The content of the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente and those to whom it is addressed.

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:24:42

‘Some Lebanese delude themselves that the Pope has a magic wand’, remarked Mgr. Rouhana, recently elected Bishop of Sarba (north of Beirut) a few days ago. ‘What we really need though is not a miraculous intervention, but an improvement in the quality of our Christian witness’. The Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente which Benedict XVI signed on September 14 in the Basilica of St Paul in Harissa, provides precious pointers in this area while also entering into details where necessary. An example of this concreteness is the invitation to reach agreement on a common translation of the Our Father in Arabic. Subtle differences, just a word or two, separate the various Catholic Churches, but in shared celebrations what outsiders hear comes over as a discordant and deeply discouraging noise - as was already noted during the Synod. There are also many quite clear suggestions, likewise inspired by the synodal propositiones, about working towards a more rigorous and transparent administration of ecclesial goods and an application of canon law in a spirit of equality, for in reality the current practice often puts women at a disadvantage. On the basis of these very precise policy statements and even before that, on the basis of a communion which, as the document records authoritatively, is prior to individual traditions, the Christians of the Middle East will be able to face up to the challenges that await them. And here the Exhortation puts forward certain general principles which make particular sense in the light of the fact that the region has become increasingly unstable: who could have imagined back in October 2010 that just a few months later the Arab revolutions would begin? Likewise, who would have anticipated the appearance of a film that is insulting to Mohammed and which has set the Islamic world on fire, even affecting Lebanon? So it would be dangerous (and probably also alien to the aims of the Exhortation) to attempt any pronouncements on the current situation, which is not without its positive signs, even while being fraught with very worrying phenomena such as the current attacks on American Embassies. The main thing in the Exhortation is the principles it lays down: ecumenism to be relaunched, interreligious dialogue and the need for a healthy secularity - issues which transcend the confines of the region (and it should be borne in mind that the Pope declared that the Exhortation was addressed to the whole Church). The importance of the connection with Judaism is restated, and that is something never to be overlooked in the Middle Eastern context, and at the same time there is an insistence on the need for a positive relationship with Muslim believers. In one of its strongest passages, the Pope declares that Eastern Christians ‘have let themselves be challenged by Muslim devotion and piety’. It is precisely this idea of letting ourselves be challenged by each other that could be a key to organising in a new way relations with the believing other, according to the expression used in the document. But to do this it is necessary to rid the area of violence, ‘freeing religion from the encumbrance of politics’, safeguarding fundamental rights for all, working decisively for religious freedom. Ambitious objectives, but ones that may not be set aside if we want to bring a halt to the continuous haemorrhage of the faithful which is threatening the future of the Eastern churches. Undoubtedly the message of the Exhortation will take some time to be absorbed. But there is one idea that the Lebanese understood very well right from the first moment: ‘My peace I give you’. It was the motto for the whole journey. It was restated with infinite variations on the posters festooning the streets of Beirut and around, even in the Shiite areas clsoe to the airport. This is indeed the profond desire of so many Lebanese. Some people wondered if it made any sense for the Pope to go all the way to the Madonna of Harissa to deliver the Apostolic Exhortation. It seemed too risky. In various parts of the media there were prophecies that this trip would be cancelled at the last minute. But Benedict XVI chose not to beat a retreat. His presence in Lebanon at such a delicate moment is a first sign that is needed not only by Christians but by all men of good will, in this country and in the whole region. By his gesture the Pope showed that he believes very deeply in the possibility of that peaceful and enriching coexistence to which so much space is devoted in the Apostolic Exhortation. The first message of Benedict XVI was his presence.