Chaldean Patriarch gambles on re-establishing “Church of the East”
Louis Raphael suggests ditching the heads of the three ecclesial communities that derive from this ancient institution, so that they may enter into communion once again and deal with emergencies together
25 June 2015
He didn’t shout it about but the proposal made by Patriarch Louis Raphael, Primate of the Chaldean Church was still shocking: doing away with the three Patriarchates rooted in the ancient Church of the East - the first Church to bring Christianity to Persia, India and even faraway China – and unifying the three ecclesial communities, bringing them under the leadership of one single Patriarch.
This is a delicate moment for the three local ecclesial communities of Mesopotamia as their very existence is at risk in their own homeland. The Chaldean Church, which is the largest and tied to the Apostolic See in Rome, has been haemorrhaging faithful since the US-led western military invasions took place. It is losing faithful in Iraq and as such Christians risk extinction in areas where it has been present for thousands of years. For decades now, most of the faithful belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East have lived in flourishing diaspora communities spread across America, Europe and Oceania. This Church is going through a delicate transition phase: after Patriarch Mar Dikha IV’s death last 26 March, the election of a successor was put off until September, while the re-transferral of the Patriarchal See from Chicago – where the Patriarch migrated to as an “exile” in 1940 – to Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is at stake. Meanwhile, the minority Ancient Church of the East – created in 1964 as the result of a schism in the Assyrian Church of the East, currently headed by Patriarch Mar Addai II, who is resident in Baghdad – faces re-unification after a proposal presented by Assyrian bishops.
In light of these developments, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael published some “personal thoughts” on the Patriarchate’s website. He sketches out the early stages of an actual plan for the re-establishment of the Church of the East as a Patriarchal Church that is independent from a jurisdictional point of view but in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The full re-unification of the three Churches of Nestorian descent would help deal with the dangers that threaten the survival of local Christian communities across the Middle East, together, the Patriarch said in his proposal.
What the Chaldean Patriarch’s proposal means in practical terms, in the unconditional renunciation of the patriarchal title on his part as well as on the part of Patriarch Mar Addai. All bishops of the three Churches currently in existence should then meet in a joint Synod to elect a single Patriarch who would then choose three bishops from the three Churches “being merged” as his main coadjutors. The “ethnic” self-definitions that currently distinguish the Chaldean and Assyrian Churches would have to be set aside: the new Church would simply be called: Church of the East, a Church that is universal and open to all, without any “nationalist” reductionisms. A programmatic general Synod, open to the laity, would have to plan the concrete implementation of full hierarchical and structural unity between the different Churches.
As far as the central issue of communion with the Bishop of Rome is concerned, the Chaldean Patriarch reiterated that this communion is based on the sharing of a common faith and doctrine, confirmed also in the joint Christological declaration signed by John Paul II and Mar Dinkha in 1994. In this declaration, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Catholic Church state that they profess the same faith in Christ and it recognises that the Christological controversies of the distant past were mostly down to misunderstandings. Rome is Prima Sedes – Patriarch Louis Raphael recalls, referring back to a shared ecclesiology between East and West for the entire first Christian millennium – and being in full communion with the Bishop of Rome does not involve a “dissolution” of one’s ecclesial identity but it helps protect “the unity of plurality”, maintaining a Church’s individual features on a liturgical, canonical, disciplinary and jurisdictional level, thereby also protecting the prerogatives of the Patriarch and the Synod.
Even as far back as September 2013, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I invited the Assyrian Patriarch of Mar Dinkha to begin a path of dialogue with the aim of restoring full ecclesial communion between the Chaldean Christian community and its Assyrian counterpart. At the start of October 2013, Mar Dinkha accepted, suggesting the creation of a “joint committee” as an instrument for dealing with the emergencies the two sister Churches had in common. Said Churches share the same liturgical, theological ad spiritual heritage.
