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Peter’s First See

Why Antioch can rightfully lay claim to Peter and his ministry

For most people, the phrase “See of Peter” refers to Rome.

Rome is the site of the martyrdom of St. Peter and it has been, ever since, the See of Peter.

The term see may be unfamiliar. It is derived from the Latin word sede, meaning chair or seat, and refers to a seat of government, which in this case is the city of the bishop. However, there is another city of the ancient Roman Empire that can also rightfully claim to be the See of Peter.

Apostolic foundations. One way in which the early Christian communities established their legitimacy was to cite their apostolic origins. Because no apostle was more pre-eminent than Peter, many of the early churches took pride in their links to him. Rome, the capital, claimed prominence among all the churches because it was in this city that Peter led the church and was eventually martyred.

Constantinople (founded as New Rome) took pride in the fact that Andrew, the elder brother of Peter and the first-called among the apostles, is buried there. Alexandria, in Egypt, a city second only to Rome in the Roman Empire, claims its apostolicity because it was evangelized by Mark, a disciple of Peter. But Antioch can rightly be called Peter’s first see because he served there for seven years before going to Rome.

Unfortunately, little of the ancient glory of Antioch remains in the modern city of Antakya, in southeastern Turkey. Its 100,000 inhabitants make a living by trading and processing the fruit, olives, wheat and cotton grown in the surrounding countryside. Only archaeological remnants survive as testimony to the glories of the ancient city of Antioch.

In 301 B.C., Seleucus I Nicator, a general in Alexander the Great’s army, founded a city near the mouth of the Orontes River (today known as the Asi). Seleucus intended this city to serve as the capital of the Seleucid Kingdom and named it Antioch, in honor of his father, Antiochus. Because of its strategic location at the crossroads of caravan routes, the city flourished and became a center of commerce.

The Roman general, Pompey the Great, conquered the region in 64 B.C., making it a Roman province with Antioch as its capital. Already renowned for its wealth and luxury, Antioch was to become the third largest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria, with a population of over a half million. Antioch, while always retaining its Greek character, was also home to Macedonians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Jews and Romans. At the time of the apostles, Antioch was a center of government, commerce and culture.

Like the Seleucids before them, the Romans committed large sums of money to adorn the city with temples, statues, gardens, aqueducts and public baths. Even in the 11th century (when the city had already fallen into decline), Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lionheart, did not want to leave the elegance of Antioch for the mud of Paris.

Christian community. Urban dwellers – perhaps because of their contact with numerous strangers passing through or taking up residence – more readily accept new ideas. In the time of the Romans, it was the people of the large cities who were open to the news that a Jew who had been executed by the Romans had risen from the dead. For this and other reasons, the apostles at first restricted their preaching to the cities. Christianity was so identified as a religion of the cities that the term pagan (derived from the Latin word paganus, meaning rural) came to identify one who did not believe in Christianity.

Antioch was a naturally fertile ground for the new religious movement. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Gospel was taken to Antioch by disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene, who fled the persecution of the Jewish authorities (Acts 11:19-20). These disciples did not restrict their preaching to the Jews living in Antioch, but expanded the audience to include Greeks. Their efforts met with success. Soon the Church of Jerusalem sent Barnabas and Paul to continue the work. Eventually the community of believers achieved an independent identity: “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

Peter himself went to Antioch around A.D. 44 and directed the life of the church in Antioch for seven years before going to Rome (Galatians 2:11).

The success of the evangelization of the Greeks, being non-Jews, eventually became the cause of the first great controversy facing the church. The Christians of Jerusalem of Jewish origin held the position that anyone who became a Christian first had to submit to the Mosaic Law in such matters as circumcision and diet.

The new Christians of Antioch – led by Paul and Barnabas – disagreed, asserting that circumcision and the other prescriptions of Mosaic Law did not oblige Gentiles who desired to become Christians. Eventually, the Council of Jerusalem accepted the position of the Antiochene Christians in 52.

As a center of government in the Roman Empire, Antioch was ideal as the hub of evangelization, even more so after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. For centuries, Antioch thrived as a Christian city, with numerous churches in the city itself and monasteries in the surrounding region. Its liturgical traditions influenced those of all the surrounding churches. Numerous martyrs (Ignatius, Asclepiades and Babylas) attest to the vibrant faith of the city. Great men such as Flavian, John Chrysostom and Theodoret all came from Antioch. On the negative side – again perhaps because of its comfort with new ways of thinking – it was in Antioch that the heresies of Arianism and Nestorianism originated.

Patriarchal status. Because of the prominence of Antioch, it was natural that the bishops of the Roman provinces surrounding it (collectively known as the “East”) gravitated toward the city and looked to its bishop for guidance. In 325, the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea I (canon 6) declared that it was already an ancient custom for the bishops of Antioch to exercise a certain jurisdiction over the other bishops of the region. This arrangement was reaffirmed in canon 2 of the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Council of Ephesus also addressed the status of Antioch in 431, which declared the bishops of Cyprus to be emancipated from the bishop of Antioch. Similarly, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 emancipated the bishop of Jerusalem from the bishop of Antioch and assigned the 58 bishoprics in the provinces of Palestine to him.

The title assigned to the bishop of Antioch was patriarch, a term that might be strange to Western Christians although it is quite familiar to the Eastern Christian world. The word patriarch is of Greek origin and was used in the Bible and early church to designate prominent members of a society. After Christianity had acquired public recognition in the fourth century, the title patriarch was employed as a sign of respect to various bishops who enjoyed a certain superiority, either because of their personal prestige or pre-eminence or the importance of the local church over which they presided. By the sixth century, the title of patriarch came to be reserved to the bishops of the five principal sees in the Christian world: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. All five sees claimed some connection to Peter and his ministry.

