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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Orientale Lumen

Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter defines the church’s ecumenical mission.

On 2 May, Pope John Paul II released an apostolic letter entitled, “Light of the East.” Excerpts, most of which were taken from the second half of the letter, follow.

An appeal to know and treasure the Eastern Churches. The light of the East has illumined the universal Church, from the moment when a “rising sun” appeared above us all (Lk 1:78): Jesus Christ, our Lord, whom all Christians invoke as the Redeemer of man and the hope of the world.

That light inspired my predecessor Pope Leo XIII to write the apostolic letter “Orientalium Dignitas,” in which he sought to safeguard the significance of the Eastern traditions for the whole Church.

On the centenary of that event and of the initiatives the Pontiff intended at that time as an aid to restoring unity with all the Christians of the East, I wish to send to the Catholic Church a similar appeal, which has been enriched by the knowledge and interchange that has taken place over the past century.

Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.

Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters are very conscious of being the living bearers of this tradition, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin [Roman] tradition must also be fully acquainted with this treasure and thus feel, with the Pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church’s catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition, and still less by one community in opposition to the other; and that we too may all be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church, which is preserved and grows in the life of the Churches of the East as in those of the West.…

Pursuing the path of unity. A pope, son of a Slav people, is particularly moved by the call of those peoples to whom the two saintly brothers Cyril and Methodius went. They were a glorious example of apostles of unity who were able to proclaim Christ in their search for communion between East and West amid the difficulties that sometimes set the two worlds against one another.…

These considerations now need to be broadened so as to embrace all the Eastern Churches, in the variety of their different traditions. My thoughts turn to our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Churches, in the wish that together we may seek the strength of an answer to the questions man is asking today in every part of the world. I intend to address their heritage of faith and life, aware that there can be no second thoughts about pursuing the path of unity, which is irreversible as the Lords appeal for unity is irreversible.…

From knowledge to encounter. Thirty years have passed since the Bishops of the Catholic Church, meeting in Council in the presence of many brothers from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, listened to the voice of the Spirit as he shed light on deep truths about the nature of the Church, showing that all believers in Christ were far closer than they could imagine, all journeying toward the one Lord, all sustained and supported by his grace. An evermore pressing invitation to unity emerged at that point.…

After the important steps taken by Pope Paul VI, I have wished the path of mutual knowledge in charity to be continued. I can testify to the deep joy that the fraternal meetings with so many heads and representatives of Churches and Ecclesial Communities have given me in recent years. Together we have shared our concerns and expectations. Together we have called for union between our Churches and peace for the world. Together we have felt more responsible for the common good, not only as individuals, but in the name of the Christians whose pastors the Lord has made us. Sometimes urgent appeals from other Churches, threatened or stricken with violence and abuse, have reached this See of Rome. It has sought to open its heart to them all. As soon as he could, the Bishop of Rome has raised his voice for them, so that people of goodwill might hear the cry of those suffering brothers and sisters of ours.…

A call to conversion. The sin of our separation is very serious: I feel the need to increase our common openness to the Spirit who calls us to conversion, to accept and recognize others with fraternal respect, to make fresh, courageous gestures, able to dispel any temptation to turn back. We feel the need to go beyond the degree of communion we have reached.…

Unity within diversity. The development of different experiences of ecclesial life did not prevent [the early] Christians, through mutual relations, from continuing to feel certain that they were at home in any Church, because praise of the one Father, through Christ in the Holy Spirit, rose from them all, in a marvelous variety of languages and melodies; all were gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist.…

Although in the first centuries of the Christian era conflicts were already slowly starting to emerge within the body of the Church, we cannot forget that unity between Rome and Constantinople endured for the whole of the first millennium, despite difficulties.…

Dialogue of charity in an era of fear. The way of charity is experiencing new moments of difficulty following the recent events that have involved Central and Eastern Europe. Christian brothers and sisters who together had suffered persecution are regarding one another with suspicion and fear just when prospects and hopes of greater freedom are appearing: is this not a new, serious risk of sin which we must all make every effort to overcome, if we want the peoples who are seeking the God of love to be able to find him more easily, instead of being scandalized anew by our wounds and conflicts?.…

Thus it is urgently necessary to become aware of this most serious responsibility: today we can cooperate in proclaiming the Kingdom or we can become the upholders of new divisions.… How can we be fully credible if we stand divided before the Eucharist, if we cannot live our sharing in the same Lord whom we are called to proclaim to the world?

