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To Rome and Back: The Pontifical Oriental Institute

A history of the Pontifical Oriental Institute as it continues to support ecumenism in the Catholic Church.

On 12 May, pope John Paul II beatified the last non-Jesuit president (1919-1922) of the Pontifical Oriental Institute. A papal graduate school entrusted to the Society of Jesus, the Oriental Institute, through research, publishing and teaching, reaches out to the Eastern churches, fostering dialogue and mutual understanding.

Had it not been that the newly beatified was Ildefonso Cardinal Schuster, O.S.B., the World War II era Archbishop of Milan, the ceremony would have occurred without much fanfare. This brings to mind the fate of the Eastern churches. The whole of Christendom is indebted to these communities, Catholic and Orthodox alike, for their spiritual and theological heritage. And yet they are often ignored.

What a feat it would have been had all the notable graduates of the Oriental Institute materialized in their liturgical splendor for this beatification. Imagine patriarchs Gregory Peter XV Agagianian (Armenian Catholic), Raphael I Bidawid and Paul II Cheikho (Chaldean) and Ignatius Anthony II Hayek (Syrian Catholic) – not to mention cardinals, bishops, abbots, superiors, priests and religious – standing side by side with the present Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, as the Patriarch of the Western church honored one of their spiritual brothers.

Indeed, an even greater feat would be a brief essay on the achievements of the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

There is hardly an area of interest to Eastern church life that has not been touched upon by the institute:

• the admired riches of Eastern spirituality, advanced here as an independent discipline by several Jesuits, including Irénée Hausherr, Ivan Kologrivov and Tomas Spidlik.

• the critical interpretation of the various Eastern liturgies, developed by Blessed Schuster and the Jesuits Alphonse Raes, Juan Mateos, Robert Taft and others.

• the nuances of ecclesiology (the theology of the church, its structures and practices) and its impact on church unity, translated into a learned theology by the Assumptionist Father Martin Jugie and into an ecumenical praxis by the Jesuit John Long.

These are just a random sampling of the many scholars who have rescued texts and manuscripts from obscurity, making them available to historians, liturgists and theologians, as well as to the general public.

The Pontifical Oriental Institute is open to Catholics and non-Catholics, men and women, clergy, religious and members of the laity. The institute was founded in 1917, when few people studied traditions other than one’s own. The Rev. Vincenzo Poggi, S.J., historian and former dean, points out that the institute’s founder, Pope Benedict XV, seems to have wavered between the institute as a place to train missionaries or as an academic institution.

At the time, the ecumenical movement was still in its infancy. In 1910, Anglican and Protestant missionaries, at odds with one another in the field, ignited the movement when they gathered to discuss their common creed in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Benedict XV did not join their International Missionary Council. However, in May 1917, he erected the “Congregation for the Oriental Church,” which reserved all concerns of the Holy See involving the Eastern churches, independent of the missionary-minded Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. The Holy Father, in creating the new congregation, asserted the respect and esteem of the Holy See for these ancient and noble churches, an ecumenical attitude at that time.

In October of the same year, the Pope deepened his commitment to the Eastern churches by calling into life the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

From its inception, the institute stressed the importance of codifying and publishing texts. Two of the greatest achievements of the institute are the publication of the 11-volume Concilium Florentinum: documenta et scriptores of the Council of Florence, published between 1940 and 1976, and the Amphorae Syriacae, a project that began in 1939.

The publications of the institute have decisively contributed to the Eastern ecclesiastical disciplines. What began initially as Orientalia Christiana in 1929 was transformed in 1935 into Orientalia Christiana Periodica, a biannual periodical now in its 62nd year of publication, and Orientalia Christiana Analecta, a monographic series that has just celebrated the publication of its 251st volume. A third monographic series has been formed, Kanonika, which features commentaries on the Eastern Code of Canon Law (promulgated in 1990) and related issues.

Other programs and projects, which rise and fall like the numbers on the stock exchange, reflect the fluctuating fortunes of the Eastern Christian churches.

Nothing is as sensitive to these changes as ecclesiology. From the controversial Michel d’Flerbigny, (the institute’s first Jesuit president, 1922-32), who shared the then-prevalent idea that the “separated brethren” should return to Rome, to the well-known ecumenist, Georges Dejaifve, S.J. (Rector, 1973-74), we may chart the changing trends in ecclesiology.

Indeed, four periods distinguish the 79-year history of the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

The first begins with the foundation of the institute in 1917 and closes with the beginning of World War II in 1939. It may be said that this was the generation of pioneers, who tried frantically – with limited means – to set a solid foundation while laying down the rule of the game.

The second stage coincides with the war and the postwar era and concludes with the commencement of Vatican II (1962). This 20-year stretch witnessed the first flowering of the institute’s efforts and culminated with the calling of the council and the special emphasis placed on the universal character of the church.

The third period coincides with the tremendous ecumenical advances among the Eastern churches furthered in the post-conciliar church, but closes with the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the rebirth of the long-oppressed churches, Catholic and Orthodox, of Central and Eastern Europe.

It is clear we have entered a new period, one of new hopes and challenges.

The institute’s academic curriculum is diverse and ever-changing. In 1971, the Congregation for the Eastern Churches set up a faculty of canon law, the only one of its kind in the world. In addition, programs are offered in the historical, liturgical, patristic and theological aspects of the Armenian, Byzantine (Arab, Balkan, Greek and Slavic), Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac traditions. Language courses are also an important component of the course of study.

While maintaining its prowess in each of these fields, the Oriental Institute must attempt some form of synthesis. There is no such thing as neutral dogmatics – the interpretation of our Christian faith – but there is plenty of room for genuinely ecumenical dogmatics!

The student population of the Pontifical Oriental Institute is a microcosm of the world. For the 1995-96 academic year, 388 students, from 57 different countries, have enrolled at the institute.

The Rev. Michael Findikyan, a deacon of the Armenian Apostolic Church, could think of no better place to pursue the study of comparative liturgies. Granted a scholarship from the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, which offers Orthodox bishops the opportunity to send qualified students to various universities, the young deacon is one of our more promising young scholars.

Sister Prasanna Vazheeparampil, C.M.C., a member of the Syro-Malabar Church, the fastest-growing Eastern Catholic community, has had to face real hardship in order to put her work on paper. A budding scholar, Sister Prasanna’s Woman in Prism and Focus brings together, as through a prism, various socioreligious perspectives on women from the world’s diverse religious traditions.

Both students, like many scholars who travel from afar, praise the institute’s library, a real jewel. This is due largely to the efforts of Benedict’s successor, Pope Pius XI, who, prior to his election as pope in 1922, served as the Prefect of the famous Ambrosian Library in Milan and, later, the Vatican Library. Pius XI sent a number of distinguished scholars to Russia and the Middle East to acquire what may be the world’s richest collection of books and periodicals regarding the Christian East. After the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1989, the library facilities were modernized. Recently, the collection was updated and computerized.

In 1991, an extension of the institute – the Ezio Aletti Center – was founded to provide scholars from the Christian East access to the various ecclesiastical institutes in Rome. Last year a School of Spiritual Art was founded at the center.

While the Pontifical Oriental Institute was not established as an ecumenical institute, it may best contribute to the goal of dialogue by pursuing a strict academic course, servicing truth. One criterion of truth is its social relevance, which in this case means relevance for the various churches.

Fostering a healthy sense of pride in one’s own tradition and identity automatically creates a disposition of openness. In this sense, learning is one of the most efficient means of inculcating ecumenism.

Father Farrugia, S.J., is Professor of Dogma and Eastern Patrology at the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

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