One and Many Churches

Following is Chorbishop John D. Faris’s 13 September 2003 speech at the investiture dinner of the Eastern Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Your Eminence,
Your Excellency Lieutenant Joseph Spinnato and Lieutenants
Your Excellency Archbishop Pittau and Most Reverend bishops
Reverend Monsignors, Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers,
Dear Friends,

Permit me to describe for you a typical Sunday in the church called by the Latin West the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Orthodox East, the Church of the Resurrection. The Franciscan organist has pulled out all the stops and the music resounds throughout the church; the baritones in the Armenian choir are singing from the bottom of the scale and at the top of their lungs; the Greek Orthodox priests are frenetically swinging thurifers with dozens of bells attached to the chains. Although the accusation would meet with universal denial, it appears that each of the communities is doing its best to drown out the prayers of the other. An occasional fight breaks out among the lay persons or clerics. The Israelis are sometimes called in to keep the peace. And at the end of the day, the Muslim family traditionally entrusted with the keys of the church locks the doors for the night.

Some of us have personally witnessed these celebrations. Most of us gaze upon this liturgical state of affairs with bemusement and bewilderment; the self-righteous among us are critical and judgmental. All of us must admit that even though we share the same baptism as these Christians of the Holy Land, they are really quite foreign to us.

For American Catholics, the idea that Christianity is disappearing in the Middle East is contrary to our basic intuitions. Christianity as a tradition and as a community is so ingrained in the United States we cannot imagine it to be in danger of disappearing. Nevertheless, the Christian community is perilously close to disappearing from the Holy Land. Pope Paul VI challenged the Christians of the world with the question of whether we were willing to allow the Holy Land to become a land of museums, to surrender a Christian presence that once was but is no longer. The Holy Father has given the mandate to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem to provide material and spiritual support for the Christians in the Holy Land so that the Christian witness does not disappear.

Whenever we attend an affair such as this, the question uppermost in our minds is “What can we do to help?” We tend to focus on providing political support for the Christians: writing to the White House, putting pressure on our representatives in Congress or informing the media of the injustices that are tragically common in the land where our Lord walked. Many in this room have been extremely generous in providing material support for medical, educational and social programs in the region. God bless you. All this activity must continue. However, this evening I would like to reflect upon another aspect of our response to the Christians of the Holy Land. We have spoken about material and political support, but what is our religious or Christian response to the needs of the Christian community in Jerusalem? But first of all, who are these Christians? Where do they come from?

Who are they?

Before we can attempt to discover who these Christians are, it is necessary to define what we mean by Holy Land. Quite often, we restrict our notion of Holy Land to Israel and Palestine, that is, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee. But if we apply the principle that the Holy Land is anywhere Jesus himself had visited during his life, then Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon also must be considered as part of the Holy Land.

Who are the Christians in the Holy Land today? As we will see, these Christians belong to a variety of traditions:

  • The largest groups of Christians are Orthodox, the Greeks, the Russians and the Bulgarians. All these Eastern churches have roots in Byzantium, which separated from Rome in the 11th century.
  • The second largest group are the Latins or Roman Catholics.
  • Other churches are Eastern yet also in full communion with Rome. Under the category of Eastern Catholic are included the Maronite and the Melkite Greek Catholic churches.
  • There are the Oriental Orthodox, who separated themselves later in the fifth century because of disputes over the nature of Christ. These churches are the Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians and Armenians.
  • Beyond all these Eastern churches are Western Reformed churches, the Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist and numerous evangelical communities.
  • Although they do not have a significant presence in the Holy Land, I would also mention the Assyrians in present-day Iraq. It is important to recall that there are Iraqis who are Christians. Today, they are reduced in numbers, but at one point this community had expanded to the East as far as India and Mongolia.

This is a thumbnail description of the panoply of the Christian community in the Holy Land. Quite often, we restrict our attention and concern to the Latin Catholics in the Holy Land, but our concern must be for the welfare of all who bear the name of Christ in the Holy Land. Please remember that for the ordinary Muslims and the Jews, all these various communities fall under the category of Christian. Distinctions between Catholic and Orthodox are as vague to them as the differences between Sunnites and Shiites are to us. And, as might be expected, the Muslims and the Jews are not very concerned about upholding a Christian presence in that part of the world.

