LEBANON - On Monday morning, February 13th, 2023, the work of the Continental Synodal Assembly of the Catholic Churches of the Middle East began in Bethany - Harissa.
In the East, either we are Christians together or we are not
After a prayer for the victims of the earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey, Fr. Khalil Alwan, secretary general of the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East and general coordinator of the Synodal Assembly, opened the proceedings by recalling the Pastoral Message that in 1992 the Catholic Patriarchs of the East had sent to their faithful in the Middle East and to those scattered around the world, entitled: "The Christian presence in the East, witness and message". For Fr. Alwan, "this letter traced the path of the Catholic Churches in the East and summarised their identity and future with the word 'presence'. This 'presence' is embodied, effectively and authentically, following the example of Christ and His Church, in the Arabic language and heritage of which we are builders and in the Arab civilisation that we have helped to establish. Our presence is also a presence at the service of man without distinction or discrimination. It is an ecumenical presence for common cooperation; it is a presence of dialogue with people of goodwill, Muslims and Jews; and, finally, it is a presence with a global character, thanks to our children scattered throughout the world, because it is a communion of faith, love and civic belonging wherever we are”.
He continued: "Thirty years after this 'road map', seven Catholic Churches are meeting today: Copts, Syriacs, Maronites, Melkites, Chaldeans, Armenians and Latins. We have come from the Holy Land, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Armenia, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches and to pray and reflect together on our common concerns and share our future aspirations with a hope that does not disappoint. Many things unite us, we are united by the conditions in our countries, where we all often lack freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom for women and freedom for children. We all try, according to our energies, to fight corruption in politics and the economy. We all seek to practise transparency in our religious and social institutions, and wish to practise responsible citizenship and fight poverty and ignorance. We all suffer from the emigration of our children, who have seen their horizons for a dignified life shrink, leading to the diminishment of our communities and our witness in the land the Lord has chosen as his dwelling place. However, we, the children of the Church, are not only united by the concerns and difficulties of life, but we are also united by one baptism, one faith, one love and one hope. On the basis of this, which unites us, we convene our Synod Assembly this week to conclude the second phase of our ‘Walking Together’, the continental stage. We have ensured that our assembly will be as His Holiness Pope Francis wanted it to be”. Fr. Alwan then concluded his speech by repeating what the Patriarchs had written thirty years ago in their pastoral letter and which still speaks to this Synod Assembly today. "Our Churches in the East are distinguished by their antiquity, their rich heritage, the diversity of their liturgical expressions, the originality of their spirituality and theological horizons, and the strength of their witness over the centuries, and often to the point of heroic martyrdom, and this we carry in our hearts and it is a stimulus of great hope, a source of confidence and constancy to move towards the future. Diversity is the main characteristic of the universal church and of Christianity in the East. This diversity has always been a source of enrichment for the whole Church when we have lived it in the unity of faith and in the spirit of love. But, unfortunately, it has turned into division and division because of the sins of men and their distance from the Spirit of Christ. However, what unites us is more important than what separates us and does not prevent us from meeting and collaborating. The Christianity of the East, despite its divisions, forms in its foundation an indivisible unity of faith. We are Christians together in good times and in bad. One is the call, one is the testimony, one is the destiny. Therefore, we are called to work together, in various ways and means, to consolidate the roots of the believers entrusted to us, in a spirit of brotherhood and love, in various fields to which the common good of all Christians impels us, as well as the aspirations of all the believers of the various Christian Churches, who place their highest hopes in our cooperation and closeness. In the East, either we are Christians together or we are not. And if relations between the Churches of the East have not always been good for so many reasons, internal and external, then the time has come for us to purify our Christian memory of the negative deposits of the past, painful as they may be, in order to look together to the future in the spirit of Christ and under the guidance of his Gospel and the teachings of his Apostles.
The meeting then continued with a speech by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, coordinator of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, who recalled the stages of the journey so far. "I am particularly honoured to be present in the Middle East, where synodality has a long tradition, and it is my desire to experience and learn from you. Thanks to your valuable contribution, I am fully convinced that the universal Church can become more synodal, and that it can enlarge the space of its tent".
