Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV greet one another at the Vatican. (photo: courtesy, Assyrian Church of the East)
Mar Dinkha IV presents a pectoral cross to Pope John Paul II, while the author translates. (photo: courtesy, Assyrian Church of the East)
On 11 November 1994, a historic meeting took place at the Vatican between the Roman Pontiff, John Paul II, and the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV. This meeting was the culmination of a series of dialogues in which Catholic theologians and representatives of the Church of the East met to resolve an ancient misunderstanding that had kept the two churches at a distance for more than 1,500 years. The separation grew from a dispute over the proper use of terminology in describing the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, a dispute that began in the Byzantine Empire with the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) and spread to the church in the Persian Empire.
Since the beginning of this dispute, both the Catholic Church and the Church of the East have insisted upon acknowledging the two natures, divine and human, in the person of Jesus Christ. In this they have always been in agreement. However the churches differed in defining the union of those two natures in the one person of Christ. The Western church adopted a modified terminology to describe the incarnation at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), while the Eastern church continued to use terminology of an older period, which in the West was deemed inadequate for the purpose of describing a true metaphysical union of the natures.
The political isolation of the Church of the East, under the dominance of the Persians, Arabs, Mongols and Ottoman Turks, made the resolution of this conflict almost impossible. The separation was not only ecclesial, but geographical, political, cultural and linguistic. The division was greatly exacerbated after the 15th century by the near destruction of the Church in the East and the loss of its educational and monastic institutions that had long supplied it with theologians and scholars. For the past 500 years there has been only limited contact between the leaders of these two ancient churches.
In 1984 the present Catholicos-Patriarch of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, made his first official visit to the Vatican and expressed to Pope John Paul II his desire to resolve the ancient misunderstanding. The Patriarch had long felt that the scandal of separation had to be removed so that the Church of Christ could present a common witness to the modern world and work in a unified way to relieve the sufferings endured by so many people in the Middle East and elsewhere.
With joy and hope the leaders of the two ancient apostolic churches set in motion a process of theological dialogue to bring understanding and clarity to the issue under dispute. The dialogues were conducted in a spirit of mutual charity and with a sincere desire to understand the others linguistic and cultural traditions and presuppositions. The process culminated in the setting forth of a Common Christological Definition, which removed the ambiguities that had been the source of suspicion and distrust for so long.
At the November meeting, the Christological definition was signed by both leaders and by dignitaries representing the Catholic Church and the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East. In the document they affirm:
[O]ur Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with us in all things but sin. His divinity and his humanity are united in one person, with-out confusion or change, without division or separation. In him has been preserved the difference of the natures of divinity and humanity, with all their properties, faculties and operations. But far from constituting one another, the divinity and humanity are united in the person of the same and unique Son of God and Lord Jesus Christ, who is the object of a single adoration.
[T]he same God the Word, begotten of his Father before all worlds without beginning according to his divinity, was born of a mother without a father in the last times according to his humanity. The humanity to which the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth always was that of the Son of God himself. That is why the Assyrian Church of the East speaks of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of Christ our God and Savior. In the light of this same faith the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God and also as the Mother of Christ. We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each church in her liturgical life and piety.
In his official address to the Pope at the time of the signing Mar Dinkha expressed the fervency of his zeal for unity:
Today the time has come to bring down the walls which have separated us and kept us apart for 15 centuries. Today, the door of opportunity is open and we are bidden to enter and labor together toward the noble goal of unity in the church, the unity for which our Lord Jesus Christ so fervently prayed, that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
In his remarks the Pope took note of the tragic history suffered by the Christians of the East and pledged his personal support and that of the Catholic Church to relieve their plight.
We do not forget the long night of suffering endured by your Eastern Syriac communities, which were scattered, persecuted and massacred down the centuries for professing the name of Christ. Those who despite everything have remained in their countries in the Middle East and who have had to face war and unjust deprivation of every kind should know that the Holy See will employ the means at its disposal, particularly through its contacts with governments and international organizations, to lessen their sufferings and if possible make them cease. Finally, a church so distinguished in its past for its heroism as regards fidelity to the faith cannot remain marginalized in the Christian world, and especially among the churches of the Middle East. We hope to be able to help you break down any isolation that still exists.
Both leaders stressed the profound importance of the occasion. Both were fervent in emphasizing the need for Christian unity and unified action in a world in which new challenges arise with frequency. The need for clergy and laity to be adequately prepared to meet those challenges was addressed by Pope John Paul II, who put at the disposal of the Assyrian Church of the East the help of the Catholic Church in the areas of education and catechesis.
Throughout the ceremonies and public appearances the dignitaries of the Holy See and the Assyrian Church affirmed the unique and valuable contributions made by each of the churches to the general spiritual patrimony of historic Christianity. In the words of His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, We all recognize that it is of supreme importance to understand, venerate, preserve and foster the rich heritage of each of our churches, and that diversity of customs and observances is in no way an obstacle to unity. This diversity includes the power of our churches to govern themselves according to their own disciplines and to keep certain differences in theological expressions which, as we have verified, are often complementary rather than conflicting.
Though this historic occasion has opened the way toward further unity between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Catholic Church, full communion has not yet been achieved. Though the desire for oneness is sincere and the progress toward unity has moved forward, there is much to do before this may be completely realized. The dialogues will continue and prayers will be offered constantly before Almighty God to provide the divine wisdom and spiritual understanding necessary to achieve the goal of proclaiming together in one voice the Good News of salvation to a world in need.
In the words of His Holiness the Pope, Together let us ask the Most Holy Trinity, Model of true Unity within diversity, to strengthen our hearts so that we will respond to the call for one visible Church of God, a church truly universal and sent forth to the whole world, that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God. May God who has begun this good work in us bring it to completion in Christ Jesus. Amen.
So that full communion may be achieved, the Catholicos-Patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV, committed himself and his fellow-bishops: With thanksgiving for this day and the promise which it holds and with prayers for the health and well-being of our most honored brother, His Holiness, Pope John Paul II we remember the words of the psalmist, How good and how comely for brothers to dwell in unity. (Ps 133:1) How good indeed, and fair in the eyes of God and men when in true humility the servants of Christ give themselves to one another in mutual love and service. To you our brothers we offer the hand of fellowship and our unfeigned fraternal affection and to the Holy Trinity we commit these our labors toward unity. Amen.
Mar Bawai Soro is the Secretary General of the Commission on Interchurch Relations and Education Development for the Assyrian Church of the East.