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The Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Sts. Peter and Paul has formally received into its fold about 3,000 members of the Assyrian Catholic Apostolic Diocese under the leadership of Mar Bawai Soro.
BY STEPHEN MIRARCHIREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
EL CAJON, Calif. — Busily preparing
himself for Pentecost, Mar Bawai Soro — a suspended bishop of the Assyrian
Church of the East — received the news for which he had been waiting.
He and a great number of his
adherents in El Cajon, Calif. — nearly 3,000 by his count — were formally
accepted on May 9 into the Catholic diocese of St. Peter the Apostle for
Chaldeans and Assyrians.
An advocate of the primacy of the
bishop of Rome, Mar Bawai (Mar
is an honorific title meaning bishop) was suspended in late 2005 after
presenting his position on full communion with the Catholic Church at the
Assyrian Church’s Synod of Bishops.
“The Assyrian Synod did not want to
enter into the question of papal primacy,” Mar Bawai said. “The evidence is so
overwhelming. It’s a real problem with those who want to discuss it — a real
The Catholic-Assyrian dialogue,
initiated in 1984 by Mar Dinkha IV, the Assyrian church’s patriarch, had slowly
but surely made advances, such as a common Christological declaration in 1995.
Papal primacy, however, has stalled it.
“We reserve a place of honor for the
bishop of Rome,” said Father David Royel, chorbishop (similar to a Vicar) of
the Assyrian Church of the East in San Jose, Calif. “But it does not entail
primacy, as understood by the Eastern Churches.” Full communion, Father Royel
explained, means going back to the early understanding of the bond of love and
the bond of recognition, where communicatio
in sacris meant common worship among apostolic churches, not papal
Mar Bawai disagreed.
“In the Chaldean tradition — our own
ecclesiology, the Church Fathers, canon law — there is closeness to the Roman
Church, and it recognizes the Petrine ministry. Going back and rereading our
history, our liturgy — that has convinced me.”
To thus enter the Catholic Church,
said Mar Bawai, is to offer a small example that coming together is possible.
Father Royel didn’t see it that way.
“The Church of the East looks upon
this matter as schism; we do not recognize the so-called union. We see this as
a very hostile act, which can only prove to strain ecumenical relations.”
Yet Bishop Sarhad Yawsip Jammo, the
ordinary of the diocese into which Mar Bawai and his flock were accepted,
called their entrance “the most recent wave of many waves of restoring full
communion with the Catholic Church.”
Noting that the Chaldean Church was
the first to conclude unity with the Successor of Peter in the 16th century,
Bishop Jammo added that “it is today the main remaining segment of the historic
Church of the East, being an eloquent example of an Eastern Church in full
communion with Rome while preserving fully her own particularity of ecclesial
life and spiritual vitality.”
That commitment to the expression of
particularity, said Mar Bawai, was part of what drew him to communion.
“What’s wonderful about uniting with
the Catholic Church is that it has really done its homework. John Paul II,
especially, has been a great advocate about retaining the liturgical characters
of the Eastern Churches. All that we do is consistent with Catholic theology
and liturgical mandates. But we can show our Assyrian brethren: Look, we have
entered the Catholic communion, and we are still expressing our liturgical
Bishop Jammo saw in this conception
of communion a harking back to the roots of both the Assyrian and Chaldean
“The ancient Church of Mesopotamia,
which preserves the Aramaic Apostolic tradition, especially in liturgical and
theological expressions, is the common reference of both Churches called today
‘Chaldean’ and ‘Assyrian.’ Both actual Churches have only one healthy way to
restore their spiritual energy and missionary zeal, which is to explore the
apostolic treasure contained in the common patrimony of their Mesopotamian
That hallowed ground that was once
Mesopotamia is modern-day Iraq, and the upheaval throughout the land does not
bypass the Christians trying to live there.
“Unity is something needed in the
dark night of Iraqi Christianity,” said Mar Bawai, noting that the vast
majority of Christians there are either Chaldean or Assyrian. “We are a
tradition that lived outside of the Roman Empire; it was a Christian reality to
assert our political differences.
“Now, 75% of us are outside of Iraq;
we have married other Christians and have had ecumenical relations. But the
isolation mentality remains. Just like today in Iraq, the Iraqi Christians seek
to differentiate themselves so they are not persecuted. But the ancient
disputes can remain only in our prejudice.”
Bishop Jammo was confident that Mar
Bawai’s acceptance would lead to further communion.
“Mar Bawai’s actions, as spiritual
leader of the unity movement among Assyrians, will encourage many other
Assyrians to complete ecclesiastic unity between Chaldeans and Assyrians which
may have a clear positive impact for the survival of eastern Christianity in
Iraq as well as in other parts of the world where they live.”
Father Royel deflated that notion
flatly, stating that Mar Bawai and his flock could not claim standing with the
“As far as we’re concerned, they’re
out of the Church of the East,” he said.
Hurt, confusion and mixed feelings
always accompany a group’s moving from one Church to another, said Father Ron
Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and
Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“That’s never not been the case,” he
said. “And while we respect the Assyrian Church of the East, this is a question
of freedom of conscience.
“We’re not in the business of
promoting divisions. This is a situation where there were already divisions,
and as a result of those internal divisions, Mar Bawai and his followers
decided for their own reasons to ask freely for entrance.”
Upon that request, Mar Bawai
underwent a period of examination and was found sincere.
“They must be judged to be doing so
for authentic, doctrinal reasons,” Father Roberson explained. “For instance,
for an Anglican to be angry at the ordination of women is not enough reason to
become Catholic. It has to happen on faith.”
For that common ground to continue
to expand, theological dialogue must continue, said Vito Nicastro, associate
director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the
Archdiocese of Boston.
“It’s critically important for
people to know that the dialogue is vital and growing more so, both in its
vitality and in its importance to both churches,” Chaldean and Assyrian, he
said. “Our overall focus is on complete fidelity to Christ’s mandate ut unum sint (that all
may be one), and that our method, our agreed primary method, is through
Father Royel agreed that theological dialogue is the proper way to arrive at a mutual and correct understanding of what full communion means.
“At this point, though,” he said, “we're not on the same page.”
Mar Bawai, too, said that the proper theological environment is crucial in moving forward. “If sincere and mutual good intentions exist on both sides,” he said, “there can be no obstacles that prevent unity.”
writes from St. Louis.