Under a gray, rainy, roman sky the Bishops participating in the Synod on the Middle East made their way to the Synod Hall.
Pope Benedict began the Synod by reminding participants that October 11th is the day the Second Vatican Council was inaugurated 48 years ago. At that time October 11th was the feast of the Divine Motherhood of Mary. Pope Benedict said John XXIII chose that as the opening day of the Second Vatican Council in order to “entrust the whole council into the motherly hands and the maternal heart of the Madonna.” He added that he too wished to entrust the Synod of Bishops on the Middle East to Mary.
Then the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Nicola Eterovic gave a summary of what led to this Synod, including a presentation of the statistics of Christians in the Middle East. The first full flavour of the Synod came with an address by Patriarch Antonio Naguib of Alexandria of the Copts and Archbishop Joseph Soueif, Maronite archbishop of Cyprus. Their address essentially laid out what specific points and themes the gathered Bishops should focus on in their upcoming discussions.
On the suggested agenda is the issue of mission and vocation. The Patriarch and the Archbishop - who took turns delivering parts of the address- pointed out that above all the Bishops must strengthen the faith of their flock. The Christians in the Middle East must have the opportunity for a solid faith formation and the Bible must be a fundamental part of that formation. “Some unthinking or bad-intentioned persons use the Bible as a 'recipe book' or a basis for superstitious practices. We have the responsibility to educate our faithful not to give credence to such people,” Patriarch Naguib said in the pre-discussion report. Pastors must ensure pastoral programs aimed at youth and families, this can nourish the faith of these groups and encourage vocations, another essential need in the Middle East.
The Synod Fathers were also encouraged to discuss the role of Christians in the Middle East specifically, their civic rights in their home communities and the need for a “positive lay state” or a positive separation between church and state. In some countries the separation between church and state means having a state that does not recognize God or religion at all. A positive lay state keeps church and state separate but recognizes God in it's laws and structure.
In their report Patiarch Naguib and Archbishop Soueif said not only must the Church use technology and media more, but the church must use them effectively and form media professionals in the church.
The pre-discussion report also touched on the challenges facing Christians, specifically life in the Palestinian territories. It was suggested that listening to Christians who live in the Palestinian territories could help better understand the delicate nature of their situation. Freedom of religion, of worship, and conscience is also a challenge that might be discussed. Although freedom of worship is guaranteed in most countries, “certain laws or practices in some countries limit it's application” and dialogue regarding these issues could help reach a new understanding.
Catechesis, mission, and witness was another area highlighted in the pre-discussion report. There is a need for solid catechesis by well prepared catechists. Part of the mission of the Church in the Middle East is tied to ecumenism. Archbishop Souief told the synod fathers religious instruction should include ecumenism and any offensive publications should be carefully avoided. A positive move would be to establish local commissions for ecumenical dialogue.
Having heard these suggestions the Synod Fathers adjourned for the morning. In the afternoon the first round of group discussion began. Participants were given five minutes to share their thoughts on what they heard earlier in the day. Several Bishops from outside the Middle East gave a brief summary of their experiences with Middle Eastern Christians. Cardinal Polycarp Pengo of Dar-es-Salaam and the president of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar pointed out that not long ago Islam “was so predominant on the East African coast of the Indian Ocean that it threatened the faith of the Christian youth coming from the interior areas of the continent” looking for work. Cardinal Pengo said the one thing that helped in that situation was the close cooperation between Christian missionaries in the interior and those on the coast. The young people who left their homes in the interior to find work on the East coast went with letters of introduction from the missionaries working in the interior. This helped them insert themselves almost immediately in the local Christian community on the East Coast, as small and fledgling as it was at the time. However, Cardinal Pengo said the same model may not work in the same way in the Middle East.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles also spoke Monday afternoon. He shared his experiences welcoming Middle Eastern Catholics into one of the largest Archdiocese in the United States. He said the archdiocese encourages these Catholics to “be themselves” and maintain their own tradition and identity. However, many end up being absorbed into the Roman Catholic community simply because there are Roman Catholic schools in the Archdiocese that often offer a reduced tuition fee in exchange for active participation in the parish attached to the school. He also said while there are many Roman Catholic institutions for higher learning in the United States, most are more likely to provide courses on buddhism, hinduism, Islam or Judaism than courses on other Catholic rites. He also said newly arrived Christians from the Middle East often carry with them ideas about Muslim and Jewish people that need to change in order for peace and reconciliation to occur.
Speaking from a European perspective, Cardinal Peter Erdo, Archbishop of Budapest and President of the European Council of Bishops said Europe is indebted to the Middle East not only because it's culture comes from the Middle East, but also because the first missionaries to Europe came from the Middle East. He said Europeans must examine their consciences when it comes to the middle east, especially regarding the type of welcome Europeans give their Middle Eastern cousins. “When Christian emigrants arrive in Europe from various Middle Eastern countries, what is our reaction? Do we pay enough attention to the reasons that force thousands if not millions of Christians to leave the land where where their ancestors lived for almost two thousand years?”
Greek-Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour of Akka, asked the Synod Fathers to “reconsider your priorities regarding the Holy Lands and regarding its inhabitants. For sure the shrines and holy places are important... I insistently invite you and plead with the Holy Father to give even more attention to the Living Stones of the Holy Land.” He closed his remarks by telling the gathered Archbishops and Bishops, “we need your friendship more than your money.”
Following this impassioned plea Armenian Archbishop Boutrous Marayati of Alep talked about what he saw as some omissions in the Instrumentum Laboris
and shared one notable suggestion for progress. He siad, “If we want this Special Assembly to be fruitful, we should think about a special conference for each country, having an ecumencial aspect, where we can discuss the issues according to the local situations.”
Photo: CNS/Paul Haring