There is a recent precedent to the Chaldean Patriarch’s initiative, which is evocative and important also in terms of its outcome: In the mid-1990s, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch had started a project for the full sacramental re-unification with the Greek orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, while at the same time maintaining full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It was the elderly Melkite bishop Elias Zoghby who set all this in motion. He was known for his fervent pro-unity interventions during the Second Vatican Council. In February 1995 he wrote a two-point profession of faith testimony in which he confessed that he believed “in everything Eastern orthodoxy teaches” while at the same time being in communion “with the Bishop of Rome, within the limits attributed to the Bishop of Rome by the Holy Fathers of the East in the First Millenium and before the separation”. Just a few days later, this profession of the faith was signed by Georges Khodr, orthodox Metropolitan of Byblos: ““I consider this profession of faith of Kyr Elias Zoghby to fulfil the necessary and sufficient conditions to re-establish the unity of the Orthodox Churches with Rome,” Khodr wrote. On this basis, the plan to restore “Antiochian” unity between the two Churches was supported by almost all Melkite Greek bishops. Meanwhile, in September 1996, the Holy See urged caution. According to the Pope’s collaborators, Rome could take into considerations any “Antiochian” decisions only if these did not create conflict and tension within the Orthodox world. The aim was to avoid being accused of creating division between the Orthodox Churches, seeing as though the Church of Rome had begun a theological dialogue in order to improve relations with Orthodoxy as a whole. In the end, it was the bishops of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch who suspended the project during a Synod, stressing that the bilateral dialogue with their Melkite Greek “brothers and sisters” “could not be separated from the resumption of communion between the See of Rome and Orthodoxy as a whole”.
It is likely that the proposal put forward by the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I will come up against insurmountable obstacles, particularly within the Chaldean and Assyrian communities in diaspora, where the ethnic and national element has been nurtured and fomented, even by some representatives of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as part of their identity. Nevertheless, the Chaldean Patriarch’s proposal is valuable in that it tries to overcome existing obstacles with a sense of goodwill, promoting – as Francis has done on more than one occasion – the experience of communion of the first Christian millennium as a model to be followed on the concrete path towards achieving full sacramental communion between sister Churches.
Patriarch Raphael’s Proposal:
I would like to share some personal thoughts with those of others, since they may contribute to achieving the project of “the unity of the Church of the East”.
Unity is the commandment of the Lord Jesus, “so that they may be one” (John 17/11), and the demand of Christians who face significant challenges that threaten their existence in diaspora with assimilation, and in the motherland with extinction
I propose that we adopt a single denomination for the church: The Church of the East as it was for many centuries, and that we not maintain the factional denominations. The single denomination will give it strength and momentum, and it can become a model for other churches.
The communion of faith and unity with the Roman See is a fundamental base of unity. It is an increase of power, not a decrease, especially since there is no difference in doctrine, but only in its formal expression. Therefore, to think of disassembling the link of “the Church of the East” with the See of Rome would be a great loss and cause of weakness. Unity does not mean uniformity, nor the melting of our own church identity into one style, but it maintains unity in diversity and we remain one apostolic universal church, the Oriental Church, that maintains its independence of administration, laws and liturgies, traditions and support through respect for the authority of the Patriarch and the Synod of Bishops.
After deliberation and dialogue between the three branches and the acceptance of this communion with Rome:
1. The current Patriarchs: Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, and Mar Addai II, Patriarch of the ancient Church of the East, would submit their resignations without any conditions, but their desire for unity.
2. The Bishops of the three churches would meet to choose a new Patriarch.
3. The elected Patriarch should have assistants from each branch to enhance the “weft” (the permanent Synod).
4. The Patriarch and the Synod would leave national interests to the laity, because the church should be open to everyone and concerned with the best interests of all.
5. The Patriarch and the Synod would prepare for a General Synod to develop a new road-map for The One Church of the East.
THE ASSYRIAN CHURCHES
The Assyrians were the first to accept Christianity in the first century A.D. through Mar Addai (the Apostle Thadeus and his disciple Mari). Despite the subsequent Islamic conquest of the region, the Assyrian Church flourished and its adherents at one time numbered in the millions. Assyrian missionary zeal was unmatched and led to the first Christian missions to China, Japan, and the Philippines. Early on, the Church consisted of two ancient branches, the Church of the East and the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Over time, divisions within these Churches led to other branches including the Chaldean Church, Syrian Catholic Church, Maronite Church (which are all Uniate Rites of the Roman Catholic Church) and the Jacobite Church. With persistent Western missionary pressure, especially within the past century, numerous Protestant Churches subsequently arose as well.
Today, the Assyrians in general and in Chicago in particular belong to three main Christian sects: the Church of the East, the Chaldean Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Church of the East has three churches in Chicago (Mar Gewargis, Mar Sargis, and St. John) and one in Bartlett (St. Mary's). The Chaldean Church has two churches in Chicago (Mart Maryam and St. Ephraim). The Syrian Orthodox Church has one Church in Villa Park (St. John the Baptist). Another recent branch of the Church of the East was formed in resistance to certain reforms. This Ancient Church of the East has an active church in Chicago (Mar Odisho).
The various Protestant branches in Chicago include the Assyrian Evangelical Church, the Assyrian Evangelical Covenant Church, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and the Carter Westminister Presbyterian.
