Vatican City, at the Apostolic Palace, 8 May 2008
Most Holy Father,
May the Lord be blessed for this day which allows us this long-awaited meeting with Your Holiness, in the company of several Hierarchs, members of the Holy Synod of our patriarchal Melkite Greek Catholic Church, together with Superiors General and Mothers General of our religious Orders, priests from among our secular and regular clergy, and a goodly number of our faithful, including ministers, deputies, businessmen, and also fathers and mothers of families, all glad to be taking part in this pilgrimage, the memory of which will live on in their minds and in the annals of our Patriarchate.
Thanks for your concern
To you, Most Holy Father, is due our gratitude for the expressions of encouragement that you have always given us – from the beginning of your blessed ministry as successor of Peter and Sovereign Pontiff of the Church, this Church of Rome that “presides in love” – together with care for our Eastern Church and the conflicts that torment the Middle East, cradle of Christianity, especially “the Holy Land which is the homeland of every Christian, since it is the homeland of Jesus and Mary,” in the most apt expression of your predecessor of blessed memory, the Servant of God John Paul II, that Pope so beloved by the East.
In your message of 21 December 2006 to the Catholics of our regions, you wrote, “To you, dear brothers and sisters … I express affectionately my personal closeness in the situation of human lack of security, daily suffering, fear and hope that you are currently experiencing. … Your Churches are accompanied along their difficult way by the prayer and charitable support of the particular Churches throughout the world according to the spirit of the nascent Church.”
Your words, Most Holy Father, expressive of your solicitude for all the Churches of God, and your supreme Petrine ministry give us courage, strengthen us in our Patriarchal ministry – Caput et Pater – with our Bishops – Pastores gregis – and help us to continue our pastoral service among the people of God confided to our care, strengthening them, especially families and young people, in their faith, hope and love.
Our Church present in this meeting
Our patriarchal Church is present in nearly all Arab countries of the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Besides, our faithful have spread throughout the world.
For those in Europe, (France, Belgium, Great Britain, Italy, Sweden) we beg Your Holiness to give them a Bishop. We have a very strong presence, particularly in Canada, the United States, several countries of South America, Australia and New Zealand. These countries are represented today before Your Holiness. Our Church has a dual role: living out and preserving its faith, while at the same time sharing our Eastern heritage with our Latin brethren, so that the Church of Christ may continue to breathe with both lungs.
This vast and still growing diaspora is the result of emigration decimating our presence in our countries of origin and continually worsening for a variety of reasons, but chiefly due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its resultant successive wars and crises over the last sixty years.
Preserving the Christian presence
That incites us to redouble our efforts to preserve the Christian presence in today’s mainly Muslim Middle East: a presence unbroken from the first years of Christianity, or rather from the first days of the event of Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Jerusalem, that event which marks the foundation of the Church of the Resurrection and Redemption, hence called “Mother of all Churches,” to quote Saint John of Damascus. And while Your Holiness is getting ready to open the celebrations of the year of the second millennium since the birth of the Apostle to the Gentiles, how could we fail to mention the fact that Damascus, our patriarchal See, was the place of Saint Paul’s conversion?
Our Christian presence, sown in Arab soil, is the leaven in the dough. Though under threat, it appears an increasingly necessary presence, both ad intra and ad extra.
Ad intra mission
Ad intra, we have an obligation given to our Church during our first visit to your dear predecessor of sacred memory on 12 February 2001, two and a half months after my election as Patriarch. He said to us on that day, “You are a strong, united Church.” It was an observation, but also a wish and a programme.
As for the internal dimension, our great pastoral concern is to inoculate our patriarchal Church against the dangers that threaten it, basing ourself on love, as indicated by my patriarchal motto, “Watch and walk in love!” And this love was the theme of your first Encyclical Letter, Deus caritas est.
On that basis, I rejoice to tell you, Most Holy Father, I love you! We love you! And I’m sure that you also love us. You love your Church, which loves you in return.
Collegiality: strength and unity
A strong, united Church means, ad intra, effective and affectionate collegiality between the Patriarch and the Hierarchs who are members of the Holy Synod. It means a Church where love is the bond that unites the faithful with their pastors and with each other.
It also means a Church strong in its faith, that precious deposit that we must be capable of transmitting to younger generations. We have invented and popularised a saying in our community, “A Church without young people is a Church without a future. Young people without a Church are young people without a future.”
Satisfactory internal condition
We thank our Saviour Jesus Christ that our Church is alive and fervent. Our churches are full, for example, during the 50 days of Great Lent in preparation for the Feast of Pascha.
Our eparchies and male and female religious congregations are workshops with projects and initiatives on various levels - pastoral, educational, social, health, service to the poor and handicapped and so forth, besides youth groups, brotherhoods, adult religious education centres, evangelical vigils, pastoral home visits, …
Most Holy Father, I am happy to say that I am proud of our Bishops, proud of our religious congregations, proud of our priests, proud of our parishes: in a word, proud of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church (always remembering that “Melkite” means “royal.”) Ad intra, we are – as pastors ? like the watchmen on the ramparts of the Church, ready to defend it, support it by our faithfulness, our loyalty to it and our common involvement in its service.
Ad extra mission
Ad extra, our mission is multi-purpose.
Our ambition is to be, as Jesus asked, the leaven in the dough: to bring Jesus, his Gospel, message and values to our fellow-citizens, especially to those who do not share our holy faith, be they Jews or Muslims.
With that in view, we would like to put into practice what the Servant of God John Paul II wrote in his last Message for World Peace Day in 2005, that is, that the essence of humanity is “being with and for others.”
Presence in the mainly Muslim Arab world
That is the quintessential meaning of the Christian presence in the mainly Muslim Arab world (15 million Christians out of 300 million people.)
It is the leitmotiv of our role as Church in Arab countries, but also in countries of emigration. We have a unique responsibility in and to this Arab world.
I have illustrated that by perhaps over-bold turns of phrase, saying that we are not only an Arab Church, but also “Church of the Arabs,” and even “Church of Islam.” I mean by that that we Arab Eastern Christians, living as we do in a world with a Muslim majority, have with regard to that world, a unique, irreversible, irreplaceable, imperative, almost exclusive mission, since we have been living together for the last 1429 years. We have the same language and culture. Besides, part of our Christian culture has elements derived from Islam, just as part of Islamic culture has a Christian content. This role is ensured through our presence and witness in the Arab world, a role that is especially important in Lebanon and Syria.
Speaking of this, we must be delighted at your effective and very welcome involvement in a new style of dialogue with Islam, an involvement which provoked at first a shock-wave at the heart of the Islamic world.
Efforts of His Holiness
The outlines of this new dialogue were your meeting with Germany’s Muslim community in Cologne in 2005, your magisterial lecture in Regensburg in September 2006, your visit to Turkey (including the “spiritual” presence of Your Holiness in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque), and the very meaningful reactions that followed.
There were negative reactions, and even acts of violence (that is how a big building, the property of our Patriarchate in Damascus, was firebombed, though our adjoining parish church of Saint John of Damascus was itself spared and even protected.) Then there came other reactions: the letter of 38 sheikhs and ulemas in 2006 and, last year, that very positive one from 138 sheikhs and ulemas of the Muslim world. That letter of 2007 was characterised by an irenic, positive tone, founded on the Word of God amongst Christians and Muslims.
The other aspect of the ad extra mission of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is its role in the ecumenical journey towards Christian unity.
Our Church has always been conscious of this role. The history of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch, in full communion for close on three hundred years with the Church of Rome that “presides in love,” has been marked by many vexations. In particular, it has had to live in the catacombs for about one hundred and thirty years. Indeed, we are a Church of martyrs and confessors of the faith, especially in Lebanon and Syria. There are, standing before you, Most Holy Father, descendants of martyrs.
Absolute communion with Rome
These were martyrs for unity, martyrs of communion with Rome, that communion which was, and still is for us, an historic, existential choice for commitment, that is both effectual and emotional, a definitive and irreversible constituent of glory and humility.
Orthodox and Catholic
However, that communion with Rome does not separate us from our Orthodox ecclesial reality. We say this with profound humility, a deep ecumenical awareness and a touch of humour: we are an Orthodox Catholic Church.
Nearly nine centuries ago, a Patriarch of Antioch, Peter III, prefigured this role: few are aware of his courageous reaction at the time of the dispute between Patriarch Michael Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert of Silva-Candida, which caused the schism of 1054. His mediatory letter to Patriarch Cerularius closes with a plea, in a very “ecumenical” tone, “With all my strength, I appeal to Your Holiness not to enter upon this business with the spirit of contention. Otherwise, it is to be feared that in wishing to mend the tear you may enlarge it. Think carefully: could not all the current misfortunes, all the troubles which ravage kingdoms, all calamities, plagues and famines that devastate our towns and countryside, all the defeats of our troops, stem from this, I mean this long separation, this misunderstanding of our Church with the Apostolic See? Let the Latins correct their Creed, and I’ll ask for nothing more, even discarding as a matter of indifference the question of unleavened bread.”
That is the role played by our predecessors, Gregorios II Youssef-Sayyour at the First Vatican Council, and Maximos IV Sayegh at Vatican II, with the pleiad of members of our Hierarchy.
That role is very apparent in several documents and decrees of Vatican II, and in the institutions originating in and promoted by that Council: Episcopal Conferences, the Synod of Bishops, liturgical reform, ecumenism…
Maximos IV at Vatican II
Patriarch Athenagoras, of blessed memory, thanked my predecessor Maximos IV for having spoken in his name at the Council. And Maximos IV replied: “Every time I spoke at the Council, I thought of you.”
Most Holy Father,
The ecumenical role of our Church is founded on this long Antiochian tradition, on our ecclesial experience of communion with the Church of Rome. We feel that it is an imperative duty and an essential part of the reality of our Church that is fully Eastern and in full communion with the See of Peter.
This role is intended to be a contribution to the ecumenical movement, and to be humbly added to ecumenical efforts in the Roman Dicasteries and in the International Joint Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Our role is always to make ever present the great Absent One: Orthodoxy.
We are indeed rather the Eastern “enfant terrible” in communion with the Church of Rome. That was the goal of the initiative of the late Archbishop Elias Zoghby in 1996: to be in full communion with the Church of Rome and with Orthodoxy. That may be a dream, an Utopian vision, but it is also a prophetic vision.
The great absentee
We would like to live, in the very heart of the Catholic Church, a life that could be accepted by Orthodoxy. Let us do so, Most Holy Father. That is the key to all real progress along the ecumenical way. Accept us, Holy Father, as we are: Eastern Orthodox, who want to live our full and complete Eastern Orthodox tradition in full communion with Rome. That is the really big challenge for the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, as has been evident at every stage of the ecumenical dialogue since 1980 and especially at Belgrade and Ravenna.
For all that, Most Holy Father, we need your prayer, your approbation and your blessing.
Gratitude to the Church of Rome
We are deeply grateful to the Church of Rome for the continual support given to our Church to enable it to fulfil its mission ad intra and ad extra. This assistance has been constant throughout the history of our communion with Rome.
The Congregation for Eastern Churches and R.O.A.C.O.
That is especially apparent in the domain of formation of future Patriarchs and Bishops, priests and members of male and female religious congregations: many of whom are present in this room, happy to tell you, Most Holy Father, of their gratitude. This help has been – and still is – at the root of a very great number of projects flourishing in our eparchies, religious orders and institutions, whether in the area of religious education of lay-people, or that of schools or of health. All this has made and continues to make possible our commitment and witness to Jesus and the Gospel.
Its direct instruments have been – and still are – the Congregation for Eastern Churches and the main Catholic aid organisations, especially in Europe and the United States.
Good Shepherd, Father and Head
Most Holy Father,
We are really happy to be able to lay before you, the Good Shepherd, Father and Head, in this speech and visit, the situation of our Church, that you love and which you hold in your heart and at the heart of your care.
We place before you too, all our cares, and projects that are the expression of our pastoral concern, my own and that of my brother Bishops, members of our Holy Synod. Together we try to be, as a hymn of Pentecost says, “a lyre mystically moved by a divine plectrum, ” that of the Holy Spirit.
Invitation to visit us
We invite you to visit us, as pilgrim and pastor, to see close up the life of our Eastern Churches. I would like especially, as President of the Assembly of Catholic Hierarchs in Syria, to invite you to visit the Church of this country, particularly Damascus, place of the conversion and baptism of Saint Paul. We invite you to travel round our Churches also in Lebanon, the Holy Land and Egypt.
Most Holy Father,
We would like to thank you for the welcome that has awaited us. We declare with enthusiasm that we shall stay faithful to the faith of our forebears, as watchful guardians, courageous witnesses and bearers of the Gospel message of our Lord Jesus Christ in our Arab world, cradle of Christianity.
We entrust ourselves to your prayers and ask your blessing as Father and Shepherd, but also as friend and elder brother, together with your guidance and advice for the future of our Church. That is the instruction given by Our Lord and Saviour to Peter: “And …thou.., strengthen thy brethren .”
+ Gregorios III, Patriarch
Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain