VATICAN CITY (CNS) — As the special synod for the Middle East confronts the situation of Christians in the Middle East, North American bishops, too, are part of the equation as they come to the aid of Middle East Christians in the United States and Canada.
The synod’s preparatory document talks mostly about the people leaving the Middle East, “but, of course, I think we all look at it differently; we see people coming from the Middle East and building their lives in North America in various ways,” said Msgr. Robert L. Stern, general secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
It’s not true that there are no more Middle East Christians, he said.
“They are alive and well” and contributing to society and the church, “it’s just that they’re living in a different place” other than the Middle East, said the monsignor.
The Middle Eastern Christian population has been growing steadily in North American cities and the church has found itself well-prepared to handle their special pastoral and social needs, Msgr. Stern and a group of North American bishops said during an Oct. 12 press briefing organized by the New York branch of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
The Catholic Church has always reached out to people in need, said Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto. The archdiocese itself has been helping refugees of every ethnicity and country of origin since the 1840s, he said.
The archdiocese sponsors newcomers, helps them with immigration issues, and introduces them to the customs and rules of the host country so they can make a smoother transition to their new home, he said.
Luckily, many of the large North American cities already have Eastern-rite churches to help the faithful from the Maronite, Melkite and Chaldean Catholic traditions maintain their unique religious identities, the bishops said.
Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, whose archdiocese has the largest number of Christian and non-Christian Arabs in North America, said the Eastern-rite Catholics enrich and make a “great contribution” to both civil society and the life of the Catholic Church.
Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of St. Maron of Brooklyn, N.Y., said the friendship and cooperation that exist between the Latin and Eastern churches is an important model of how diverse religious communities can work together in harmony and union.
“If the Muslim world saw a little bit more of our great unity in diversity, it would be good for them,” he said, because it would let them know “of the beauty of the Christian message and the beauty of the Catholic Church.”
Some synod fathers from the Eastern churches have requested that limits on the jurisdiction of their leaders be lifted so that a patriarch could provide for the pastoral care of his faithful wherever they might be. That would include requesting the pope revoke a decision made in the 1930s that Eastern churches can ordain married men only in their traditional homelands.
When asked what impact allowing Eastern-rite priests to get married in North America would have on the Latin-rite Catholics, Archbishop Vigneron said if it helped members of the Eastern churches “retain their identity and become inculturated — for it seems to me those are the great tensions for the members of the Eastern churches who come to North America — if it helps, then I think it would be fine.”
Any decision would have to be based on what would be practical and actually help the bishops, priests and members of the Eastern-rite, he said.
If the Melkite, Maronite and Chaldean bishops in the United States feel it would not be helpful, then &dquoI think I would pay most attention to that,” said Archbishop Vigneron.
The archbishop said he believed a married clergy in the Eastern-rite would not make Latin-rite Catholics question their own church’s tradition of celibacy for the priesthood.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Ontario, who is not attending the synod, but chairs CNEWA Canada, said there is “sometimes a bit of tension,” when a married Eastern-rite priest is assigned to be a chaplain at a Catholic school.
When the children see that there are married priests, then “they tend to mention that regularly to them, and I think to my mind that may be one of the things that becomes a difficulty or a bit of a tension point,” he said.