We usually misconstrue the multiplicity of Christian communities to be the result of disputes and divisions. It is unfortunate that some of the distinctions among the communities are the result of disputes. However, some of the differences are simply the consequence of the fact that Christianity took root in a variety of places and evolved in a variety of forms.


We all know that everything started in Jerusalem. It was in Jerusalem that our Lord instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist; it was in Jerusalem that he was crucified and rose from the dead; it was in Jerusalem that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples. That Jerusalem should have been selected by Divine Providence as the focus of salvation history is truly a mystery of faith. The city proclaimed by three Abrahamic religions to be “holy” has always been insignificant from the perspective of politics, commerce and culture. At the time of our Lord, Jerusalem was the capital of a very troublesome province in the Roman Empire. To be sent to represent Imperial Rome politically or militarily was no great reward.

As foretold by Jesus, Jerusalem was not to survive for very long after the crucifixion. Because of civil disturbances Roman armies led by Titus sacked the Temple in the year 70 (the spoils of that military venture were used to pay for the Coliseum in Rome). After another rebellion, the city was totally destroyed in 135 and rebuilt by Hadrian as Aelia Capitolina. By the time Christianity was recognized by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century, the Jerusalem known by Jesus and his followers was little more than a city of ruins and memories.


It was fortunate that the fate of Christianity was not tied to the vicissitudes of Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus soon dispersed and spread the Gospel message throughout the Roman Empire and even beyond its boundaries to the Kingdom of Armenia and the Persian Empire (today Iraq and Iran).

At the time of the apostolic church, Antioch was one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. It was the center of government, commerce and culture. (Today, it is known as Antakya, a small town in Turkey that grows watermelons.) The disciples of Jesus were so successful in organizing a community in Antioch, that they soon recognized their independence from the Jewish community and were the first to identify themselves as “Christian.” Saint Paul used Antioch as the center of his evangelization efforts to the non-Jews. Saint Peter was the first bishop of Antioch. It is interesting to note that all the significant cities that became the “hubs” of the Gospel movement identified themselves in some way with Peter. The form of Christianity that evolved in Antioch was adopted in one form or another throughout the Middle East and even spread beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The Maronite, Syrian and Syro-Malankara churches all worship according to the tradition that evolved out of Antioch.

Another important center for evangelization was Alexandria in northern Egypt. Tradition holds that the Gospel message was taken to Alexandria by Saint Mark (a disciple of Peter). The ancient Coptic and Ethiopian churches of Africa grew out of the Church of Alexandria. The ancient churches in Northeast Africa, perhaps the poorest region on earth, retain characteristics reminiscent of the ancient Jewish traditions that were originally observed in the ancient church.Rome, the capital of the Empire, had Saint Peter as its first bishop and witnessed his martyrdom and that of Saint Paul. The bishops of Rome who were to succeed Peter continued in his ministry to support the universal Church. It was from Rome that the Gospel message spread throughout northern Africa, Western Europe and the New World.

In 320, Emperor Constantine wanted to establish a new imperial capital that was to be Christian from its very foundations. Rome, after all, was a pagan city, onto which a Christian veneer had been placed. As the site of this new imperial city, he chose a small city on the Bosporus known at the time as Byzantium. Initially called “New Rome,” it later took the name of its founder, Constantinople. Tradition holds that Saint Andrew (the brother of Saint Peter and the “first called”) was buried in Byzantium or Byzantion. Constantine moved his imperial residence and the Senate to the city. Money poured in to build magnificent churches, libraries and centers of social assistance. Missionaries from Constantinople spread through Central and Eastern Europe.

Thus far, we have spoken of how Christianity expanded from the five hubs: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Christianity was also plagued with divisions and disputes.


At first, there were disputes over the nature of Christ. In 325, Christians in the Persian Empire broke communion with the rest of Christianity; the Assyrian Church of the East is the descendant of those Christians. In 451, most of the Middle East and Northeast Africa, antagonistic toward Constantinople, broke away. The greatest division took place in the 11th century when Constantinople and Rome parted ways. The overall effect was a group of Eastern churches that identified themselves as Orthodox and a Western church that identified itself as Catholic.

