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Christians in the Muslim World

A lucid balance of the Synod of the Middle East from the Kuwait Apostolic Vicar

The recently concluded Middle East Synod had its positive aspects and its challenges. How can we see all this in the light of our real situation in the Vicariate Apostolic of Kuwait? I shall attempt to analyse three of its aspects?

 

 

1) Positive aspects

 

Gathered around the ‘Universal Pastor’, as Benedict XVI defined himself in his opening homely at the Synod on 10 October 2010, for the first time we found ourselves together, Eastern pastors or pastors working in the Middle East. Bishops of the Eastern Church in Europe also took part, along with the major archbishop of the Syro-Malankerese Catholic Church and a bishop representing the Syro-Malabar Church, both coming from the state of Kerala, in India. In addition, the representatives of the Orthodox Churches were present: Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic and Assyrian. I am only going to speak about the Eastern representatives and not the other guests of the various European and world episcopal conferences or those of the Anglican Church.

 

 

Finding ourselves together for the first time, actually meeting the people who have to face an often dangerous mission like the one in Iraq or full of tension like in the Holy Land, or meeting bishops and patriarchs with whom the only communication had consisted in an exchange of letters, all contributed to creating a climate of fraternity, even if this was not immediate.

 

 

As in all international conferences, the intervals were very important during which, sipping a cup of coffee, one makes acquaintances, ideas heard in the conference hall are clarified, one can talk with someone who had raised issues or specific pastoral problems during the conference.

 

 

The concern for emigration was common to all. The Holy Land that risks becoming an historical museum, full of memories but emptied of Christians, Iraq that sees thousands of faithful flee the country, often because they are the victims of violent threats. Hence the problem of how to follow the faithful who leave their country of origin to go to emigration countries: USA, Canada, Europe and Australia. Do these faithful not risk losing their spiritual, liturgical, patristic and disciplinary patrimony? The sensitivity towards this pastoral aspect was deeply felt by all the Synod Fathers. In fact, as a consequence of emigration, there are churches that risk disappearing or which constitute such a tiny minority as to no longer be an important symbol in the society in which they live.

 

 

Dealing with the problem of the young also contributed towards creating communion: how to transmit faith to the next generations. Secularisation, materialism and individualism can make our efforts to no avail if not wisely adapted and having a specific aim.

 

 

Nonetheless, not only did the various Eastern churches meet each other but they were also made known to the whole world. Nearly all of us had interviews with different newspapers and local and national television, or conversations with radios at a world level, meetings with journalists, photographers, etc. Perhaps the Church in the Middle East showed its face to the entire world for the first time.

 

The ‘little flock’, as we have often heard the Church of the Middle East being defined, took its place like the big flock that lives in the rest of the world. Everyone was able to learn something about a part of the Church of Christ which is called Catholic Church in the Middle East and which was somewhat unknown until now. I put myself in the shoes of many television viewers and I asked myself what they must have thought at the sight of the patriarchs and bishops filing past, like in the two masses for the opening and closing of the Synod, dressed in their various liturgical vestments in a variety of colours, wearing mitres of many different shapes, with their beards giving the idea of certain ayatollahs rather than the successors of the Apostles.

 

 

I believe that in various ways we have given the idea that the Catholic Church in not uniform everywhere, since it is universal and as such must welcome, appreciate and maintain the diversities of the communities making it up. Herein lies the problem: how to keep the diversities and shape unity with them, that is the Catholic Church which is and must be one and one alone on the whole earth. How to maintain the unity with the Mother Church by the faithful who have chosen to leave the country of their Mother Church to move to emigration countries. We thus reach the second point, the challenges.

 

 

2) The challenges

 

It suffices to go over the proposals presented by the Pope and voted by great majority by the Synod Fathers in order to have an idea of the number of challenges the various Eastern churches must face to remain within the unity with the universal Church.

