23 August 2017
Volunteers prepare some 5,000 sandwiches for the Lebanese army, which is waging an offensive against an Islamic State enclave near Ras Baalbek, Lebanon. Hundreds of volunteers, Christian and Muslim, are involved in the project, spearheaded by Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Lebanese Carmelite nun. (photo: CNS/Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross)
As the Lebanese army wages an offensive against an Islamic State enclave near the border of Syria, Lebanese civilians — Christian and Muslim — are working side by side, not far from the frontlines, to feed some 5,000 soldiers.
The project was spearheaded by Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Lebanese Carmelite nun who is superior of the Melkite Catholic monastery of St. James the Mutilated in Qara, Syria. The monastery is about 2.5 miles from the battle.
“Soldiers are involved in a very dangerous operation to defend and liberate the Lebanese territory from Daesh, so it’s very natural to offer help to the army,” Mother Agnes told Catholic News Service, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “Now with the international war on terror, the army has a special importance, and these Lebanese soldiers are offering their lives to save our lives.”
When Mother Agnes visited the army compound, she saw that the kitchen was essentially an empty shell.
The nun talked to local priests, local Christian associations, Scout groups and organizations such as Caritas and “everybody was very thrilled to help.” They mobilized to equip the space — located about six miles from the frontlines of the battle — with “elementary things” such as refrigerators, stoves, pots, utensils and tables for working.
The Lebanese army began its operation in the outskirts of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa in Lebanon on 19 August. By 22 August, the army said it had recaptured two-thirds of the territory in the area.
At first people from mostly the villages of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa came to volunteer, but as word spread of the effort to help feed the Lebanese army, the project mushroomed, and now there are nearly 300 volunteers involved.
Businesses are chipping in. Mother Agnes likened the response of solidarity to a “rolling ball,” with new offers of assistance each day from bakeries and supermarkets.
“Since the very beginning Muslims asked to participate. And they were very much welcome.” People are coming to volunteer from Shiite villages and Sunni villages, she said.
“Everyone works together knowing that the military are also from all the denominations,” she said.
Organized in assembly lines, the volunteers — covered in hairnets, aprons and gloves — prepare 5,000 pita bread sandwiches daily, using chicken and beef cooked at the facility, topped with hummus and pickles. The menu also includes fruit and something sweet, like a piece of cake. Just for the chicken sandwiches, the effort requires 1,763 pounds of chicken each day. Battalion trucks load up the meals for delivery to the soldiers.
“To see all these people giving their time, sharing their skills, to cook, to organize with very limited means, it is a beautiful expression of solidarity with the army. All religions are unified with the purest love for our country, our wounded country,” said Mother Agnes.
Prayers are also being said for the safety of the soldiers and the success of the military mission.
“We have been living this battle moment by moment in prayer, in supplication, in hope and in solidarity,” Mother Agnes said. She added that while working, the volunteers pray the rosary, sing Marian hymns as well as the national anthem and patriotic songs.
Mother Agnes noted that, as is customary in Lebanon, many Muslims attended Christian schools.
“We are praying to holy Mother Mary and they (Muslims) also venerate her, so they don’t mind if we pray our Christian prayers, and they even join in, because, all together, we work and we pray,” she said.
Mothers whose sons were killed in previous battles are coming to help “with a lot of joy and hope,” Mother Agnes said. “They give us a very good example,” she said.
The project will continue “until the end, when victory is achieved,” she stressed. “We hope that this battle will finish very soon, that it's a matter of a few weeks, if not a few days.”
23 August 2017
Patriarch Kirill and the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, center, met for talks yesterday in Moscow. (photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images)
Parolin, Kirill discuss Middle East and Ukraine (Crux) Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin met Tuesday with the Russian Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, where, among other things, they discussed the difficult situations in the Middle East and Ukraine. Referring to the struggle in Ukraine, which pits Ukrainian forces against Russian-based separatists, Patriarch Kirill stated that the “Church cannot play any other role if not one of peacemaking when people are in conflict among each other...
‘ISIS’s last stand’: U.S. official says militants caught between converging forces (The Independent) Expelled from their main stronghold in northern Iraq, Isis militants are now trapped in a military vice that will squeeze them on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, the U.S. Defense Secretary has said. General James Mattis arrived in the Iraqi capital on an unannounced visit today...
Jordan opens first job center in Syrian refugee camp (Voice of America) Jordan has opened its first job center inside a refugee camp, unlocking work opportunities across the country for thousands living in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, the U.N. labor agency said Tuesday...