The Assyrian identity and awareness entails an inextricably intertwined combination of language, culture, religion, and ethnic heritage. Various cultural life-cycle traditions within the community are passed on from generation to generation and in many ways reflect this awareness.
Regardless of Church adherence, most Assyrians commonly celebrate several distinctive life cycles such as baptism (Mamaduta), engagement (Talibuta or Shirinlikh) and weddings (Khloola). Mourning over death is very passionately expressed, as is a prolonged period of grieving. Several days of visitation to the residence of the deceased or their immediate relatives follow funerals. Mourners gather at the funeral to express the sorrow of the grieving family. Funeral visitation, called Basamta d'Risha, literally means "healing the head" and reflects a collective communal expression of respect for the deceased as well as comfort and support for the bereaved remaining relatives. Symbolic of Christ's resurrection, three days following the burial, friends and family revisit the grave. Further commemorations are shared in the community on the seventh and fortieth days, as well as one year after death. Also, immediate relatives of the deceased observe a one year period of abstinence from celebrations such as formal engagements and weddings.
Like many Middle Eastern communities, Assyrians are quite gregarious and place great emphasis on hospitality towards Assyrian and non-Assyrian visitors.
Holidays and Special Events
The Assyrian New Year is celebrated on April 1st, Kha B'Nissan. An annual parade down King Sargon Blvd (Western Avenue) between Peterson and Pratt has been organized over the previous several years. As of April 1, 1997, the Assyrian Calendar will read 6747.
As Christians, Assyrians celebrate the major Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas. Easter is seen as the theologically most important holiday as it commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Consequently, it is called Eida Gura or big holiday. Christmas, commemorating the birth of Christ, is called Eida Sura or small holiday. Lent is observed with abstaining from meat and dairy products. Good Friday is commemorated as Ruta D'khisha (Friday of mourning). Palm Sunday (Oshana) is also commemorated when Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem the week prior to his crucifixion.
The prophet Jonah's mission to the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, is celebrated by a three day fast, usually in February, and is known as the Rogation of the Ninevites (Ba'oota d'Ninwayeh).
Various Saints' Days are enthusiastically celebrated by many Assyrians. The Sharas are commemorations of anniversaries of saints; they can range from small family gatherings to large community picnics. A sacrificial lamb is prepared in commemoration of the saint. The sacrificial meal or Ddukhrana is distributed to all present. The most commonly commemorated saints include Mart Maryum (St. Mary), Mar Gewargis (St. George), Mar Zaia, Mar Odisho, Mar Bishu, Mar Sliwa, Solten Madu, and Mar Pithyu.
Nusardil is an Assyrian holiday that symbolizes the baptismal water rite and is connected to the ancient Assyrian ritual commemorating the autumnal equinox. On this day, Assyrians ritualistically throw water upon each other in celebration of baptism. In 1997, Nusardil will be celebrated on July 6th.
Kaloo Soolaka (ascension of the bride) is celebrated 40 days after Easter and commemorates the day Christ ascended to heaven. Young girls are adorned in bridal apparel and go from house to house collecting treats. The girls are symbolic representations of the House of God. The holiday is meant to celebrate the separation of the "bride" (church) from her Lord Jesus Christ when he departed for heaven.
Somikah is observed 25 days before Christmas (Eida Sura) and 50 days before Easter (Eida Gura). During this holiday individuals of all ages dress in costumes and go from home to home singing traditional songs and acting out mini plays for their observers. The purpose is to serve as a reminder to all that the religious fast is to begin the following day.
Assyrian history is noteworthy as much for the seemingly unending massacres and genocides against the Assyrian people as it is for the brilliant contributions to civilization. Assyrian Martyrs' Day (Shawwa b'Tabakh) is a special holiday that is commemorated on August 7th in remembrance of all Assyrians persecuted throughout history on account of their religion and heritage. Although August 7th, 1933 is the day when Assyrians were massacred in Simele, Iraq, Assyrians Martyrs Day remembers all massacres and genocides including that of 1915 when three-quarters of the Assyrian population was massacred by Ottoman Turks and Kurds along with 1.5 million Armenians.
THE RESPONSE OF THE CHURCH OF THE EAST
In the month when Russian troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, we had a two week meeting of European students from Communist countries. Why they had the meeting in Britain, and why they chose to use a Benedictine monastery for this meeting, I have no idea. However, it was very interesting listening to them. There was one very vocal Hungarian student.
The great difference between true love and its opposite is that true love can embrace the whole person or community, while its opposite concentrates on a failure of a fault, and makes it the measure of the whole person or community. Hatred interprets everything about a person or community in terms of what it most dislikes in the hated, while love knows there is much more to the sinner than his sin. This is true of nations, and it is also true of churches. Both are capable of almost institutionalised hatred, when the difference between party propaganda and history are forgotten; and both are capable of charity as described by St Paul:"You know that all the students here are highly trusted communists. Our governments would not have allowed us to be here, if that were not so."
