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 breaking point.”

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 primacy.

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 character.”

Bishop Jammo saw in this conception of communion a harking back to the roots of both the Assyrian and Chaldean Churches.

“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 forefathers.”

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 Assyrian Church.

“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 theological dialogue.”

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.”

Stephen Mirarchi

writes from St. Louis.