Children from Gaza make first visit to Jerusalem (CNN) The selfie stick looked a bit out of place in front of the Dome of the Rock, but no one seemed to care. The group of about 100 children were too busy snapping their own pictures around the holy site, scarcely able to believe they were really in Jerusalem...
Copts celebrate Marian feast across Egypt (Daily News Egypt) The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated Tuesday the Feast of the Assumption of Mary across all Egyptian governorates. Processions through the street around The Holy Virgin Mary Monastery in Assiut took place on Tuesday eve, as well as prayers and celebrations across other churches and monasteries such as the Virgin Mary and Mar Youhanna Church in Sharqeya among others. Meanwhile, The Copts-United website reported on Tuesday that prayers in a village in Abu Qirqas city in the governorate of Minya took place in the street after security forces closed the space for prayers, which is affiliated to the Minya Archbishopric on Sunday...
Plans for Malta’s first Russian Orthodox church (Times of Malta) The Russian Orthodox community in Malta has applied to build a church, the first of its kind on the island, in Kappara, but will be facing opposition from local residents. The St Paul the Apostle Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, a community of around 200 people, does not currently have its own church in Malta and has so far held its services in Catholic churches around the island...
22 August 2017
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia meets with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the Patriarch’s residence. (photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images)
Although he said planning a papal trip to Russia was not on the agenda, the Vatican secretary of state said his visit to Moscow was designed to build on the meeting Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill had in Cuba in 2016.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, was visiting Moscow 21-24 August and was scheduled to meet with the patriarch and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as with leaders of Russia’s Catholic community.
The list of topics for the meetings ranged from ecumenical dialogue and interreligious cooperation to current world affairs and climate change, he said in a series of interviews before leaving Rome.
After a long morning meeting on 22 August, the cardinal and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a brief news conference, telling reporters they had discussed ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, the Holy Land and Venezuela.
Cardinal Parolin said his meetings with government officials were designed to share “Pope Francis’ interest in bilateral relations between the Holy See and the Russian Federation as well as his concerns in the sphere of international affairs.”
“Obviously,” the cardinal said, “the meeting offered an occasion to discuss some concrete questions regarding the life of the Catholic Church in the Russian Federation, including the difficulties that remain in obtaining work permits for non-Russian religious personnel and the restitution of some churches, which are needed for the pastoral care of Catholics in the country.” Many church buildings were confiscated by the former Soviet government and never returned.
Regarding international affairs, Cardinal Parolin said he and Lavrov discussed several ongoing conflicts, including the war in Eastern Ukraine and the war in Syria.
In situations of war, he said, the Catholic Church often is directly involved in promoting humanitarian aid for the victims, but it also works on a diplomatic level to promote a negotiated peace with guarantees of “justice, legality, truth” and the safety of civilians.
The Russian foreign ministry posted online the first minutes of the working meeting between Cardinal Parolin and Lavrov.
The foreign minister told the cardinal, “We see that our positions are close on a number of current issues, including the peaceful settlement of crises, fighting terrorism and extremism, promoting the dialogue among religions and civilizations and strengthening social justice and the role of the family.”
And, he said, it is important that the strengthening of Vatican-Russian relations is “complemented by the dialogue between religions, which was launched during the historical meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Cuba.”
Cardinal Parolin began his visit to Russia with a meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church.
After the meeting, he told reporters their time together was very constructive, and that even though there are “thorny issues,” there also is a great desire to overcome them. As an example of an ongoing difficulty, Cardinal Parolin said the existence of the Ukrainian Catholic Church “remains for the Russian Orthodox Church an obstacle.”
In the evening on 21 August, Cardinal Parolin presided over a Mass for Moscow’s Catholics in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Before Mass, he had met with the country’s Catholic bishops.
22 August 2017
In the video above, a leader of the Greek Catholic Church expresses his confidence that Christians will return to Iraq, saying “These are our homes, our lands.” (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)
Iraq: Up to 15,000 more Christians returning this month (Independent Catholic News) Within just one month, up to 15,000 displaced Iraqi Christians are expected to return to the town in the ancient Nineveh Plains which suffered the worst violence carried out by ISIS. The return of an expected 3,000 families to Qaraqosh comes amid growing concern among parents to secure places for their children at local schools — quickly being repaired in time for the new academic year next month...
