The Eastern Catholic Churches — A Perspective of a Papal Agency for Eastern Churches CNEWA in Pre and Post Orientalium Ecclesiarum Periods

The following paper was delivered at a conference sponsored by The Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute in Toronto, Canada, on 17 October 2014.

It is a great pleasure and honor for me to speak at this conference organized by the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute. If you will indulge me in a brief autobiographical moment, I would like to highlight how important it is personally for me to be here. It is clear from the program that I work at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in its New York office. What might be less clear are the letters after my name: SA. That abbreviation indicates that I am a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Our Founder, Fr. Paul Wattson, was one of the co-founders of CNEWA. Fr. Wattson began his career as an Episcopalian priest. His spiritual journey led him and Sr. Laurana White to found the Society of the Atonement in the Episcopal Church. That journey further led him and the early community to seek communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1908. The work of the community was from the beginning Christian Unity or Church Unity as it was called then. Unlike what has recently happened, Fr. Wattson’s move to the Roman Catholic Church was not accompanied by any bitterness or anger towards the Episcopal Church. For most, if not all, of his life Fr Wattson envisioned Church Unity as a corporate return of, at first, the Anglican Church and then the Orthodox Churches to communion — submission as he would term it — to the Roman Catholic Church.

From the outset Fr. Wattson showed considerable interest in the Eastern Catholic Churches. For him they provided the concrete model of the “return” he was seeking for the Anglican Church. This resulted in him having a great deal of contact with different Eastern Catholic Churches as far flung as southern India, Constantinople and the Ukraine. The Friars of the Atonement had acquired a substantial piece of property near the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and built a seminary there. On Aril 21, 1943 Bishop Bohachevky purchased land and St. Josaphat’s Seminary was open a few yards from our Atonement Seminary. I studied in Washington from 1967-1974 and many of my classmates in theology were seminarians from St. Josaphat’s. So in a real sense, I theologically “grew up” with Ukrainian Catholics.

In many ways the history of my community and the history of CNEWA are interlocked. Less than seventy-five years after the found of the Society of the Atonement, Pope John XIII convoked the Second Vatican Council. I was a novice when the Council opened on 11 October 1963. Within a short time we were faced with a series of documents whose impact we could never have guessed at the time: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) 21 November 1964; the Decree on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions )Nostra Ætate) 28 October 1965; the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) 21 November 1964;
the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) 7 December 1965; and last but certainly not least the Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite (Ecclesiarum Orientalium) 21 November 1964.

The changes introduced by these documents were changes not only in the way the Catholic Church looked on many things but also how it spoke about many things. Although it would take much longer — and it is probably still a work in progress — to change minds, our language changed almost immediately. We no longer referred to the Orthodox Churches as “dissidents” or “schismatics.” They are simply the Orthodox Church. Protestants are no longer referred to as “heretics” but as variously churches and ecclesial communities. Ecumenism received a powerful — though not always steady — impetus from the Council and expressions such as dialogue, unity according to the will of Christ, etc. replaced expressions such as submission and return. While the change in language did not always signal a change in attitudes, at very least the field of discourse had changed.

As someone belonging to a community dedicated to Christian Unity we had to rethink not so much our mission as much as how we envisioned that mission. As someone educated theologically after Vatican II I grew up with a post-Vatican II set of values and vocabulary. Unlike those who were educated before Vatican II, I find it odd and a bit jarring when I read of
“missionaries” being sent to the Middle East and “converting” Christians who belong to Churches dating back to Apostolic times. I find it tragic when I read about the things which were imposed on the ancient Churches of India by Portuguese colonists. In my young naiveté I was surprised to learn than many of the Catholic Eastern Churches were not as old as I thought, though their undivided traditions are ancient. With further inquiry I was perplexed and saddened by how often churches divided over issues which were not theologically central and sometimes not even theologically relevant, This is by no means to indicate that the reasons for divisions weren’t serious. It is, however, to suggest that there may have been other, less radical solutions.