Dismemberment of the patriarchate. The evolution of the Patriarchate of Antioch can most aptly be described as “dismemberment,” resulting in numerous claimants to this title.

The first division took place as a consequence of the condemnation of Nestorius at Ephesus in 431. The supporters of Nestorius fled the Roman Empire for Persia, eventually declared themselves to be independent of Antioch and established a patriarchate in Seleucia, later Baghdad. Today this community of 400,000 is known as the Assyrian Church of the East, whose head, Mar Dinkha IV, bears the title of Catholicos-Patriarch.

The condemnation of Monophysitism at the Council of Chalcedon resulted in further dismemberment of the Antiochene patriarchate. The Christians of the countryside generally rejected the council and came to be known as Jacobites, after Jacob Baradai, a bishop who ordained numerous bishops. Those who adhered to the doctrine of the council lived in the metropolitan areas and were closely aligned with the imperial court at Constantinople. For this reason, they called themselves Melkites from the Syriac malek, or king. From the middle of the sixth century, both factions fought over the patriarchate.

The successors of the Jacobites, today known as the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, with its 500,000 faithful, are governed by Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I, who resides in Damascus, Syria.

Because of the Arab invasions in the middle of the seventh century, the Melkite patriarch fled to Constantinople. In 960, the Byzantines recaptured the region and re-established the Melkite patriarch in Antioch. Because of their close bonds with Constantinople, the Melkites of Antioch gradually abandoned Antiochene rites in favor of Byzantine rites. The same close bonds between Constantinople and Antioch meant that when Constantinople and Rome excommunicated each other in 1054, Antioch followed.

At the end of the 11th century, the Crusaders conquered Antioch and, at first, reinstated the Melkite Orthodox Patriarch, John IV, to the see. However, he soon withdrew to Constantinople. The Latin Christians then elected their own patriarch; there was a Latin patriarch in Antioch until the Mamluks conquered the city in 1268. The popes continued to appoint titular, or honorary, Latin patriarchs of Antioch until the middle of the 20th century. Pope Paul VI later abolished the practice.

When the Latin Kingdom fell, the Melkite Orthodox patriarch returned to Antioch, but transferred his see to Damascus in the next century because Antioch had declined under Turkish rule. Today, the Melkite successor, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV, governs a church with approximately 750,000 faithful.

This multiplication of titleholders does not yet end.

During the first half of the seventh century, the Arabs had not recognized any Melkite patriarch. In order to fill the void, the monks of the Monastery of St. Maron elected their own patriarch. The Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir, today resides in Bkerke (a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon) and heads a church of four million followers.

In the 17th century, through the efforts of Latin Catholics, members of the Melkite Orthodox community embraced full communion with Rome. Eventually, it became difficult to differentiate between Catholic and Orthodox Melkites; members from both communities were elevated to the episcopate.

In 1724, Cyril VI, a Catholic, was elected as the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch by Melkites, Orthodox and Catholic. Although he had been elected with the intention of being the patriarch for all Melkites, Orthodox rivals were soon elected.

Rome was at first reluctant to recognize Cyril as the Catholic titleholder to Antioch, but eventually did so in 1729. In 1772, the authority of the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch was extended over the Greek Catholics residing in Jerusalem and Alexandria. Today, Gregory III, who was elected in 2000, governs the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. He resides in Damascus.

Some attribute the establishment of the Syriac Catholic Antiochene Patriarchate to the elevation in 1662 of Andrew Akhidjan, who had been ordained a bishop by the Maronite patriarch in 1656. Akhidjan’s death in 1677 brought an end to the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate. The enthronement of Syriac Catholic Michael Jarweh in 1782 re-established this patriarchate. Today, Ignatius Peter VIII governs the Syriac Catholic Church, with its 138,000 faithful. The previous Syriac Catholic patriarch, Ignace Moussa I Cardinal Daoud, is today the Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

Presently, there are five titleholders to the See of Antioch: one is Syriac Orthodox, one is Greek Orthodox and three are Catholic. While all take pride in the title “Patriarch of Antioch,” it is ironic that none resides in the city from which the title is drawn.

Reunification movements. The wounds of division caused by the dismemberment (and the consequent multiplication of titleholders) of the Patriarchate of Antioch have not yet healed. Yet, there are signs of hope. One of the great legacies of Vatican II is the ecumenical movement, the desire that all those baptized in Christ be one.

Quite often the ecumenical movement is understood as a dialogue between the Church of Rome and the various Orthodox churches. Such dialogues are attempts at establishing full communion between the Church of Rome and one of the Eastern non-Catholic churches. However, ecumenical dialogue also takes place in the form of a dialogue among the Eastern churches themselves. This form of dialogue is a manifestation of the desire to reintegrate the patriarchate itself. For example, a few years ago the synods of the Melkite Greek Catholic and the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch signed an accord. Although this effort met with serious objections, the fact that it was even attempted reveals the desire of the Antiochene churches for full communion.

Another more practical example of the pursuit for full communion is the construction of the Church of St. Paul at Doummar, near Damascus. This parish church, built with financial help from CNEWA, serves as a place of worship for both the Melkite and Orthodox communities.

The glories of imperial Antioch have long since faded. The faith of Peter’s spiritual descendants, however, has not.

Chorbishop Faris, who is a member of the Maronite Church, is the Undersecretary General of CNEWA.

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