VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The vast majority of Catholics in the Middle East belong to Eastern Catholic churches, and their bishops spoke loudly at the Vatican, asking for greater respect and a higher profile for Eastern Catholics.
Reflecting the Catholic population of the region, 140 of the 185 voting members of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East come from the Eastern Catholic churches, and several of them addressed the synod Oct. 12.
Not only did they ask for recognition of their rights, they also emphasized the work they need to do to strengthen the Christian identity of their faithful, preserve their heritage and end a sense of rivalry that can exist among Catholics of different rites.
Bishop Vartan Waldir Boghossian, the Argentina-based bishop for Armenian Catholics in Latin America, used rather strong language to get across points made by other Eastern Catholic bishops, particularly regarding limits placed on Catholic patriarchs when providing for their faithful who have emigrated from their traditional homelands.
The Eastern Catholic churches, while in full communion with the pope, have their own canon law and disciplines, their own liturgies, spiritualities, histories and heritage. While they tend to be identified with one country or geographical region, many of them now find that the majority of their faithful live abroad, Bishop Boghossian said.
And, he said, “of the 23 churches in their own right that make up the Catholic Church, only one — the Latin church — is not subject to this limitation” of the authority and power of the patriarch and synod being confined to the churches’ ancient geographical borders.
For example, while the bishops of the Armenian Catholic Church elect bishops for dioceses in Armenia, it is the pope who selects Armenian bishops for dioceses in the United States or Australia.
The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches described the patriarchs as “fathers and leaders of their churches,” Bishop Boghossian said. “This paternity and jurisdiction must not be limited to a territory,” especially when the majority of the church’s members live outside that territory.
In addition, he said, the patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic churches, “because of their identity as fathers and leaders of the ‘sui iuris’ (self-governing) churches that make up the catholicism of the Catholic Church, ipso facto should be members of the college that elects the pontiff without the need for the Latin title of cardinal. For the same reason, they should also take precedence over them,” he said.
Currently, three of the Eastern Catholic patriarchs are cardinals; in the Vatican’s list of precedence, they come after the handful of cardinal-bishops and before the cardinal-priests and cardinal-deacons.
Coptic Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina of Guizeh, Egypt, said that especially when there are more faithful of an Eastern church living outside than inside the church’s territory, “it is not entirely logical that some faithful who belong to a ‘sui iuris’ church have no relationship with the church they belong to, other than liturgically.”
“My request is that the patriarch be granted personal jurisdiction over the faithful of his church wherever they might be,” he said.
The Coptic bishop also asked Pope Benedict XVI to revoke a decision made in the 1930s that Eastern churches can ordain married men only in their traditional homelands.
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, general secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told the synod that by emphasizing the geographical limitation of an Eastern Catholic patriarch’s authority, the church was, in effect, working counter to a vision of the church as a network where unity does not mean uniformity and where communion grows through communication and sharing.
“In the model of network, many churches in the same territory is normal, and rivalries and attempts to proselytize or dominate are inappropriate,” he said.
Latin-rite Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad, Iraq, told the synod that for the survival of the Catholic Church in the Middle East, “a rigid or exaggerated” emphasis on belonging to one ritual church family must give way to cooperation and coordination of pastoral activities.
“Communion is especially contradicted by confessionalism. Rites are transformed into confessions,” he said.