The Church of Christ is one. …Today we know that unity can be achieved through the love of God only if the Churches want it together, in full respect for the traditions of each and for necessary autonomy. We know that this can take place only on the basis of the love of Churches that feel increasingly called to manifest the one Church of Christ, born from one Baptism and from one Eucharist, and which want to be sisters. As I had occasion to say: “the Church of Christ is one. If divisions exist, that is one thing; they must be overcome, but the Church is one, the Church of Christ between East and West can only be one, one and united.”

Of course, in today’s outlook it appears that true union is possible only in total respect for the other’s dignity, without claiming that the whole array of uses and customs in the Latin Church is more complete or better suited to showing the fullness of correct doctrine; and again, that this union must be preceded by an awareness of communion that permeates the whole Church and is not limited to an agreement among leaders.…

Rediscovering the identity of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Eastern Churches that entered into full communion with Rome wished to be an expression of this concern, according to the degree of maturity of the ecclesial awareness of the time. In entering into catholic communion they did not at all intend to deny their fidelity to their own tradition, to which they have borne witness down the centuries with heroism and often by shedding their blood. And if sometimes, in their relations with the Orthodox Churches, misunderstandings and open opposition have arisen, we all know that we must ceaselessly implore divine mercy and a new heart capable of reconciliation over and above any wrong suffered or inflicted.

It has been stressed several times that the full union of the Catholic Eastern Churches with the Church of Rome, which has already been achieved, must not imply a diminished awareness of their own authenticity and originality. Wherever this occurred, the Second Vatican Council has urged them to rediscover their full identity, because they have “the right and the duty to govern themselves according to their own special disciplines. For these are guaranteed by ancient tradition, and seem to be better suited to the customs of their faithful and to the good of their souls.”

[Orientalium Ecclesiarum]. These Churches carry a tragic wound, for they are still kept from full communion with the Eastern Orthodox Churches despite sharing in the heritage of their fathers. A constant, shared conversion is indispensable for them to advance resolutely and energetically toward mutual understanding. And conversion is also required of the Latin Church, that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians, and accept gratefully the spiritual treasures of which the Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers, to the benefit of the entire catholic communion; that she may show concretely, far more than in the past, how much she esteems and admires the Christian East and how essential she considers its contribution to the full realization of the Church’s universality.…

The dialogue of charity. I would like forcefully to affirm that the communities of the West are ready to encourage in every way – and many are already working along these lines – the intensification of this ministry of “diakonia,” making available to such Churches the experience acquired in the years when charity was more freely exercised. Woe to us if the abundance of some were to produce the humiliation of others or a sterile and scandalous rivalry. On their part, Western communities will make it their duty above all to share, where possible, service projects with their brothers and sisters in the Eastern Churches, or to assist in bringing to a successful conclusion all that the latter are doing to help their people.…[I]n territories where both are present, the Western communities will never show an attitude that could appear disrespectful of the exhausting efforts which the Eastern Churches are making, efforts which are all the more to their credit, given the precariousness of the resources available to them.…

Knowledge of one another. I believe that one important way to grow in mutual understanding and unity consists precisely in improving our knowledge of one another. The children of the Catholic Church already know the ways indicated by the Holy See for achieving this: to know the liturgy of the Eastern Churches; to deepen their knowledge of the spiritual tradition, of the fathers and doctors of the Christian East; to follow the example of the Eastern Churches for the inculturation of the Gospel message: to combat tensions between Latins and Orientals and to encourage dialogue between Catholics and the Orthodox; to train in specialized institutions theologians, liturgists, historians and canonists for the Christian East, who in turn can spread knowledge of the Eastern Churches; to offer appropriate teaching on these subjects in seminaries and theological faculties especially to future priests.…

