Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter welcomes the pope to Bkerke, Lebanon, in September. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Mother Marie Makhlouf greets a young psychiatric patient in a center operated by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal el Dib, Lebanon. (photo: CNS/Nancy Wiechec)
Young students read and study quietly at the Pontifical Mission Library in Bethlehem. (photo: Steve Sabella)
A Lebanese pastor and parishoners light candles for the victims of an attack in Baghdad. (photo: Jamal Saidi/CNS)
In September, Pope Benedict XVI made a historic trip to Lebanon to deliver a document addressing the church’s concern for the Christians of the Middle East. That “apostolic exhortation” grew out of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in 2010. In this new document, the Holy Father addresses several issues that have marked the work of CNEWA since the agency’s founding — including works of charity, formation of persons and the call for unity, “that all may be one.” What follows are excerpts from the exhortation, entitled “On the Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness.” The excerpts conclude with a short interview with Father Elias Mallon, CNEWA’s external affairs officer, who helps put the exhortation in context. You can also read the entire document on our website onemagazinehome.org/web/exhortation.
Call entrusted to patriarchs and leaders of the churches in the Middle East.
“The church in the Middle East, which from the dawn of Christian faith has made her pilgrim way in those holy lands, today courageously continues her witness, the fruit of a life of communion with God and neighbor. Communion and Witness! This was the conviction which occasioned the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, which gathered around the Successor of Peter from 10 to 24 October 2010 to discuss the theme, “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness. ‘Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and one soul.’ ” (Acts 4:32)
“At the beginning of this third millennium, I wish to entrust this conviction, which draws its strength from Jesus Christ, to the pastoral concern of all the pastors of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and in a more particular way to my esteemed brothers the patriarchs, archbishops and bishops who together, in union with the bishop of Rome, oversee the Catholic Church in the Middle East.” (paragraphs 1, 2)
Call to unity of Catholic churches.
“It is precisely because it is divine in origin that communion has a universal extension. While it clearly engages Christians … it remains no less open to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, and to all those ordered … to the People of God. The Catholic Church in the Middle East is aware that she will not be able fully to manifest this communion at the ecumenical and interreligious level unless she has revived it in herself…” (3)
Four pillars of early church.
“The unity of believers was thus nourished by the teaching of the Apostles (the proclamation of God’s word), to which they responded with unanimous faith, by fraternal communion (the service of charity), by the breaking of bread (the Eucharist and sacraments), and by prayer. … It was on these four pillars that communion and witness were based within the first communion of believers.” (5)
The church in the Middle East “lives there in a remarkable variety of forms. … This mosaic demands a significant and continued effort to build unity in respect for the riches of each, and thus to reaffirm the credibility of the proclamation of the Gospel and Christian witness. Unity is a gift of God that is born of the Spirit and that must be cultivated with patient perseverance. … Faith is the center and the fruit of true ecumenism. Faith itself must first be deepened. Unity is born of constant prayer and the conversion that enables each of us to live in accordance with the truth and in charity.” (11)
Ecumenism of service.
“An ‘ecumenism of service,’ moreover, already exists in the fields of charity and education between Christians of the different churches and ecclesial communities.” (14)
Unity in diversity.
“Ecumenical unity does not mean uniformity of traditions and celebrations.” (17)
“The church’s universal nature and vocation require that she engage in dialogue with the members of other religions. … It is a dialogue that is not primarily dictated by pragmatic political or social considerations, but by underlying theological concerns that have to do with faith. … Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe in one God, the Creator of all men and women. May [they] find in other believers brothers and sisters to be respected and loved, and in this way, beginning in their own lands, give the beautiful witness of serenity and concord between the children of Abraham. Rather than being exploited in endless conflicts that are unjustifiable for authentic believers … (19)
“The Catholics of the Middle East, the majority of whom are native citizens of their countries, have the duty and right to participate fully in national life, working to build up their country. They should enjoy full citizenship and not be treated as second-class citizens or believers.
As in the past when, as pioneers of the Arab Renaissance, they took full part in the cultural, economic and scientific life of the different cultures of the region, so too in our own day they wish to share with Muslims their experiences and to make their specific contribution.
“It is because of Jesus that Christians are sensitive to the dignity of the human person and to freedom of religion, which is its corollary. For love of God and humanity, thus honoring Christ’s two natures, and with eternal life in view, Christians have built schools, hospitals and institutions of every kind where all people are welcomed without discrimination (cf. Mt 25:31ff.). For these reasons, Christians are particularly concerned for the fundamental rights of the human person. It is wrong to claim that these rights are only “Christian” human rights. They are nothing less than the rights demanded by the dignity of each human person and each citizen, whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences.” (25)
“Religious freedom is the pinnacle of all other freedoms. It is a sacred and inalienable right. It includes on the individual and collective levels the freedom to follow one’s conscience in religious matters and, at the same time, freedom of worship. It includes the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public. It must be possible to profess and freely manifest one’s religion and its symbols without endangering one’s life and personal freedom. Religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the person; it safeguards moral freedom and fosters mutual respect. Jews, with their long experience of often deadly assaults, know full well the benefits of religious freedom. For their part, Muslims share with Christians the conviction that no constraint in religious matters, much less the use of force, is permitted. Such constraint, which can take multiple and insidious forms on the personal and social, cultural, administrative and political levels, is contrary to God’s will. It gives rise to political and religious exploitation, discrimination and violence leading to death. God wants life, not death. He forbids all killing, even of those who kill.” (cf. Gen 4:15-16; 9:5-6; Ex 20:13) (26)
“Religious tolerance exists in a number of countries, but it does not have much effect since it remains limited in its field of action. There is a need to move beyond tolerance to religious freedom. Taking this step does not open the door to relativism, as some would maintain.