The history of CNEWA, not surprisingly, follows a very similar course. CNEWA was founded in 1924 after the devastation of World War I. The Fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Holocaust of Armenians, the emerging Bolshevik persecution of Christians and the plight of Christian refuges, many of whom belonged to Eastern Churches, brought the Eastern Catholic Churches to the attention of the world. For several decades before the outbreak of World War I the Catholic Church began to show renewed interest in the Eastern Churches. On 30 November 1894 — almost seventy years to the day before Ecclesiarum Orientalium — Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Orientalium Dignitas. On 5 October 1920 Pope Benedict XV issued the Apostolic Exhortation Pricipi Apostolorum Petri. In these documents the Catholic Church began to articulate more clearly the importance of the Eastern Churches as churches.

In the time after World War I people like Fr. Paul Wattson and Fr. George Calvassy, a Greek Catholic priest and later Bishop of Thrace, were deeply concerned about Christians whose lives had been completely uprooted at the end of the war. In addition to the Armenian refugees, many Greek Christians — both Catholic and Orthodox — were being expelled from a post-Ottoman Turkey. Christians — both Orthodox and Catholic — were fleeing from a Bolshevik Russia, which included Ukraine.

While it cannot be doubted that the welfare of those Christians suffering after World War I was the primary concern of all those involved in the years before and after the beginnings of CNEWA, it cannot be overlooked that there were also secondary motives. Carlo Falconi in his book on twentieth century popes notes that Pope Benedict XV thought that World War I might bring about a “rapprochement” with Orthodoxy.1 In his encyclical Principi Apostolorum Petro 5 October 1920 Benedict XV wrote: “We humbly entreated God to return the Eastern church at long last to the bosom and embrace of Rome” (¶ 21). CNEWA’s online history notes: On 22 March1916, Pope Benedict issued a constitution concerning Eastern churches and this was followed on 15 April by the apostolic letter (Cum Catholicis) in favor of union of the Christian peoples of the East with the Roman Church.”2 The online history also notes: “It was the thinking in Rome that these Eastern Catholics were the ‘natural bridge’ by which their Orthodox confreres could most easily return to unity with the Holy See….”3 It is not difficult to see how Fr. Wattson would see at very least analogies here with this hopes for the Anglican Church.

None of this is meant to impugn the motives of the people at the time. They were clearly using the theological categories available to them in those days. It is, however, important to see the theological environment in which CNEWA arose. One notes a certain “instrumentalism” vis-à-vis the Eastern Catholic Churches. That is to say, they were seen as serving a function in terms of providing a (the?) paradigm for the unity of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. There was little or no discussion on the part of most Catholics as to whether the Orthodox found the Eastern Catholic Churches to be an adequate paradigm. This attitude also helps explain the often very negative attitude that some Orthodox churches had — and, in some cases, continue to have — toward Eastern Catholics being some type of a Vatican “fifth column.” With time it has become clear that this type of “instrumentalist” attitude towards the Eastern Churches is not productive at all. First, the Orthodox Churches for the most part do not find it an acceptable paradigm. Secondly, it makes the position of the Eastern Catholic Churches even more difficult.

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches was set on a new trajectory by Vatican II. The relationship deepened to a personal one when Pope Paul VI met Patriarch Athenagoras I in January 1964. Since that time there has been an official dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The relationship has not been without its high and low points but it is nevertheless maintained. As has been indicated above, in many instances the Eastern Catholic Churches were looked up by the Orthodox Church with disdain or worse. Polemics and attempts to “convert” the other poisoned the atmosphere between them.

The seventh plenary session of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church took place from 17 to 24 June 1993 at Balamand, Lebanon. The statement which was produced was ground breaking and its importance cannot be underestimated (

Both sides recognized the validity of the Eastern Catholic Churches (par. 3) and their right to exist. However, it was reasserted that “the method which has been called “uniatism,” as it was stated at Freising (June 1990) “we reject (it as a method for the search for unity…” (par. 2). Citing Pope John Paul II the conference reaffirmed that “…perfect and total communion … is neither absorption nor fusion but a meeting in truth and love” (par. 14) Proselytism between Catholics and Orthodox was rejected and “Pastoral activity in the Catholic Church, Latin as well as Oriental, no longer aims at having the faithful of one Church pass over to the other; that is to say, it no longer aims at proselytizing among the Orthodox….and it has no desire for expansion at the expense of the Orthodox Church.

