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The Melkite Messenger

Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch, Maximos V Hakim, discusses his church’s movement toward reunion.

“I believe that the Vatican and the Orthodox have to be converted. Not just one part, but rather both parts of the church need conversion.”

The author of this prophetic statement is His Beatitude, Maximos V Hakim, Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of Jerusalem and of Alexandria – St. Peter’s successor as bishop of Antioch.

“There is still a lot to do between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.” The patriarch continued, “the way the Vatican is treating Eastern Catholic churches, for example, is not the way it should be.”

On March 22, the patriarch, accompanied by his assistant, Archimandrite Jean Jeanbart, general secretary of the International Melkite Catholic Union, and Bishop Nicolas Samra, auxiliary bishop of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Mass., was the guest of Catholic Near East Welfare Association at the agency’s New York headquarters. The patriarch, who presently resides in the Syrian capital of Damascus, visited North America to ordain Basilian Father Ignatius Ghattas as bishop of the Eparchy of Newton.

Patriarch Hakim has been in the forefront of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue and interfaith dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews. His leadership is by deeds and example, not mere words.

One of the most powerful examples of this patriarch’s devotion to ecumenism is the renewal of the Melkite Church. The Melkite Catholic Church is an Orthodox Church that is in union with Rome. Its spirituality, theology, prayer life and liturgy follows the traditions of the Orthodox churches, yet it accepts the jurisdiction of the pope.

Due to the influence of western missionaries and contact with the Latin-rite hierarchy in the United States, the Melkite Church had lost some of these Eastern characteristics. Liturgically and spiritually, the pre-Vatican II church existed as a minor rite within the larger Roman Catholic Church. Western traditions, such as First Holy Communion, Stations of the Cross and Bendiction of the Blessed Sacrament became a part of the Melkite Church’s liturgical life. Though powerful expressions of the Roman Catholic faith, these traditions are not essential to the spirit of Eastern Christianity.

The Orthodox, fearful of the loss of their identity and independence, have pointed to such additions in the Eastern churches as Latin attempts to homogenize. Thus, the Eastern Catholic churches, whose raison d’etre was to serve as a bridge of unity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, became a source of discord.

Since his election as patriarch in 1968, Patriarch Hakim has worked for the renewal of Eastern traditions.

“We want to live according to our Eastern spirituality, which is not yet 100 percent acquired,” he said.

The renewal of the Melkite Church requires great tact, tremendous insight, patience and Christian sensitivity. The patriarch is aware of his peoples’ devotion and attachment to the outward signs of their faith. Changes must come slowly so as not to confuse or alienate the people, he said, “but the way is for de-Latinization, with the help of the Holy Father himself.”

The Melkite Catholic Church is one of the oldest living expressions of the Catholic faith. “Melkite” is Arabic for followers of the emperor, subjects who accepted the teachings of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon of 451, which declared Jesus Christ both divine and human. Those who rejected this state-sponsored council-Armenians, Copts of Egypt, Ethiopians and Syrians – opposed the Byzantine emperor’s attempts to centralize and control the church.

Harkening back to his Church’s roots, Patriarch Hakim noted with humor, “We are the imperialists of the fifth century!”

Fifteen centuries later, the differences between those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon and those who rejected it are viewed as political and not theological. “We discovered that we are the same,” said the patriarch. “Today we live together in peace after many centuries of war.”

There are about one and a half million Melkite Catholics worldwide. Originally an Arabic church, many of the Church’s 500,000 Middle Eastern adherents have left the Middle East and emigrated to Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Melkite Church in the United States which presently claims more than 100,000 believers.

According to Bishop Samra, if there were enough clergy, “tomorrow we could open up at least 10 to 15 new parishes. In San Diego, Calif., we have over 300 families and no church.”

The growth of the Melkite Church can be attributed to the influx of immigrants and the increase of converts.

“This is a very sizeable group today.People are interested in Eastern spirituality, which is very adaptable in this country,” stated the U.S.-born Bishop Samra.

According to Bishop Samra, there is a growing movement, initiated by the pope himself, to identify the Eastern churches not as rites, but as churches.

“We have lost half of our church because of the Roman Catholic schools that our children went to. If we accept ourselves as a rite, we will lose the rest of them. If we call ourselves a church, then we are committed to give the Good News of Jesus Christ to whomever wants to come into our door.”

Like other Christians from the Middle East, Melkites left their homelands in search of brighter futures for their children. In Palestine, for example, schools, colleges and universities were closed as a result of the Palestinian intifada. Consequently, Melkite emigration to the West, especially among the young, has dramatically increased.

The patriarch, formerly the bishop of Galilee, earned much respect from both Israelis and Palestinians for his impartiality. But he is doubtful about the prospects of peace.

“Today in the Holy Land there is a lot of discussion about peace,” he said. “I do not see it coming very soon.”

In the patriarch’s native Egypt, heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and Christian minority has also resulted in an increase of Christian emigration.

And then there is Lebanon, where Melkite Catholics make up the third largest Christian body. The patriarch spoke of his recent visit there.

“We don’t know why there is war in Lebanon,” he said. “The war was at one time between Christians and Muslims, but finally it was clear that the war was being fought for other reasons. Now there is a war between Christians themselves.”

The Melkite patriarch, whose overtures towards Christian-Muslim dialogue are considered by authorities as quite progressive, commented on the possibility of a partitioned Lebanon: “I hope it will never happen. When they started speaking of a Christian part and a Muslim part, I said I will live in the Muslim part…I believe we should be able to live together with the Muslims, it had been that way for so long. Anyhow, we have to live with it. We must pray for peace.”

Theologically, the prospects for unity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy look bright, yet paradoxically, clouds of fear may eclipse the works of such veterans of ecumenism as Patriarch Hakim.

“I remember with great emotion when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I, met with Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem,” he recalled. “Athenagoras stated that he would like to drink out of the same chalice as the Holy Father…This is the thing for which we are very sorry: not to be able to drink of the same chalice.”

Patriarch Maximos V Hakim’s desire to drink of the same chalice with his Orthodox sisters and brothers may or may not be fulfilled in our lifetime. Yet he and his community’s diligence and faithfulness to this goal provides a bright example of Christian charity and catholicity for future disciples of Christ.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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