It does not compromise belief, but rather calls for a reconsideration of the relationship between man, religion and God. It is not an attack on the ‘foundational truths’ of belief, since, despite human and religious divergences, a ray of truth shines on all men and women. …
“The truth cannot unfold except in an otherness open to God, who wishes to reveal his own otherness in and through my human brothers and sisters. Hence it is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: ‘I possess the truth.’ The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift that calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love.” (27)
Islam and Middle East Christians.
“May this region demonstrate that coexistence is not a utopia, and that distrust and prejudice are not a foregone conclusion. Religions can join one another in service to the common good and contribute to the development of each person and the building of society. The Christians of the Middle East have experienced for centuries the dialogue between Islam and Christianity. For them it means the dialogue of and in daily life. They know its rich possibilities and its limitations.” (28)
After taking an active part for centuries in the growth of their respective nations and helping to forge their identity, many Christians are now seeking more favorable horizons and places of peace where their families will be able to live a dignified and secure life, and spaces of freedom where they can express their faith openly without fear of various constraints.
“This is a heart-rending decision. It has a profound impact on individuals, families and churches. It dismembers nations and contributes to the human, cultural and religious impoverishment of the Middle East. A Middle East without Christians, or with only a few Christians, would no longer be the Middle East, since Christians, together with other believers, are part of the distinctive identity of the region. All are responsible before God for one another. Thus it is important that politicians and religious leaders appreciate this and avoid those policies or partisan strategies that would result in a monochromatic Middle East that would be completely unreflective of its rich human and historic reality.” (31)
Latin vs. Eastern.
“I encourage all the Catholic faithful and all priests, to whatever church they belong, to manifest sincere communion and pastoral cooperation with the local bishop, and I ask the bishops to show paternal understanding toward all the Eastern faithful. It is by working together and above all by speaking with one voice that, in situations like these, all will be able to live and celebrate their faith, enriched by the diversity of spiritual traditions and remaining in contact with their Christian communities of origin.” (34)
The Christian is a witness.
“Christian witness, the primary form of mission, is part of the church’s deepest vocation … Before all else, the Christian is a witness. To be a witness, however, calls not only for a Christian formation that imparts an understanding of the truths of faith, but also for a life in harmony with that faith, a life capable of responding to the expectations and needs of our contemporaries.” (66-67)
Evangelization and charity.
“As heir to the apostolic outreach that brought the Good News to distant lands, each of the Catholic churches present in the Middle East is also called to renew its missionary spirit by training and sending forth men and women proud of their faith in Christ crucified and risen …” (88)
“For many years, the Catholic Church in the Middle East has carried out her mission through a network of educational, social and charitable institutions. She has taken to heart the words of Jesus: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40) The proclamation of the Gospel has been accompanied by works of charity, since it is of the very nature of Christian charity to respond to the immediate needs of all, whatever their religion and regardless of factions or ideologies, for the sole purpose of making present on earth God’s love for humanity. Through her witness of charity, the church makes her specific contribution to the life of society and desires to be at the service of that peace that the region needs.” (89)
“The Middle East is home to many Catholic educational centers, schools, institutes of higher learning and universities. The men and women religious and the lay people who work in them carry out impressive work that I cannot fail to praise and encourage. Alien to every form of proselytism, these Catholic educational institutions open their doors to students of other churches and other religions.” (91)
“ ‘Fear not, little flock!’ (Lk 12:32) With these words of Christ, I wish to exhort all the pastors and Christian faithful in the Middle East courageously to keep alive the flame of divine love both in the church and in all those places where they live and work. In this way, they will preserve in their integrity the essence and mission of the church as willed by Christ. …
“So that men and women may see the face of God and his name marked on their foreheads (cf. Rev 22:4), I invite all the Catholic faithful to let the Spirit of God increasingly strengthen their communion, and to live it out in a simple and joyful fraternity. I know that circumstances at times can lead to compromises that threaten to disrupt this human and Christian communion. Unfortunately, these occur all too often and this ‘lukewarm’ spirit is displeasing to God.” (cf. Rev 3:15-19) (98)
“By its witness, may the ‘brotherhood’ of Christians become a leaven in the whole human family! (cf. Mt 13:33) May Christ’s followers in the Middle East, Catholics and other Christians as well, be one in courageously bearing this difficult yet exhilarating witness to Christ, and thus receive the crown of life!” (Rev 2:10b) (99)
“May Mary, whom the whole church, in East and West alike, venerates with affection, grant us her maternal assistance. Mary All-Holy, who walked in our midst, will once again present our needs to her divine Son. She offers us her Son. Let us listen to her, for she opens our hearts to hope: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ ” (Jn 2:5) (100)