JERUSALEM – On Wednesday, January 16, 2019, the Jerusalem Bible and Archeology School hosted the traditional lecture given by Father Frans Bouwen, M.Afr., Before the Week of Prayer for Unity. The White Father, a specialist in Eastern Churches and dialogue with the Eastern Christian Churches, presented ecumenical news of the year 2018 to the faithful and religious of Jerusalem who will gather from Saturday to live a time of communion through daily celebrations.
Unity Week is an event of great importance in Jerusalem, and the presence of the various Christian Churches encourages them to welcome each other each day to share a time of prayer. These celebrations attract many faithful and some of them are even pilgrims who come especially to the Holy City to participate in this very special week.
Every year, on this occasion, the Commission for Ecumenical Dialogue presents a conference on ecumenical events of recent months, a way to invite the faithful to pray with the knowledge of the road traveled and to travel to live the Unity. Father Frans Bouwen is the president of this episcopal commission, and is in charge of disseminating the latest news of these moments of encounter between the different Churches. The Missionary of Africa, a member of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, has an expansive knowledge of the Eastern Churches. However, Father Frans at the beginning of the conference did not fail to specify that his presentation was, by necessity, presented in a subjective manner, that of a Catholic theologian established in Jerusalem.
Bari: a very significant event
Before engaging in the progress of the dialogues that the Catholic Church has undertaken with the other Christian Churches, Father Frans wished to recall the meeting organized in Bari on July 7, at the initiative of Pope Francis. The Holy Father, who regularly attests his deep solidarity with the Christians of the East, who are the sometimes targeted victims of very unstable political situations, invited the Heads of the Christian Churches of the Middle East to come and pray together for Peace; nineteen heads of churches or their representatives took part. For Father Frans, this meeting carried a depth of meaning: “The choice of Bari and the patronage of Saint Nicholas, the lighting of a single oil lamp, the idea of an in camera meeting in the form of a round table where everyone could freely express their concerns, all this was very significant. “Bari was a meeting where protocol, reduced to a minimum, gave way to a real dialogue,” Father Frans concluded, suggesting that it could be described as a form of exercising synodality.
Encounters … and conflicts in 2018
After recalling the meeting in Bari, the White Father gave an update on the state of relations between the different churches. Indeed, for several years now they have met regularly and the Catholic Church maintains a dialogue with most of them. Father Frans’ non-exhaustive presentation attempted to highlight some important facts.
Orthodox and Catholic theologians meet regularly and try to make advances on the issue of primacy and collegiality. In the same way, exchange trips are made between Rome and Moscow for students of theology who travel to discover during fifteen days the functioning and the thought of the other Church. It is hoped that these meetings will help overcome the ecumenical reluctance to work that is still prevalent in the Moscow Church, preferring to talk more about “collaboration”.
With the pre-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches, created after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and commonly called the Eastern Orthodox Churches, dialogue is good. Each year, an International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches has been meeting since 2004, working on the sacraments and annual reports highlighting a “deep consensus”.
The dialogue with the Assyrian Church, begun in 1994, has not always been simple but has resumed and progresses well since 2016. Last November, Patriarch Mar Gewargis III and Pope Francis met at the Vatican and signed a common declaration together.
Catholics and Anglicans, despite the question of the ordination of women, which remains a stumbling block, also continue to walk together and discuss what each Church can bring to the other.
Father Frans also recalled another event of the year 2018 which marks a will of the churches to get closer: the visit of Pope Francis to the World Council of Churches (WCC) last June on the occasion of its seventy-year existence. This included a very large number of Reformed Churches but also all the Orthodox Churches, but not the Catholic Church. Pope Francis went to Geneva, however, to the headquarters of the WCC to mark his communion in this celebration. On that occasion, he reaffirmed the determination of the Catholic Church to continue its close collaboration with the WCC. For the Holy Father, it was a good time for meetings and exchanges especially on the question of young people, a subject that concerns all the churches.
Despite these common ground, Father Frans recalled that this last semester was marked by the creation of a new Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Ukraine. Though autocephaly was granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, it is absolutely not accepted by the Orthodox Church of Moscow who sees in this decision a reason to break its communion with Constantinople.
“This situation will complicate the meeting of church leaders, as well as the work of the International Commission for Theological Dialogue,” said the speaker. “Indeed, every meeting between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church is co-chaired by a representative of Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Church of Moscow will therefore no longer want to participate.” We can question ourselves: “But how can one advance a common road without the participation of this major Church? Theologians on their side continue to advance but their work, to make sense, must be validated by the Patriarchs and their synod … It’s a question that will remain for some time in suspense.
And ecumenism in the Middle East and Jerusalem?
In a second part, Father Frans shared his interest in what is happening in the Middle East and Jerusalem. “The Middle East in general and Jerusalem in particular is a land where ecumenism is lived every day,” he said. Christians, in fact, do not create boundaries between the different Churches in their everyday life. But the dialogue is less simple when it is done at the level of the Heads of Churches where there is still a way to go to talk about unity. To this end, the Council of Churches in the Middle East, of which the Catholic Churches of the Middle East are full members, has been revived in recent years. The current secretary general is a woman – a remarkable fact in Catholic Orient-Lebanon, Ms. Souraya Bechealany. Her position has earned her the only layperson to fully participate in the Bari Peace Meeting, even at the closed meeting with church leaders or their representatives.
In Jerusalem, the churches know each other well, meet regularly and show mutual solidarity to protect themselves from certain Israeli laws (new taxation, property management, basic law on the nation-state).
The Episcopal Commission for Ecumenical Dialogue – of which Fr. Frans is the President – explores the local situation: for the local faithful, ecumenism is not an interesting question since they live it without questioning further. Mixed marriages are frequent and so mixed Sunday practice is common. In spite of everything, dialogue between the clergy at the parish level is often complex, it is sometimes perfectly established as in Ramallah but also sometimes completely non-existent. There is a long way to go …
Among the questions that emerged from the discussions with the participants in this conference, one concerns the role of the simple faithful to advance this path of dialogue at their level. Father Frans responded to this by the need to meet the other, to make friends and, if possible, to pray together without browbeating the other with ones’ rules and habits.
That same day in Rome, the Pope addressed the faithful present at the weekly audience and urged them to take this path of dialogue with the other Christian Churches. “Ecumenism is not an optional thing,” he reminded the crowds who came to listen to him. A conviction shared by Father Frans and the listeners of the conference but perhaps still to share …