 

 

Proposal No. 4 speaks about the Identity of the Catholic Churches in the East. This, according to me, is the crucial point. Was this Synod the Synod of the Eastern Catholic Churches or the Synod of the Catholic Church in the Middle East? In the first case the Latin Church is excluded, which in the Middle East has the greatest number of institutions and in some cases, for example in Jordan, the majority of the faithful. If we then look at the numbers of Catholics in the Gulf, the Latin ones are 2,885,000, while all the Middle Eastern ones, still in the Gulf, are 265,000. Not only, but if one accepts that there are more Catholic Churches, unity suffers as a result: there no longer exists just one Catholic Church but there are many Catholic Churches.

 

 

The proposal deals with the problem saying that ‘we are called upon to live like a Church of communion’ and that it is necessary to be ‘faithful to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and to the norms and structures of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO) and to the Code of Canon Law (CIC) and to the specific laws of the churches’. These wise guidelines are more a goal than a reality. That is, we are all called upon to make a journey to be able to ‘live like a Church of communion’. It is a fact that it was the split between the Middle Eastern churches that was one of the reasons why Islam has devoured the Christian population in the Middle East.

 

 

Furthermore, we must recognise that the theological debates that have arisen in the Middle Eastern area, and sometimes been sparked off among the people, have led to conciliating definitions from which the universal Church has benefited. However, even today these communities, divided, gradually worn away, falling apart, made smaller and emarginated by Islam, often seek to guarantee their own survival, even numerical, at the expense of their communion.

 

 

Nonetheless, following the positive aspects mentioned above, the Synod was an important step towards communion among the various Middle Eastern churches; there has been an increased awareness of what the Catholic patriarchs of the Middle East stated in their first pastoral letter (1991): ‘In the East, we shall be united Christians or we shall not’. In fact, Proposal No. 16 speaks about ‘creating a commission for the cooperation among Catholic hierarchies of the Middle East, periodic meetings, concrete solidarity between the rich and less rich dioceses, cooperation by means of Fidei Donum priests.

 

 

Another challenge which will be the subject of heated debate is the one presented in Proposal No. 18, entitled The jurisdiction of the patriarchs. We read: ‘Outside the patriarchal territory, in order to maintain the communion of believers in the Middle East with their patriarchal churches and to guarantee them a suitable pastoral service, it is to be hoped that the question of the extension of the jurisdiction of the Eastern patriarchs to the people of their churches all over the world will be the topic of study in view of appropriate measures’.

 

 

The idea seems clear and logical, but it clashes with a far more complex reality. I suppose that this ‘study in view of appropriate measures’ must be carried out at an interdisciplinary and inter-pastoral level. That is, not only the juridical aspects must be studied but the pastoral and ecclesial communion ones too. In practice: what should the relationship be between the Eastern patriarchs and a local bishop in the emigration country which sees the arrival of six patriarchs of the Middle East plus two major archbishops from India having full authority in the area of his diocese? Is it just a question of defining the boundaries and tasks? Is the problem not also ecclesiological?

 

 

In order to better explain the inter-pastoral aspect, I will recount the experience described by an Eastern bishop in one of the circuli minores of the Synod. The bishop in question stated that in his territory there are six other bishops, all with their own jurisdiction over their faithful of that same territory. The bishop decided to refuse a certain pastoral activity, but another neighbouring bishop accepted to do it. In conclusion, the first bishop’s faithful passed to the second one and hence his congregation decreased. If in the territory of the archdiocese of Toronto, for example, eight jurisdictions came to exist (six of the Middle Eastern patriarchs and two of the two major archbishops of India) besides that of the local archbishop, how would the unity of the Church be guaranteed? One might say that they must plan a pastoral in common. But, of my knowledge, after 41 years in the Middle Eastern world, in no country at all has this pastoral in common worked adequately. Will the Synod be the beginning of a new path in this direction? I deeply hope so.

 

 

A third challenge is the attitude of the Eastern Churches with regard to the ecclesial movements coming from the West and now ‘increasingly present in the churches of the Middle East’ (Proposal No. 17). The text of the Synod Fathers asks the ecclesial movements to ‘experience their own charisma bearing in mind the culture, history, liturgy and spirituality of the local church’ and hopes that ‘the Catholic hierarchy of every country of the Middle East has a common pastoral position with respect to the movements in question, to their fitting in and to their pastoral activity’. The path towards this ‘common pastoral position’ is all uphill.