In the 16th century, the Western, Latin church was beset with a division known as the Protestant Reformation.

Partial Reunions

The efforts of the Catholic Counter-Reformation had a marked effect in the Middle East. Zealous Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries introduced an attractive form of Christianity to this region. They brought with them books, opened schools and revitalized Christian life that had been somewhat impoverished for centuries. Naturally some of the Orthodox were attracted by these missionaries and desired to re-establish full communion with the Apostolic See of Rome. In order to allow the Orthodox faithful to retain their traditions while still being in communion with Rome, Eastern Catholic hierarchies were established for them. Today, these are the Eastern Catholic churches, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Maronite Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church and the Coptic and Ethiopian Catholic churches.

A Christian Response

You have just heard a greatly abbreviated history of the churches in the Holy Land. But what does this mean to us, members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre? In a typically American fashion, we look at a problem and immediately seek a solution.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution. I do propose, however, a Christian response and there are three facets to it:

Respect the diversity of these churches. Those of us Catholics who are interested in the welfare of the Christian community in the Holy Land presume that this community is a Latin Catholic church. Naturally, the Latin Patriarch and the Franciscans are prominent in our minds and merit our support, but let us not forget that the Church in the Holy Land is not entirely Latin or Catholic. There is a wonderful diversity of traditions that is a testimony to the ability of the Gospel message to implant itself in a variety of cultures. Let us respect the diversity of these traditions, support the various churches as they sing praise to God in a variety of tongues.

Respect the unity that already exists among these churches. Yes, there is division but there is also unity. All the Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox, have retained apostolic roots and therefore live the same sacramental life. Msgr. Robert Stern, Secretary General of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, has a fundamental operating principle for all CNEWA agency activities: We must always act as if the Church is one unless a certain factor or set of circumstances requires that we act otherwise. Latin Catholics share in the fate of the Greek Orthodox simply because we are all Christian. Our goal, as an Order, is to support all facets of Christian life in the Holy Land. If the Armenians in the Holy Land need our help, we must extend a brotherly hand to them.

Work for forgiveness and reconciliation. Several days ago, I walked into the reception area of the CNEWA office to find about 20 people who appeared to be Amish (they weren’t) waiting to see me.

I learned that these people were Anabaptists living a common life in the Woodcrest Bruderhof in upstate New York. A group of these people are planning to make a pilgrimage of peace to the Holy Land. As I sat with these good, unsophisticated people, my thoughts were that they seemed so very naive. How could they possibly hope to change anything in the Middle East with something like a “peace pilgrimage.” Upon reflection, I had a complete reversal of opinion. Perhaps I am the one who is naive. After all, for the past five decades, there have been numerous attempts at a political solution – where did all these political solutions bring us – one atrocity after another.

In the arena of world affairs, religion is often blamed for a variety of conflicts, but is seldom given the opportunity to offer a solution. That does not mean that a religious solution does not exist.

We must always keep in mind that the Christian community is quite small. Its reduction or disappearance would probably not be greatly mourned by the Muslims or the Jews. So, with reduced numbers and limited resources, what can they do? We need not play the numbers game: the Church started with twelve apostles. Although the Christians might have limited resources, they have great spiritual strength; we must recall that during his earthly life, Jesus was strongest and most effective when he was on the Cross. I am convinced that the Christians can still play a significant role in the Holy Land.

In the Holy Land, the phrase “Christian witness” commonly refers to all the good works that the churches, especially the Catholic Church, are doing on to help Christians and non-Christians. Through your generosity, these good works go on.

However, Christian witness is more than good works. There is also the message of Jesus Himself, a simple and direct message that was as radical and challenging 2,000 years ago as it is today. This message to be proclaimed is one of forgiveness: Jesus commands us to forgive each other. Forgiveness and reconciliation are desperately needed in this region because there cannot be peace until the people in that land at least attempt to forgive each other. The Christian witness can and must include the radical challenge for reconciliation in the land. Perhaps the most effective “road map” to peace is the path of forgiveness.

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