Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, celebrates liturgy at the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchal Seminary in Baghdad, May 1993. (photo: CNEWA files)
Rosary Sister Bernadette der Mesrop prepares documentation for an international meeting of donors. (photo: Norman Gorbaty)
Msgr. Stern meets with the Cardinal in his Rome office last December. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Cardinal Silvestrini meets with Father Marco Brogi, O.F.M., at a December planning meeting. (photo: Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
The popes pastoral concern for the Eastern churches had an early expression in the establishment in 1573 by Pope Gregory XIII of a Roman Congregation for Matters Pertaining to the Greeks. After the founding of the Propaganda Fide by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, various ad hoc commissions relating to Eastern Christian affairs were created within it, until finally, in 1862, Pope Pius IX set up a separate section of the Propaganda Fide For Affairs of Eastern Rite.
The Congregation for the Oriental Church was founded by Pope Benedict XV on the 1 May 1917, and it began to function on 1 December of the same year. To this congregation were reserved all concerns of the Holy See regarding persons, discipline and liturgy of the Eastern churches, including concerns involving both Eastern and Latin churches. In the decree of foundation, Pope Benedict XV made it ever more clear that the Holy See did not undervalue the merits of these churches or desire to subject them to Latin customs.
In 1967 Pope Paul VI changed its name to the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, or, as it is often called in the United States, the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. It is a congregation in that it consists of a group of cardinals and bishops. Since 1967, it has consisted of about 26 cardinals together with all the Eastern Catholic patriarchs and major archbishops, and seven bishops chosen mainly to represent those Eastern Catholic churches not having a patriarchate or major archbishop. The Cardinal President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is always a member.
The Congregation is located in the historic Palazzo dei Convertendi, used after 1675 as a hospice for persons converting to the Catholic faith. It was originally built by Bramante and was purchased in 1517 by Raphael for his residence. Raphael died there in 1520. Interestingly, this building was situated on what is now the Via della Conciliazione, the Avenue of the Reconciliation, constructed in the mid-30s to mark the ending in 1929 of the estrangement between the government of Italy and the Holy See. The building was torn down and reconstructed a few meters away at the edge of the new street with the same facade but with modern finishing inside. In this building are also housed some other offices of the Holy See, including the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, an historical accident illustrating yet another dimension of conversion that has been emphasized since Vatican II the emphasis upon ongoing conversion of heart to the love of God, which is presupposed in all religious dialogue and is its only ultimate aim. Thus the ultimate reconciliation of all Christians will hopefully come about through the greater conversion of hearts to love for Jesus in full communion of faith and love for one another.
The congregation is led by a Prefect, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, who is a Latin (Roman) Catholic. He is assisted by Archbishop Miroslav S. Marusyn, the Secretary General, who is Ukrainian Greek Catholic; and by the Egyptian-born Undersecretary, Father Marco Brogi, O.F.M., who is also Latin Catholic. Five of the 13 other officials are Eastern Catholic.
The Congregation for the Eastern Churches has personal jurisdiction over Eastern Catholics everywhere and it has territorial jurisdiction even over Latin Catholics in those areas where the majority of Christians are Eastern Christian.
United in this congregation are many of the powers of jurisdiction that for the Latin Church are spread among several Roman congregations. Thus it handles for the Holy See all matters regarding Eastern Catholic bishops and clergy, seminaries and religious institutes, liturgy and the needs of the local churches. Nevertheless, the mission and activity of this congregation are generally viewed as generous and effective.
In my 30 years of service to the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, I was greatly impressed by the way in which Eastern Catholic priests and sisters visiting Rome viewed the congregation. Frequently they would make the congregation their first point of call upon arriving and their last point of call before leaving the city. They saw the congregation, not as an imposing bureaucracy, but as, in the words of one visitor, a place flowing with milk and honey. Most of the working hours of the superiors are spent receiving visitors and listening to their needs. Those most familiar with the Roman scene are aware of this, but those who know it only from a distance often do not realize the extent of the knowledge, competence and good will of its staff. I remember instances of priests and sisters from distant lands who made the long journey to Rome to visit the congregation and introduce some plan for a school, convent or chapel, in the hope of establishing initial interest in their project. Often they left the congregation that same morning with a check. Understanding was quick and, with open access among the small number of officials, matters could be studied, discussed and decided with considerable speed and efficiency.
But much of this distribution of aid was made possible through the help of CNEWA and its wide range of generous contributors. In fact, CNEWA has been a providential help to the Eastern churches from the time of its inception. This was recognized and declared by Pope Pius XI in 1928 when he described Catholic Near East Welfare Association as an agency for Eastern churches parallel to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Latin areas. Prior to 1926 there were several principal agencies working in the United States to aid the victims of poverty and misfortune in the East, to support the work of the Eastern Catholic churches and to promote Christian unity. Then Pope Pius XI united these agencies into the one Catholic Near East Welfare Association, aimed at working in close collaboration with the Holy See. Through the help of a large number of donors in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, CNEWA has been able to provide a major share of all the money distributed by the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, and has also channeled millions of dollars in designated gifts to recipients stretching from Greece to India, Eastern Europe to Ethiopia, as well as in other parts of the world. The mutual collaboration of CNEWA and the Holy See has led to the construction of thousands of churches and hundreds of schools and convents; it has provided scholarships for tens of thousands of seminarians and student sisters and support for hundreds of thousands of children in need. These extensive one-on-one sponsorship programs have brought a great number of Eastern Catholics into personal contact with American Catholics. The positive effects of this relationship are immeasurable. Furthermore, Mass stipends sent to CNEWA by its benefactors and distributed through the congregation to priests in need have for the past half century provided the daily bread of a vast portion of the clergy in poor areas of the Middle East, Northeast Africa and India, thus relieving the concern of the Pope for these priests.
Over the years the Congregation for the Eastern Churches has viewed with approval the growing capability of CNEWA to study projects in the field and give professional guidance in their funding. This has added the element of technical assistance to the overall activity and has made the contributions of its donors all the more effective.
From its beginning, CNEWA has also had the task of informing North Americans about Eastern Christians, even as it has invited them to share actively in its ecumenism of charity with these Eastern communities. Our Association has thus performed the precious task of establishing bridges of understanding between Christians in Eastern jurisdictions and the affluent church in the U.S. All of this has been in keeping with St. Peters instructions to St. Paul as he ventured out to evangelize the Gentiles: remember the poor, which St. Paul tells us he was careful to do (Gal 2:10). In enabling the successors of Peter to reach out in charity to the churches of the East, the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, in partnership with CNEWA, has followed St. Pauls example as a witness to the Gospel and as a bearer of assistance to our brothers and sisters in the East.
Msgr. McCarthy is Director of our CNEWA-PMP Vatican office.