 

 

Other challenges are those of education (Proposal No. 30), pastoral operators (Proposal No. 31), the young (Proposal no. 36), social doctrine (Proposal No. 38), liturgy (Proposal No. 39). I intend however to mention above all the text of Proposal No. 37 on the New Evangelisation: ‘Our churches are called upon to enter into the perspective of the New Evangelisation, taking into consideration the cultural and social context in which the man of today finds himself living, working and acting. This requires a deep conversion and renewal in the light of God’s Word and the sacraments, particularly the Reconciliation and Eucharist’. Not only does this proposal require ‘deep conversion and renewal’, but all the others do too. We Synod Fathers will have made huge steps towards the unity of the Catholic Church – and have thus made one big Synod – if we recognise everyone as being sinners and agree to be converted more and more to the Lord Jesus who we want to love, serve and announce.

 

 

 

3) In the Vicariate Apostolic of Kuwait

 

On 6 March 2003 God’s servant Pope John Paul II decided that only the two vicars apostolic, those of Arabia and Kuwait, had jurisdiction in the Gulf (Rescript Nos. 1 and 2) and that for the moment no ritual parishes could be set up (Rescript No. 12). His Holiness Benedict XVI confirmed this Rescript on 16 March 2006 and also on other occasions (25 July 2006 and 30 April 2009). Two Eastern patriarchs accepted the Pope’s decisions in writing, two others showed no interest in the question, another started talks with us and another categorically refused.

 

 

Is there not an ecclesiological problem here too? What is the relationship between the patriarchs and the pope? However, the desire is clear on the part of some patriarchs of the Middle East and the two major archbishops of India for the Rescript to be reviewed and changed. Proposal No. 19 of the Synod says: ‘In a spirit of communion and for the good of the faithful, the setting up of a commission is to be hoped for that would group together the representatives of the competent ministries, the vicars apostolic of the region and the representatives of the churches sui iuris involved. It would have the task of studying the situation of the Catholics in the Persian Gulf countries, the ecclesiastic jurisdiction and of proposing solutions to the Holy See that it deems useful for the fostering of pastoral action’. It is a question therefore of once again having the great number of meetings that were held in the past, at the time of our predecessors, and which led to the text of the Rescript, which will stay in force until there is a new one.

 

 

Before making any practical observations, in a few words I would like to outline the situation of the Vicariate of Kuwait, which from many points of view is the same as that of the Vicariate of Arabia.

 

In Kuwait we have over 350,000 believers (the Filipinos alone are 200,000, or at least those registered with the embassy, besides many other illegal ones). There are four parishes, of which only two are official, the cathedral and another one 40 km from the capital. The third one has no authorisation as a church, the fourth is even ‘vague’ (a word to the wise). I must also make it clear that in the Gulf nobody can own land. The land is always given or rented to the Catholic Church for a specific time. In five years the contract with the government for the cathedral land expires. Will it be renewed? In the other officially recognised parish the church is not ours but belongs to an oil company. The ‘churches’ of the other two parishes are unauthorised (especially the ‘vague’ one) and can be closed from one moment to another. We therefore live in a state of total precariousness. But the number of believers is also uncertain. When they have reached retirement age they must leave their job and therefore also Kuwait. Only very few of them have managed to stay beyond that age as they have been in business with a Kuwaiti partner for many years. Not only can work be temporary but also the changes of a political or financial order can oblige many to leave the country. An example is the recent world financial crisis that caused the departure of many people, above all families. Finally, the foreign students have practically no right to attend university in Kuwait, which takes only a very limited, symbolic number, and therefore they either enrol at private universities or they must leave Kuwait and look for a university elsewhere.

 

 

From this unstable situation, it is easy to understand why the pope considered it inopportune to allow other ecclesiastic structures.