Vatican, Russia agree on visa-free diplomatic travel (Vatican Radio) During the press conference following their talks, the Holy See and the Russian Federation signed an Agreement waiving visa requirements for holders of diplomatic passports. Cardinal Parolin and Foreign Minister Lavrov called this a sign of the two countries’ desire to continue to work together on bilateral relations and issues of international concern...
Cardinal Parolin describes meeting with Hilarion as ‘very constructive’ (Vatican Radio) The Vatican Secretary of State on Monday described the tone of his two-hour meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, as “very constructive.” Cardinal Pietro Parolin is on afour-day visit to Russia during which he is scheduled to meet the Russian Patriarch Kirill and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday before holding talks with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Wednesday...
Caritas India helps flood victims (Vatican Radio) Caritas India, the Catholic Church’s main charity organization is reaching out to the unreached areas of Bihar and Assam states affected by the recent floods. The Rev. Frederick D’Souza, executive director of Caritas India said that the organization has allocated 50 million rupees (US$ 780,000) and is now handing out food, medicine an tents. Volunteers are also setting up medical camps...
World Humanitarian Day marked with call to support Jordan (The Jordan Times) On the occasion of the World Humanitarian Day (WHD), the UN reiterates that civilians, including humanitarian workers, must not be targets in regions of conflict. The occasion is also an opportunity to shed light on what Jordan has provided to those in need, particularly refugees, and to call on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities...
Ethiopia’s miraculous underground churches (BBC) Officially Christian since 330 AD, Ethiopia claims to be the oldest Christian country in the world. And despite being ravaged by poverty, faith has remained strong over the centuries; Lalibela’s medieval rock-hewn churches are clear proof of that...
21 August 2017
The altar, or Holy of Holies, is seldom revealed during the liturgy at Debra Zion in Ethiopia.
(photo: Sean Sprague)
Several years ago, we took readers to Ethiopia’s Lake Ziway, a place celebrated for its rich and exotic history:
Its largest island, Tullu Gudo, shelters the oldest active religious community south of Ethiopia’s Christian heartland, Debra Zion. Tradition holds that Tullu Gudo once housed the Ark of the Covenant, said to contain the Ten Commandments.
Around the ninth century A.D., when reportedly the Ark was sheltered there, the island was home to more than 500 monks. Today, there are three. Numerous factors have contributed to this decline, including the return of the Ark to Aksum, immigration over hundreds of years to the less impoverished mainland and the anti-church policies of Ethiopia’s Marxist dictator (1974-1991), Mengistu Haile Mariam.
According to legend, the Ark had been kept in Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia, ever since it was taken from Jerusalem sometime after 587 B.C. But during the ninth century A.D., the Ark’s Ethiopian protectors fled Aksum with the Ark, to escape Queen Judith, whose forces threatened to steal it. Journeying south, the Ark and its guardians eventually settled on the uninhabited island of Tullu Gudo. They built a church, Debra Zion, to hold the Ark and other treasures. About half of the monks returned with the Ark to Aksum some 40 years later, when the city was deemed again safe.
Though it was no longer necessary to guard Tullu Gudo, the monks maintained a significant presence there for more than a thousand years. During the reign of Haile Selassie (1930-1974), Ethiopia’s last emperor, about 100 monks lived on the island. That changed after Mengistu, then a colonel in the army, seized power. Along with the murder and forced relocation of hundreds of thousands, the Marxist dictator also nationalized all land and discouraged religious practice.
Now, religious life is flourishing again in Ethiopia. And the monks of Tullu Gudo, who live amid an Orthodox lay community of several hundred, are trying to recapture some of the island’s celebrated past.
Read more about Ethiopia’s Island Sanctuary in the January 2005 edition of ONE.
21 August 2017
In this image from February, women hold placards as they take part in a protest demanding better living conditions at the refugee camp of the former international Helliniko airport in Athens, Greece. Pope Francis has released a message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, underscoring the Church’s responsibility to extend aid. (photo: CNS/Yannis Kolesidis, EPA)
Pope releases message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees — 14 January 2018 — was released by the Vatican on Monday. In the message the Holy Father says that providing aid to migrants and refugees is a “great responsibility, which the Church intends to share with all believers and men and women of good will, who are called to respond to the many challenges of contemporary migration with generosity, promptness, wisdom and foresight, each according to their own abilities...”
Cardinal Parolin discusses goals of upcoming Russia visit (Vatican Radio) Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who is on a 4-day visit to Russia, gave a wide-ranging interview with the Russian state news agency TASS, ahead of his arrival on Monday...
Jets destroy ISIS convoy in Syria (BBC) Dozens of so-called Islamic State (IS) militants are reported to have been killed in a Russian air strike near the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour. Russia’s defense ministry said at least 200 jihadists had died after its air force targeted a convoy of about 20 4x4’s, armored vehicles and tanks. It did not say when the strike took place, but a monitoring group reported that a convoy had been hit last Friday...
Peace returns to Minya village after skirmishes between Muslims, Copts (The Egypt Independent) Calm returned to Ezbat al-Forn, of Abyouha village in Abu Qurqas city of Minya governorate on Monday, following skirmishes Sunday between Christians and Muslims. According to head of Abu Qurqas city council, Brigadier Mohamed Salah, fights broke out on Sunday after some Coptic citizens in the village of Ezbat al-Forn tried to pray at the house of a citizen under the guidance of a priest, prompting some Muslims to intercept for not possessing a license...
Indian prime minister’s Independence Day address leaves Christians ‘disappointed’ (The Tablet) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence day address has done little to reassure the country’s Catholic population, as numbers of targeted attacks against Christians continues to rise. Addressing the nation from the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on 15 August, Modi declared that India is “the land of Gandhi and Buddha, we have to move forward taking everyone along...We have to successfully carry it forward and that is why in the name of faith, violence cannot be allowed.” Yet Christians have said the Prime Minister failed to denounce the targeted sectarian violence that minority Christians and Muslims have been subjected to under under Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, known for espousing a Hindu nationalist agenda...
Pope encourages Methodists and Waldensians to walk path to full Christian unity (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has urged Methodist and Waldensian Churches to continue to walk together with the Catholic Church on the path towards full Christian unity, pointing out that in a world lacerated by violence and fear it is all the more important to live and to convey the Christian message of welcome and fraternity...
18 August 2017
The Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office is marking the 100th anniversary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches with a stamp featuring details from the chapel in the congregation’s office. The stamp will be released 7 September. Read more about the congregation’s anniversary here.
(photo: CNS/courtesy Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office)
18 August 2017
Syrians who were staying at a temporary shelter in Jibrin, on the outskirts of Aleppo, are transported to areas currently controlled by the Syrian regime in eastern Aleppo on 16 August 2017. An advisor to Syria’s president says the war is nearly over.
(photo: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)
Assad advisor says war nearing an end (Reuters) An advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the six-year war is nearly over as foreign states cut backing for rebels, and vowed the government would confront any “illegitimate” forces, whether Turkish or American. Bouthaina Shaaban said the fact that Syria was staging the Damascus International Fair for the first time in the war “sends a message that the war has ended ... and we are at the start of the path towards reconstruction...”
Mosul faces struggles with reconstruction (BBC) “My husband is buried over there!” says Ishar, pointing towards a pile of rubble where her house once stood. Draped in a dark blue shawl and a long black abaya, the 32-year-old mother-of-four stumbles through the ruins of the Old City in the west of Mosul, which was recaptured by Iraqi government forces in July after an almost nine-month battle with so-called Islamic State...
Deepening drought hits Ethiopian herders (Reuters) Livestock are dying in parts of Ethiopia that are overwhelmingly reliant on their milk as deepening drought pushes up the number of districts in need of life-saving aid by 19 percent, according to a report released on Thursday...
Indian Catholics in Philadelphia celebrate heritage (CatholicPhilly.com) It was Indian Catholic Heritage Day on 12 August, sponsored by the Indian American Catholic Association of Greater Philadelphia and celebrated at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Northeast Philadelphia. The congregation was mostly India-born adults and their American-born children, many in the colorful festive garments of their native land. For the most part they were members of the Syro-Malabar Rite Catholic Church, and the Syro-Malankara Rite Catholic Church, with a smattering of Roman-rite Catholics, all with a common heritage...
17 August 2017
This image from the Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East in the 13th century,
when Mongols conquered much of Asia.
(photo: by Abraham Cresques, Atlas catalan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
The decline of Christianity in the Middle East did not occur over night. It took over a millennium for Christians to go from being a slight majority of the population of the Middle East to being 5 percent at present.
When did it start? We see the beginnings of decline by the 9th century. Initially, the Muslim conquerors discouraged the People of the Book, Christians, from converting to Islam. The benefits which the conquerors enjoyed were initially not given to non-Arab converts to Islam. But as the caliphate developed into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state, those privileges were granted to all converts, providing incentives for Christians to convert to Islam.