"Are you, personally, a believing Communist?"
"No. They are too anxious for us to believe in Communism, which makes me think they are not so convinced themselves."Another problem is that the peoples in these Central European countries hate each other. In our long history, every country has done the dirty on its neighbour at some time or other; and this is remembered by the neighbour as though it were yesterday. Also, we all despise the Romanians."
"Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, 5 it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, 6 it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
I am writing this because it is so easy to look at another church only in terms of what has happened in the past, and to close one's mind to what is happening now.
Let us first look at some aspects of Patriarch Rafael's offer to the other two Assyrian churches. He writes:
Unity does not mean uniformity, nor the melting of our own church identity into one style, but it maintains unity in diversity and we remain one apostolic universal church, the Oriental Church, that maintains its independence of administration, laws and liturgies, traditions and support through respect for the authority of the Patriarch and the Synod of Bishops.
What is not sufficiently appreciated by Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox observers is that the Papal ministry is in a state of transition, and has been since Vatican II. Pope John Paul II, in Ut omnes unum sint, asked for help from the other sister churches and ecclesial communities in re-shaping the papacy. He wrote:
Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea "that they may all be one ... so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (Jn 17:21)?
Pope Francis has said:
Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion.
I believe that the Antiochene tradition to which the Assyrian Church of the East belongs has a special role in this. It was St Ignatius of Antioch who spoke of the Roman Church presiding in love; and it is the Assyrian saint, Isaac the Syrian, who puts so much emphasis on God's love as Creator and Redeemer, and on the absolutely universal nature of Christian love, firstly God's love for us, and then, our subsequent love for everyone and everything.
One of the factors in putting the papacy in the melting pot is the adoption by Vatican II of eucharistic ecclesiology as more profound but not contradictory to universalist ecclesiology. This means we approach the dogmas of Vatican I on papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction with a new paradigm. All the powers of the Church arise from the liturgical celebration where the Holy Spirit and the Church are in synergy. Where there is the Eucharist, there is the one Church of Christ. The primary expression of the ordinary magisterium of the Church is, as Pope Pius IX said before the Council, the liturgy. But liturgy springs from the local and regional churches, which means that Tradition takes different forms. We believe that this makes the petrine ministry more, not less important, to preserve universal unity; but the Pope can only work effectively by respecting the diversity, because this diversity belongs to the Catholicity of the Church as much as the unity with Peter.
When eucharistic ecclesiology was first formulated by Fr Nicholas Afanassieff, he opposed it to the "universal ecclesiology" of St Cyprian of Carthage. He argued that each church is the body of Christ because it eats the same bread and drinks from the same cup. Like hosts in a ciborium, each local church is the body of Christ, and all together are nothing more than the body of Christ. Ecclesiologically speaking, each local church is a manifestation of the whole and not simply a part of a larger entity, the universal Church.
However, his basic insight, that each local Church is a manifestation of the whole, because it is the body of Christ, is true, and a great breakthrough. Yet the local church is not a monad, sufficient to itself, because the act by which it is constituted, the Holy Eucharist, is the sacrament of God's universal love, embracing the whole Church across time and space, and moving towards a "new heaven and a new earth". It not only brings us into an organic union with Our Lady, the angels and saints in the heavenly liturgy, it also impels us into a union of love with all other Christians on earth and, indeed with the whole of creation. The Holy Spirit brings us in organic communion with all others who receive his body and blood. Thus the Eucharist calls us into the communion which is the universal Church.
If regional churches are possible, then a universal church is possible. The papacy is a highly imperfect institution and the dogmas of Vatican I were formulated without the help of other traditions; and this limitation is obvious. In reality, what was not made sufficiently clear in the definitions of Vatican I is that, while in order to function as a single unit in this world, the universal church needs a system of law. This law differs from secular law in that it is based on love, not on force. Jesus gave no power to St Peter to have prisons and a police force. The Byzantine Emperor could not fulfil his functions in the West because he hadn't the troops: the power of the popes does not need troops. Unlike secular jurisdiction, its power is the power of love not of dominion, both when he commands and when we obey, of service and not of dictatorship, not power over but mission to serve. Papal authority extends as far as love makes necessary; it is also limited by the exigencies of love, by the need to respect the work of the Holy Spirit in others, the vocations of others. Thus the papacy can take various forms, and the most appropriate shape of the papal office in modern times is what Pope John Paul II invited other church leaders to help him discover. Meanwhile, Pope Francis is trying to discover a balance between primacy and collegiality.