Meeting one another. In addition to knowledge, I feel that meeting one another regularly is very important.… Another form of meeting consists in welcoming Orthodox professors and students to the Pontifical Universities and other Catholic academic institutions.…

It is important that meetings and exchanges should involve Church communities in the broadest forms and ways. We know for example how positive inter-parish activities such as “twinning” can be for mutual cultural and spiritual enrichment, and also for the exercise of charity.…

Journeying toward the rising sun. …We are painfully aware that we cannot yet share in the same Eucharist. Now that the millennium is drawing to a close and our gaze turns to the rising Sun, with gratitude we find these men and women before our eyes and in our heart.

The echo of the Gospel – the words that do not disappoint – continues to resound with force, weakened only by our separation: Christ cries out, but man finds it hard to hear his voice, because we fail to speak with one accord. We listen together to the cry of those who want to hear God’s entire Word.…

May Christ, the “Orientale Lumen,” soon, very soon, grant us to discover that in fact, despite so many centuries of distance, we were very close, because together, perhaps without knowing it, we were walking toward the one Lord, and thus toward one another.

May the people of the third millennium be able to enjoy this discovery, finally achieved by a word that is harmonious and thus fully credible, proclaimed by brothers and sisters who love one another and thank one another for the riches that they exchange. Thus shall we offer ourselves to God with the pure hands of reconciliation, and the people of the world will have one more well-founded reason to believe and to hope.


While ecumenists and theologians search for truths in the customs and faith beliefs, languages and laws, rituals and traditions of the Christian churches, CNEWA carries out its “dialogue of charity.”

In providing humanitarian and pastoral support to the churches and peoples of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe, CNEWA lives by one of its prime directives – “always act as if the Church is one, unless you are forced to encounter a difference.”

• CNEWA is working closely with leaders of the Assyrian Church of the East, assisting in the formation of its clergy and encouraging and publicizing this church’s dialogue with the Holy See.

• We assist the theological formation of Eastern Christian catechists, seminarians and priests, especially through the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. Recent scholarships included grants to a deacon, priest and bishop of the Assyrian Church, a seminarian and layman of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, an Indian priest and a Syrian deacon.

• To strengthen the resources of Catholic and Orthodox seminaries throughout the Near East, CNEWA has supplied theological books to:

  • The Chaldean Catholic Patriarchal Seminary in Baghdad.
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Holy Trinity Theological College in Addis Ababa.
  • St. Leo the Great Coptic Catholic Seminary outside Cairo.

• Since the demise of communism in Armenia, we have been working closely with the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception as they revitalize faith and develop infrastructure in the poor rural villages of the north.

• Our support of India’s Eastern Catholics – the direct descendants of those baptized by the Apostle Thomas – is tremendous. We regularly support 63 houses of formation for women religious and 46 seminaries throughout the subcontinent.

• More than 60 seminarians – from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine – are enrolled at St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary. More than 40 of these seminarians, spanning every level of priestly formation, are sponsored through CNEWA’s Seminarian Sponsorship program.

• Since the fall of Ethiopia’s communist regime, the Orthodox Church has struggled to rebuild its churches, a dollar at a time. CNEWA has offered the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church a modest contribution to assist this ancient Christian community.

• CNEWA has been instrumental in twinning several Roman Catholic parishes in the United States with emerging communities in Albania, Armenia and the Russian Far East.

• A five-year grant helps to maintain St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute (SEERI) near Kottayam, Kerala. The only institute dedicated to the study of Syriac heritage and literature in the world, SEERI attracts Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox theologians and scholars from all over the globe.

• CNEWA placed its good offices at the disposal of the Custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch – to assist in the decoration of the great dome of the church’s rotunda.

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