Under the Abbasid Caliphs (750-1258) there were often dialogues/debates in which Christian and Muslim theologians debated the superiority of their own faiths. By the 9th century, though, we notice subtle and not so subtle changes taking place. Since many of these debates have survived in written form, we can follow their development. (You can read more about that here.) Although for the most part, there was no violence exerted on Christians to convert to Islam, subtler and perhaps more powerful incentives were at work: social status, political status and financial advantage. While there does not seem to have been any mass conversion to Islam, the decline had begun.
At the beginning of the 13th century, nomadic groups in north central Asia began a migration and conquest. In 1258, Mongols conquered Baghdad and brought the Abbasid Caliphate to an end. By 1300, they had conquered China, all of Central and Western Asia and parts of Eastern Europe. Until the advent of ISIS, the Middle East had not experienced wanton destruction such a scale since the Mongol invasions. The infrastructure of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious caliphate was destroyed — and with it, most of the Christian infrastructure in the region.
To be sure, there would not be a permanent vacuum in the Middle East. Smaller groups of Muslims formed Khanates and Sultanates which often competed with each other for the position which the Abbasid Caliphate had possessed and which was now gone forever.
Even towards the end of the caliphate, one notices the presence of Turkic people in positions of power. After the demise of the caliphate, more and more of these groups move into the Middle East and begin to establish governments.
One of these groups, the Oghuz Turks, was to begin the most important empire in Europe and Asia for almost 600 years. The Osmanli family formed a dynasty, the Ottomans, which would conquer the entire Middle East and much of Central Europe until its dissolution in 1923. The Ottoman Empire was inspired by the ghazi or raiding tradition and engaged in almost constant raids against their non-Muslim and Muslim neighbors.
In many ways, the situation of Christians and non-Ottoman Muslims under the Ottomans was similar. Both were subjects. However, there were several factors which made the situation of Christians worse. Christians were becoming a minority lacking the “demographic depth” of the Arab Muslims, making any recovery very difficult. The Crusades (roughly 11th to 13th centuries) and the later constant Ottoman attacks in Christian central Europe gave Christians in the Ottoman Empire the air of being “the foreign enemy” or, worse, a “fifth column.” Forced conversions of Christians to Islam had been rare. However, the Janissaries, the Ottoman shock troops, were originally manned by young Christian boys kidnapped from (mostly) Balkan countries, forced to convert to Islam and then trained as the personal troops of the Sultan.
Relations between Christians and Ottoman Turks are memorialized in several Catholic holy days. The Feast of the Name of Mary (12 September) commemorates the defeat of the Ottoman armies at Vienna in 1683 and the Feast of the Holy Rosary (7 October) commemorates the Christian victory at the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571. It’s no accident that these holy days are linked to battles; the Ottoman Empire was in an almost constant state of war with Eastern Europe until the end of the 17th century.
The time of the Umayyad and Abbasid Christian-Muslim dialogues was over. For the Christians in the West, Islam — in the form of the Ottoman Empire — was not an opportunity for dialogue, but a threat. Christians in the East were considered objects of suspicion — sympathizers of the Christian powers in Europe — and not people for dialogue.
Christians in Syria and Mesopotamia never really recovered from the Mongol invasions and destruction. Any opportunity to recover was greatly diminished under the Ottomans. Christians went from being high officials and respected scholars under the caliphates to being a poor, shrinking and suspect minority under the Ottomans.
As we will see, the events of the 20th and 21st centuries would make the situation of Christians in the Middle East even worse.
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia: Introduction
17 August 2017
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 1: In the Beginning
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Part 2: Christians and Muslims Co-exist
In this image from 2013, Slovak Archbishop Cyril Vasil, secretary of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, prays at the Mass opening a plenary meeting of the congregation. The congregation is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its establishment as a Vatican office dedicated to supporting the Eastern Catholic churches and ensuring their liturgies, spirituality and traditions continue to be part of the universal Catholic Church. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)
The Vatican is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, an office that supports the Eastern Catholic churches and strives to ensure that the universal Catholic Church treasures its diversity, including in liturgy, spirituality and even canon law.
Coincidentally established five months before the Russian Revolution, the congregation continually has had to face the real persecution and threatened existence of some of the Eastern churches it was founded to fortify.
Until 1989-90, many of the Byzantine Catholic churches — including, notably, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the largest of all the Eastern churches — were either outlawed or severely repressed by the communist governments of Eastern Europe, said Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a member of the Slovak Catholic Church and secretary of the congregation.