Of course, those who look at present events and interpret them by past wrongs may think that the Popes are simply trying to extend their power; but this is a power to serve, not dominate. Pope Francis wants more feet to wash.
Meanwhile Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is trying to discover how best to be "first among equals" in an Orthodox Church which denies him any form of universal jurisdiction; and the Orthodox Church is moving towards the great Pan-Orthodox Synod in 2016. Both the Patriarch's efforts and the Pan-Orthodox Synod will certainly help the Catholic Church in its attempts to balance papal authority and collegiality. One thing is certain: we are no longer trying to defend or attack fixed positions, because everything is in a state of flux: the Holy Spirit is on the move.
Now, looking at Bishop Mar Awa's objections, it is clear that union with Rome means for him latinisation as it has in the past, and it means subjection to a foreign ecclesiastical power. Looking back at the terrible destruction of a whole Assyrian Christian literature when the Malabar Church in Kerala joined with the Catholic Church, we bow our heads with shame, and can only protest that that is now what is on offer by the Chaldean Patriarch. The Catholic Church is much more than the Church that destroyed so much of the patrimony of the Church of Malabar and that insisted on latinization. The evidence can be seen in the way Rome treated the Liturgy of SS Addai and Mari , and even modified its own current teaching on the Eucharist in the light of Assyrian tradition. This was because "the Catholic Church recognises the Assyrian Church of the East as a true particular Church, built upon orthodox faith and apostolic succession."The Catholic Church realises all the traditions of the Apostolic churches are versions of Tradition, and the basic consistency between them because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in each of them must be discovered for the benefit of all.
However, we have lived separately for too long, and the process will be difficult, specially as doctrinal teachings have tended to become slogans in heated discussion, part of the way we define ourselves over against others.
Actually, we must ask ourselves whether we really need to define ourselves against anybody, especially when, at every Mass, wherever it takes place, the presiding celebrant represents Christ and all who celebrate the same Eucharist across every border and in every time and place. In this Eucharist, the love of God embraces all who share in Christ's Mystery and surely expects us to do the same. However proud our past, however orthodox we may be, we identify ourselves in the Mass with the indiscriminate love for all flesh of the Word who united himself to the whole human race by the Incarnation; and not only that, we identify ourselves with him who has chosen to mingle his flesh with ours in holy communion, across so many ecclesiastical barriers, and to live in the hearts of all who receive him. How can we keep our distance from our separated brethren when he so recklessly unites himself to them? How can we be content to remain apart?
Bishop Mar Awa, in his reply to th Patriarch, expresses his love for the Latin Church as for all the other ancient apostolic churches, and he goes on to say that
"the universal Church is strengthened, not weakened by the diversity of expression and of ascetical effort in keeping true to the apostolic deposit in its many forms, Latin, Greek, Slavic etc...we shall never abandon the grace of the Spirit which worked in the Fathers of the Church of the East no less than it did among the Greek and Latin Fathers. One can never enrich the Church by subjecting all of Christendom to one particular local expression of the faith, since to do so would deny the richness and diversity of an authentic and catholic Christian expression. Most vitally, we cannot be both administered by a Roman understanding of ecclesial life as well as our own Church of the East's tradition. We would have to either choose to be Roman with Eastern Syrian liturgical elements, or stridently fighting to keep the good faith as the Apostles handed it down and the Holy Spirit breathed it into our tradition. The Church of the East is, simply, the one that chooses the latter."This passage gives us grounds for hope and gives us a challenge. Bishop Mar Awa's vision of Catholicism being unity in diversity, in which diversity cannot be sacrificed for the sake of unity because diversity is also a work of the Spirit, is the same as that of Pope Francis. However, there is also a challenge. He refers back to Vatican I and the way Patriarchs were even humiliated in Pius IX's quest for unity. Pope Francis is trying to balance diversity with unity. Neither the Assyrian Church nor any other Eastern church will make such a move until the Catholic Church manages to balance primacy with collegiality. Wanting to do it isn't enough. Intending to do it isn't enough. Trying to do it isn't enough. Their problem with Rome is also the Catholic Church's problem with Rome; even though it is approached from very different perspectives. There will be no real movement on the ecumenical front unless those outside communion with Rome see that collegiality is more than a ritual agreement of the bishops with decisions made by the pope, and that the bishops as guardians of true diversity, have real authority to foster that diversity without fear of having their decisions overturned by over-zealous Roman officials. Primacy and collegiality must be seen to work in harmony. Until that happens, the Assyrian Church does not trust Rome enough to convince it that the Church of the East would be really independent.