ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Why It Matters

Father Elias Mallon, CNEWA’s external affairs officer, answers a few questions about the apostolic exhortation.

1. Explain for our readers the significance of this exhortation. Why is it important?

As a declaration from the pope, the bishop of Rome, it has an immediate importance for Catholics. Coming as it does as the result of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, the document is also the product of the college of bishops in communion with the successor of St. Peter.

The special assembly was an unusually clear exercise of the catholicity of the church in that Catholic patriarchs, archbishops and bishops of the Eastern churches — Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac — were present as active, contributing members of the assembly. The presence of Orthodox Christians as well as Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Jews gave added importance to the deliberations.

The situation of Christians in the Middle East for the past several hundred years has been that of a minority. The Third Gulf War in Iraq (2003-2011) and the events of the “Arab Spring” (December 2010 – present) have made the situation of Christians in the region critically perilous. The continued existence of Christianity in the region can no longer simply be assumed. Any statement, therefore, of all the Catholic bishops in the region in communion with the pope is momentous.

2. The exhortation devotes a lot of space to the question of ecumenism, unity and interreligious dialogue. Why do you think that message is especially timely now?

The Middle East has historically been incredibly diverse religiously. It is the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions of the planet: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In addition, several other smaller, ancient religions can be found here. For Christians the Middle East was not only the region where Jesus was born, taught, died and rose from the dead, it was also the region where some of the most bitter divisions arose over how to understand who Jesus Christ is. An ancient division arose between Christians who followed the Council of Chalcedon (451) and those who did not. Later, further divisions between the church of Rome in the West and the churches of the East further divided Christians. The exhortation calls all people of good will to work together for the common good and unity of all.

The exhortation makes clear that without ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the centrifugal forces at work in the region will ultimately divide one community against the other, increasing intolerance and violence and threatening the very survival of Christians in the Middle East.

3. What portions of the document do you think have particular meaning and resonance for those who work with and support CNEWA? Why?

People who work with and support CNEWA do so for a variety of reasons. The work of CNEWA covers traditional areas of peace and justice such as supporting hospitals, orphanages, schools, etc. CNEWA also is deeply engaged in building up the Eastern Catholic churches, supporting seminaries and seminarians, by helping to maintain ecclesial and parish life.

CNEWA also reaches out ecumenically to the Orthodox churches by helping to strengthen their institutions and their church life as well. By doing so, CNEWA hopes to strengthen the unity that Orthodox and Catholic Christians share through baptism — a point stressed in the exhortation — and, thereby, help bring about the unity of all Christians willed by Christ. In interreligious dialogue, CNEWA is deeply involved in the so-called dialogue of life with Muslims in the Middle East, helping them achieve the quality of life that God wills for all.

Depending upon where one puts one’s emphasis, different parts of the exhortation draw our attention to CNEWA’s work of encouraging the peace and well-being of that land we call “holy.”

4. What are the implications of this call from the pope for the region and, indeed, for the world?

I suspect one of the major implications that the exhortation may have is that parochialism and isolationism cannot solve the problems of the Middle East. By implication this is also true for the entire world. Christians in the Middle East are there together. What may have once been an accident of history is now a theological challenge for the very survival of Christianity in the region. While Christians in the Middle East are not called to forget their histories, they are challenged to overcome those histories and those divisions when they do not build up the Body of Christ but rather leave it weakened to sometimes overwhelming forces. Looking at the extreme richness and variety of Christianity in the Middle East, the exhortation reminds the Christians there — and by implication Christians everywhere — of the importance not only of diversity, but also of the common good and of the importance of working together to build up the Body of Christ.

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