No sooner had the Soviet bloc disintegrated and once-persecuted churches begun to flourish, then the first Gulf War broke out. And then there was the invasion of Iraq. And the turmoil of the Arab Spring across North Africa. Then the war in Syria. And Israeli-Palestinian tensions continue. The Chaldean, Syriac Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Melkite and Maronite churches have paid a high price.
“In all of this, the Eastern churches suffer the most because they find themselves crushed in the struggle between bigger powers, both local and global,” Archbishop Vasil said in mid-August. Even those conflicts that are not taking direct aim at Christians in the Middle East make life extremely difficult for them, and so many decide to seek a more peaceful life for themselves and their families outside the region.
One impact of the “exodus,” he said, is the greater globalization of the Catholic Church. While 100 years ago, when the Congregation for Eastern Churches was established, only a few Eastern churches had eparchies — dioceses — outside their traditional homelands, today they can be found in Australia, North and South America and scattered across Western Europe.
“In Sweden today, a third of the Christians are Chaldeans or Armenians,” he added. “In Belgium and Holland, where Catholicism has suffered a decline, communities are reborn with the arrival of new Christians, which is a reminder of the importance of immigrants bringing their faith with them.”
In countries like Italy, where thousands of Ukrainians and Romanians have come to work, they add ritual diversity to the expressions of Catholicism already found there, he said.
The growing movement of people around the globe means that part of the congregation’s job is to work with the Latin-rite bishops and dioceses, “sensitizing church public opinion” to the existence, heritage, needs and gifts of the Eastern Catholics moving into their communities, the archbishop said. Where an Eastern Catholic hierarchy has not been established, the local Latin-rite bishop has a responsibility “to accept, welcome and give respectful support to the Eastern Catholics” as their communities grow and become more stable.
The idea, Archbishop Vasil said, is to help the local Latin-rite bishop seriously ask himself, “How can I help them free themselves of me and get their own bishop?”
Although it has only 26 employees — counting the prefect, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, and the receptionist — the Congregation for Eastern Churches works with 23 Eastern Catholic churches and communities, fulfilling the same tasks that for Latin-rite Catholics fall to the congregations for bishops, clergy, religious, divine worship and education. It supports the Pontifical Oriental Institute, which offers advanced degrees in Eastern Christian liturgy, spirituality and canon law. And it also coordinates the work of a funding network known by the Italian acronym ROACO; the U.S.-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Pontifical Mission for Palestine are part of that network.
The congregation’s approach in some areas is different than its Latin-rite counterparts because it follows the Eastern Catholic traditions and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. For instance, some of the Eastern churches ordain married men to the priesthood.
And, like the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Eastern Churches helps prepare the nomination of bishops by Pope Francis, but only for dioceses outside the Eastern churches’ traditional homeland. The Eastern Catholic synods of bishops elect new bishops closer to home and submit their names to the pope for his assent.
But the congregation’s primary concern is the survival of the Eastern Catholic churches, which is an issue not only in places where Eastern Catholics are threatened with death or driven from their homelands by war.
Archbishop Vasil said others risk losing their Eastern Catholic identity through assimilation.
Some of the blame, at least before the Second Vatican Council, lies with the Vatican and the Latin-rite hierarchy and religious orders, who, for decades encouraged Eastern Catholics to be more like their Latin-rite brothers and sisters.
Vatican II urged a recovery of the Eastern Catholic traditions, liturgy and spirituality. But, especially for Eastern Catholics living far from their churches’ homelands, uprooting vestiges of the “Latinization” can prove difficult, Archbishop Vasil said.
Using his own Slovak Catholic Church as an example, he said parishes have been asked beginning 1 September to return to the Eastern Catholic tradition of administering baptism, chrismation (confirmation) and the Eucharist together at the same liturgy, even for infants. In Slovakia, as in some parishes in North America, Eastern Catholics adopted the Latin-rite church’s practicing of withholding the Eucharist until a child is about 7 and then celebrating the child’s first Communion.
Especially for Eastern Christians whose ancestors immigrated two or three or four generations ago, the archbishop said, maintaining their specific identity as Chaldean, Ruthenian or Syro-Malankara Catholics is a challenge.
“The greatest danger in the coming years is extinction,” Archbishop Vasil said. “We don’t know what history has in store for us, but we must make sure we have done everything possible to avoid this danger.”