 

Despite this uncertainty, in the Gulf the intention is for all the patriarchs and major archbishops to have full jurisdiction over their faithful and for ritual parishes to be set up. I would find myself in the terrible situation of having nine parish priests (eight Eastern ones and a Latin one) all resident in the cathedral and all using the one and only church. At present we celebrate mass in the cathedral in five rites (three in the other parishes) and in twelve languages. Each of these rites has the whole liturgy over the entire year and in the same way also all the sacraments are given according to their own rite and always by a priest of the rite itself. It is for this reason that in Kuwait we have eight priests for about 40,000 Eastern Catholics and nine priests for over 300,000 followers of the Latin Church.

 

 

The big problem is space: how to fit five rites into only one church, above all during the important holy celebrations when the faithful are over ten thousand every day? Tensions run high and there are threats to go to the Protestants if we are not given a church. And if I had nine parish priests to keep happy? Would the rights that each one of them would claim be for the unity of the Church, the good of the faithful or for the division of Catholics and the rivalry among the various Eastern communities? Does the intermittent fighting in the Holy Sepulchre tell us nothing, in which three rites are all claiming their own rights? Bearing in mind that Salus animarum suprema lex, we must reflect on the practical consequences that would result from this if the present Rescript were changed. There will be very serious consequences not only in the Gulf but in the whole world.

 

 

From what I have just said it can be understood how the Gulf cannot be compared to the Middle East or the emigration countries, where every rite has its own independent church. Even more concretely, we must think of all the Catholic believers of our vicariates in the Gulf and not only of some of them. While there are communities that could keep their priest, there are others that are very poor, also among the Eastern ones, which cannot be financially self-sufficient. Some Eastern communities are financially supported by the Latin Church. Is it therefore opportune to foster the richer ones and make them independent and leave others in poverty? It does not seem that we would be working towards the unity of the Catholic Church in this way but towards its division.

 

It is therefore wrong to say that in the Gulf there is nothing that makes it necessary to change the normal canon legislation to introduce a particular legislation into it, that of the Rescript. Whoever maintains this shows that they are not aware of how things really are.

 

I would like to stress once again that in the Gulf, owing to this situation and to external environmental reasons, it is an illusion to say that the faithful of the Eastern Church must preserve all their traditions. Nor can we Vicars Apostolic be blamed for negligence in this respect. If we take a very simple example, that of the mother tongue, we can see that the children born in Kuwait speak their mother tongue at home but study only English at school. It follows that they know English well but only speak their mother tongue, without being able to read or write it. For the second generation children things will change even more so and their mother tongue will disappear completely. The same must be said for all the other particular traditions.

 

 

However, we are aware of our duties towards the Eastern Churches to help them in the respect of their traditions as far as this is possible, especially according to the liturgy of their rite. The Rescript itself foresees this in No. 3.

 

 

On the other hand, I believe that it is necessary that also the faithful of the Middle East make a step in our direction. From the moment that they decided of their own free will to leave their country of origin and to go to the Gulf, they automatically entered into double obedience: on the one hand to the Church of origin and to its pastors and on the other to the Church and the bishop that they found in the Gulf. Neither of the two obediences must be stronger than the other. It is only in their balance that one can guarantee a united Catholic Church, that is, universal.

 

 

The Synod invites us to ‘study the situation of the Catholics in the Persian Gulf states’. I do not intend to evade this invitation, even though it is essential that the members of this commission pay a visit to the Gulf area and see the situation for themselves, before embarking on probable long debates during which tensions are likely to arise. This means that they not only have to meet the faithful of their rite but must have an overall vision of the whole ecclesial situation in which we live. All those who have visited us up to now have found surprises in our vicariates that they had never even imagined. I have reason to believe that this will also be the case for the members of the commission who will come.

 

 

I conclude by quoting this significant passage of the homely of the Holy Father at the closing mass of the Synod on 24 October 2010: ‘Common prayer has also helped us to face the challenges of the Catholic Church in the Middle East [...] We need humility in order to recognise our limits, our errors and omissions, to be able to truly form ‘one single heart and one single soul’. A more complete communion within the Catholic Church also fosters the ecumenical dialogue with the other churches and ecclesial communities. In this Synod assembly the Catholic Church has also stressed its deep conviction to continue with such dialogue, in such a way that the prayer of the Lord Jesus is fully realised: so that we can all be one single thing’.

 

 

27 novembre 2010

 

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