"As we know - Cardinal Hollerich continued - Pope Francis has made synodality, understood as 'walking together' by listening to the Spirit, the central focus of his pontificate. And if we gather now here in Beirut, we contribute, in collaboration with other continental Assemblies and on the basis of the working document and the long synodal traditions in the Middle East, to finding an answer to the fundamental question that guides the entire synodal journey: How will this 'Walking Together' that enables the Church to proclaim the Gospel, according to the mission entrusted to it, and which must be accomplished today at different levels, be accomplished? What other steps is the Holy Spirit calling us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?”
Cardinal Hollerich added: "We know that 'walking together' is an easy concept to express in words, but not easy to put into practice. This 'walking together' is necessary in the Middle East, which celebrates the reality of many religions and religious confessions, and this diversity is in itself a richness and a beautiful opportunity that makes synodality possible, because it is a matter of walking together and not walking alone". The General Rapporteur of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops concluded his speech by expressing his conviction that "the synodal journey is the Lord's work, and that we must allow His Spirit to lead us, He who is the true protagonist of the synod. I would also like to invite us to allow ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit during the various meetings of this Assembly in Beirut, so that the synodal spirit may be manifested in us as the 'apostolic style' of the Church, to face the challenges of the contemporary world".
Afterwards, Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, focused on two necessary conditions for a successful synod process. The first concerns the need for the active participation of the People of God and the pastors, "because the correct practice of the Synod never puts these two subjects in competition, but keeps them in a constant relationship, allowing both to fulfil their function. Consultation in some Churches has allowed the people of God to implement that proper way of participating in the prophetic office of Christ, which is manifested in the sensus fidei of all the baptised. Indeed, we can consider this dynamism of communion the fruit of a collective experience that dispels more than a few initial concerns. The active participation of the People of God in the life of the Church takes nothing away from hierarchical service, on the contrary, it strengthens it and demonstrates its indispensable function in the life of the Church”.
The second condition, continued Card. Grech, is related to the importance of listening. It is a matter of listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church. "The saying that 'the synodal Church is a Church of listening' cannot and must not be reduced to a rhetorical phrase. We asked in the preparatory document to listen to everyone, even those who are far away, because by everyone we mean everyone, no one excluded. In this regard, I feel the need to emphasise that, starting from this particular continental stage, we must be more attentive to the voices 'within' the Church, especially those voices that often disturb the ecclesial body. We are all called, in conscience, to give our answers: from those who are deeply convinced to those who still have doubts to those who openly disagree. No one is forbidden to speak. That is why we must ask the Spirit for more courage to speak, to make our convictions fully clear, but also to listen fully to the voice of others. And the Continental Assemblies, which are a further act of ecclesiastical deepening, can play a decisive role in this. This is the discernment that the Synod Secretariat awaits from the continental phase in order to be able, on the basis of the documents issued by the seven continental Assemblies, to put together a working tool for the General Assembly that is truly an expression of ecclesial communion".
In conclusion, Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, Patriarch of the Maronite Church, recalled how the commitment "to live as a synodal Church" means committing oneself to being "a Church that learns from listening to the word of God and reading the signs of the times how to renew its mission by proclaiming the Gospel and announcing the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection for the salvation of the world".
The Maronite Patriarch went on to say that "we must not lose sight of the fundamental question of the synodal path, which is twofold: how is this 'walking together' that enables the Church to proclaim the Gospel according to the message that has been delivered to her, realised today, locally and globally? And then what further steps does the Holy Spirit urge us to take to grow as a synodal Church? However, I hasten to say that the subject matter is not purely academic, but is based on prayer, listening to the word of God and the spirit of repentance and conversion, and thus on mutual listening, dialogue and discernment. Our task in this continental assembly is to define the priorities that will be studied in the next general assembly. We place the work of this assembly under the light of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of our mother, the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church and Our Lady of Lebanon, and pray that it will be successful and fruitful by divine grace, in fulfilment of the wishes and intentions of His Holiness Pope Francis.