Orthodox are willing to listen and respond. May God bring this healing to full fruition.

Bishop Nicholas is Auxiliary Bishop of the Greek-Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton.

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