Clearly Balamand signaled a new era in Catholic-Orthodox relations, although, to be honest, reception is still a work in progress on both sides. In a sense it was a tremendously liberating moment for Eastern Catholic Churches. At the risk of oversimplification, the importance of Eastern Catholic Churches was no longer their possible attractiveness to the Orthodox. The importance of the Catholic Churches was the actual living church itself, its traditions, it theology and its liturgy. The shift was from what the Eastern Catholic Churches might do to who they actually were in all their wonderful and ancient diversity. At the same time, the rejection of “uniatism” as a methodology for relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches was a liberating experience for the Eastern Catholic Churches. The emphasis was now fully on their value and churches and not on their possible usefulness for achieving Catholic-Orthodox unity.

CNEWA recognized from its beginnings that “promoting the union of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches” was one of the characteristics of its mission. However, the organization was able to adapt with impressive speed and depth to the new realities in the Catholic Church. A cursory reading of the first seven years of publication of The Catholic Near East Magazine (later ONE) illustrates how CNEWA followed the lead of the Church in both strengthening the Eastern Catholic Churches and promoting dialogue with the Orthodox Churches. In the period between Winter 1974 and Winter 1981 — less than ten years after the closing of Vatican II — CNEWA ran twelve articles introducing the Eastern Catholic Churches, their theology, liturgy and traditions to Latin Rite Catholics and other Christian readers. CNEWA was aware that many, if not, most Latin Rite Catholics were totally unfamiliar with the great variety of rites and traditions in the Catholic Church. The readers of The Catholic Near East Magazine were introduced to the full catholicity of the church. After the US immigration reform of 1964 and increased immigration from the Middle East and Asia, US Roman Catholics were encountering Catholics of different rites on an increasingly frequent basis. While there had always been a strong Ukrainian presence in Canada, Canadian Catholics too have in the past twenty to thirty years encountered many new immigrant Catholics whose rites are unfamiliar.

In the same period The Catholic Near East Magazine ran eleven articles on Orthodox Churches and theology. These articles introduce the reader to Orthodox churches, theology and practices in a non-polemic, respectful way. Several articles in this period highlight Orthodox monasticism in Egypt, where many believe Christian monasticism began, and in Syria. An article, “The Martyrs of Najran,” which appeared in the Fall 1977 issue of the magazine, eloquently articulates CNEWA’s respect and openness to the Orthodox tradition. The article ends with “Incidentally, the martyrs were not Roman Catholics. They were Copts — some old-fashioned Catholic churchmen might have called them monophysite schismatics. But the good ecclesiastical scholar who place them in the Roman Martyrology years ago manifestly felt the martyrs were in Paradise, where they belonged.”

Most recently CNEWA has been intimately involved with the tragedies which have overtaken Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and Egypt. Faced with the same existential threat, both Eastern Catholics and Orthodox are faced with unprecedented challenges. The present situation in Syria and Iraq is the worse it has been since the Mongol Invasion in the 13th century. When the Islamic State (also ISIS, ISIL and ????) marked Christian houses in Mosul with the Arabic letter nun for ?????. “Christian,” it was clear that no differentiation was being made between Orthodox Christians or Eastern Catholics. While CNEWA sees itself primarily as “accompanying” the Eastern Catholic Churches as a partner, many Eastern Catholic Churches see themselves as accompanying their Orthodox brothers and sisters and the long, dangerous journey to peace, justice and even survival. In the long and often complicated discussions on shared communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the sacramental body and blood of Christ, Eastern Catholics and Orthodox are now painfully experiencing communion in the suffering body of Christ, which is the churches in the Middle East. This communion is real and is experienced daily. Competition and the narrow denominationalism of the past will not help the Christians in the Middle East. CNEWA is aware of this and responds accordingly.

1) Carlo Falconi, The Popes in the Twentieth Century: From Pius X to John XXIII (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967) 141.

2) Cf, Chapter 1, p. 8.

3) Ibid.

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