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Ecclesial Biodiversity

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Although only a few kinds of potatoes are grown all over the world, there are hundreds of varieties still growing in the homeland of the potato – Peru.

My neighborhood market usually carries Red Delicious apples and a few other varieties, but many other tasty apple varieties are grown throughout the area.

Biologists lament the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. They warn us that thousands of unknown species of plants and herbs are being lost forever, some of which may have medicinal properties vital to our future.

What as a child I knew as the Bronx Zoo – the New York Zoological Society – now calls itself the Wildlife Conservation Society. It sees its mission to preserve endangered animal species that are disappearing as a result of overhunting and destruction of their natural habitats.

We should have similar concerns for the Church. Right now the most widespread, dominant and renowned variety of church throughout the world is the Roman Catholic or Western Church. But, besides the Roman Catholic Church, there are other significant varieties and groupings of churches.

The daughter churches and ecclesial communities of the West – the Anglicans, the Protestants and the Evangelicals – are also found all over the world.

In the East – the ancient homeland of Christianity – there are many apostolic and deeply rooted species of church: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox churches and the great family of Byzantine Orthodox churches – as well as the Catholic Eastern churches in full communion with the Church of Rome.

Some of these relatively small Eastern churches preserve disciplines and canon laws, sacramental and liturgical practices, customs and popular religious traditions of great validity and importance, yet different from those of the great Roman Church.

An obvious example: From time immemorial most of the churches of the East ordain both married and celibate men as priests – although bishops are always chosen from among the celibates.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the couple themselves; the presence of the priest is required by church law, but he is considered only an official witness. In the East, the priest administers the sacrament of matrimony – the priestly blessing is indispensable for the couple to be wed.

Although the Orthodox churches agree with the Roman Catholic Church concerning the indissolubility of a true Christian marriage, most have a different discipline when it comes to remarriage.

There are many important usages in the East that may be lost forever, if not all the Eastern churches survive. Churches, too, can become an endangered species.

Concern for church unity must not become concern for church uniformity. Ecumenical sensitivity implies concern for preserving the existence and life of all the Eastern churches, whose rich diversity is the common patrimony of us all.

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA