Sunday, September 16, 2012

Zeal for Your House consumes me

During the Holy Father's visit to Lebanon I had the great fortune to find time to read the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation ECCLESIA IN MEDIO ORIENTE. My own three years spent in Jerusalem mark me with more than a dispassionate interest as do a lifetime of encounters with friends and family by marriage from the Lebanese and Syrian diaspora. Beyond that, it is not too far-fetched to seek applications of the Holy Father's synthesis and teaching on the fruits of that particular synod for my present world, Ukraine. More than anything else, I guess I was eager to learn what the Holy Father was going to say about an effective Christian witness in a world of very scattered allegiances. He did not leave me disappointed. Let me quote from two early paragraphs in this admirable document:

3. In the context of the Christian faith, “communion is the very life of God which is communicated in the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ”. It is a gift of God which brings our freedom into play and calls for our response. It is precisely because it is divine in origin that communion has a universal extension. While it clearly engages Christians by virtue of their shared apostolic faith, it remains no less open to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, and to all those ordered in various ways to the People of God. The Catholic Church in the Middle East is aware that she will not be able fully to manifest this communion at the ecumenical and interreligious level unless she has first revived it in herself, within each of her Churches and among all her members: Patriarchs, Bishops, priests, religious, consecrated persons and lay persons. Growth by individuals in the life of faith and spiritual renewal within the Catholic Church will lead to the fullness of the life of grace and theosis (divinization). In this way, the Church’s witness will become all the more convincing.
5. According to Acts, the unity of believers was seen in the fact that “they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of  the bread and the prayers” (2:42). The unity of believers was thus nourished by the teaching of the Apostles (the proclamation of God’s word), to which they responded with unanimous faith, by fraternal communion (the service of charity), by the breaking of  the bread (the Eucharist and the sacraments), and by prayer, both personal and communal. It was on these four pillars that communion and witness were based within the first community of believers. May the Church which has lived uninterruptedly in the Middle East from apostolic times to our own day find in the example of that community the resources needed to keep fresh the memory and the apostolic vitality of her origins!"

No matter where in the world we find ourselves, Christian witness, effective witness may seem to us when confronted as no less and perhaps more of a daunting challenge than it is under the cataclysmic conditions of life facing the peoples of the Middle East. Nonetheless, the Pope's formulation is indeed filled with hope and insight. We are constantly rebuked by our own fainthearted witness to the unity of believers and that no matter where we might live. As we know, it is not always gross error in holding the teaching of the Apostles which divides us; sometimes it is indifference or a lack of love for the other who can and should command our love by reason of the second great command of Christ. 

I can remember studying ecumenism at some point and being advised by a professor that the historical reality of divisions within the body Christian should call forth from us respect for the other who finds himself or herself in good conscience because whatever the reason for the divide, it happened centuries ago and he or she today cannot be accused of wrong. In those same classes we were warned about forging a false peace (irenicism) but basically in the incompleteness of this approach we were abandoned to resignation as to how to how to react to or join in Jesus' prayer ut unum sint. Then there was that sobering platitude invented by someone at some point this side of the Council of Florence that the very last Churches with whom the Roman Catholic will reach communion are the Orthodox. The intimation being that they have suffered too much at our hands to be able to trust our offer of a brotherly embrace.

Ecclesia in Medio Oriente certainly points the way forward to a recovery of Catholic vitality as reflected in the marvelous multiplicity of rites and Churches sui iuris who find their home in that region. What touched others about us in Apostolic times and led to our being described as Christians in Antioch so long ago, a clear witness of communion based on a unified response to the Apostles' teaching, in shared faith, in the service of charity, in the celebration of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and in a life of prayer, is ours to have today by the grace of God Who rules the world. I would wish for my Catholics Latin and Greek here in Ukraine and I would wish no less zeal, as described in the four pillars of communion and witness, to abound within the Orthodox world especially here in Ukraine. 

Not long ago I learned about a movement called the "Consensus of Aleppo" which proposes that all Churches adhere to the same date for Easter as set down by the Council of Nicea. When I ask how the project is going, people just look at me cross-eyed. Zeal for Your House, O Lord! Zeal for Your House!

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