Ancient See of Antioch Makes Overture to Orthodox

JOHN PAUL IIs wish for the Churches of the East and West to unify and join forces in the new millennium was given a boost by the decision of the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate of the ancient See of Antioch to make overtures to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.

The Holy Synod of the Antioch Orthodox met late last month to consider the Melkite gesture. But if Antiochian Orthodox sentiments on this side of the Atlantic are any indication, unity prospects are fragile. Still, many observers are heartened.

Next to Jerusalem, no city deserves to be called the “cradle of Christianity” more than the city of Antioch. Located in the northwestern part of today's Syria, Antioch was the site of the Church's first missionary impulse to the Greek cities of the near East, the locus of Paul and Barnabas's first communities of Gentile converts, and the place where the term “Christian” (or “messianist”) was first applied to the followers of Jesus.

History, however, has not been kind to the Church of Antioch. Wracked by divisions over Christology, its influence curbed early on by Alexandria and Jerusalem, and, like the rest of the Christian Middle East, absorbed into the Muslim world, Antioch today boasts no fewer than five rival patriarchs: Orthodox, Catholic, two Syrian varieties and a Lebanese claimant.

But this past summer, senior hierarchs of the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate—a Church following Orthodox norms that has been in union with Rome for more than 200 years— have launched a campaign to reverse that process. Meeting in Rabweh, Lebanon, under the leadership of Melkite (Greek Catholic) Patriarch Maximos V Hakim, the Holy Synod, the Church's governing body, issued a document titled Reunification of the Antiochian Patriachate July 27, which calls for formal discussions with Antioch's Greek Orthodox that would lead to communicatio in sacris— “wor-ship in common” —between the two Churches.

Melkite Greek Catholics and their Eastern Orthodox counterparts have been divided since 1724 when Patriarch Cyril Tanus, a supporter of Orthodox reunion with Rome, was excommunicated by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Orthodoxy's titular head.

Based in the Middle East, the Melkites' patriarchal See is presently in Damascus, Syria, governing 16 eparchies (dioceses) in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Egypt. Outside the Middle East, there are dioceses in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Australia, with vicariates in Western Europe and Argentina.

In addition to declaring that common worship between the two Churches is “possible,” the statement, signed by the Melkite patriarch, 31 archbishops and bishops and four general superiors, and addressed to Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim and his Synod, calls for the governing Synods of both Orthodox and Catholic Antiochenes “to do whatever is necessary … to reach Antiochian unity through oneness of heart, and to find ways for the two Churches—Melkite Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox—to return to communion with each other and into unity under one Antiochian Patriarchate.”

The statement stresses that unity is not “a victory of one Church over another, or one Church going back to the other, or the melting of one Church into the other,” but, rather, “putting an end to the separation between the brothers.”

Building on the efforts of the Joint International Theological Commission between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches and on the momentum created by Pope John Paul II's recent encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That All May be One”), the Melkite synod offers the Church's experience during the first millennium—before the separation of the Christian East and West—as “the model for unity today.”

All the while, the Melkite Synod reaf-firms its historic commitment to full communion with the Apostolic See of Rome. “This communion would not be ruptured” by the proposed push for the healing of Antioch's Catholic-Orthodox rift, the synod says.

Melkite officials enthusiastic about the ecumenical gambit. “What the [document] is saying is that the time for unity has come, [the time] to begin talking more seriously about how to bring it about,” Melkite Bishop Nicholas Samra, auxiliary bishop of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Mass., told the Register. Along with Bishop John Elya, head of the diocese, Bishop Samra is one of only two American signatories to the document.

Samra stressed, however, that the move comes with a history dating back nearly 20 years, to the pioneering efforts of Archbishop Elias Zoghby of Baalbek, Lebanon. Zoghby, now retired, urged the setting up of a joint commission between the two synods to pursue reconciliation as early as the 1970s—a move stalled by Lebanon's 16-year civil war, which broke out in 1975.

The process was resumed last year, Samra said, when Archbishop Zoghby published, as a private initiative, a brief “profession of faith,” subscribed to by 24 of 26 Melkite bishops present at the 1995 meeting of the synod. That two-point declaration professed belief in “everything which Eastern Orthodoxy teaches,” and in “communion with the Bishop of Rome as the first among the bishops, according to the limits recognized by the Holy Fathers of the East during the first millennium, before the separation.”

The Zoghby initiative, presented to both Melkite and Greek Orthodox patriarchs, “resurrected the discussion,”according to Bishop Samra, and resulted in the recent appeal, now with the support of Melkite Patriarch Maximos.

“In Lebanon and Syria, it's created a new excitement for unity,”said Samra, “especially on the level of [both] hierarchies. Not that [unity] will happen overnight. But great strides have already taken place. I'm very optimistic.”

In addition, Samra said, the initiative has received a lot of good press among ecumenists in Europe. Even more importantly, the initiative has sparked interest among Greek Catholics in Ukraine— where there is deep division between Eastern Catholics and local Orthodox.

Antiochian Orthodox authorities have as yet released no statement of their own in response to the Melkite move. “Communicatio in sacris [‘common worship'] is not a means to union, but the sign of a union achieved,”cautioned Father Joseph Allen, New Jersey-based director of theological education for the Antiochian Orthodox diocese in the United States. “Until all the issues which divide us in terms of our faith understanding are clarified, there can be no intercommunion between Melikites and Antiochian Orthodox. This has always been our view,”Father Allen declared, “and I can't see how the Antiochian bishops in the Middle East can take a different tack.”

What's more, Rome feels the same way, said Allen. The Orthodox educator went on to stress that the decision about communion can't be decided by one auto-cephalous [or self-governing] Church, but is a decision for the whole Church. “I do not imagine,”he told the Register, “that Antioch will make a decision about intercommunion unless it is in concert with all the other Orthodox Churches.”

If the Melkites in the Middle East are envisioning the religious divisions in Antioch as an internal problem that can be resolved locally, he said, “that's not the way the Orthodox Synod of Antioch is going to look at it. These are not local issues.”Father Allen likened the Melkite bid to a Roman Catholic bishop devising on his own a formula of Church union with a local Protestant denomination without reference to the larger Church. “It's fine to try to break the [ecumenical] logjam,”he said, “but there's just no way around the issues.”

A Catholic expert on the Eastern Churches, however, doesn't see the Melkite proposal in such stark terms. “It's an old idea, the notion of a ‘double communion'—that is, Churches in communion both with Rome and with the Orthodox,”Father Ron Robeson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC), told the Register. “The main thing is that the [Antiochian] rapprochement happen.”Robeson pointed out that, unlike the Rome-Constantinople split, the Melkite-Orthodox rupture is a relatively recent development (1724). “It's a very specific case,”he said.

The division resulted from the work of Catholic missionaries within Orthodox communities in the Middle East in the 17th and 18th centuries. What happened, he said, was that, in an effort to reestablish full communion with the ancient see of Antioch by way of a Catholic party, Rome miscalculated, resulting in an unintended split, in the emergence of two separate Churches—one in communion with Rome, the other, not.

Robeson disagrees with the assessment that recent Melkite moves amount to a uni-lateral act on the part of the Melkite bishops. “The bishops have met and formulated a statement—that's all. They're going to remain in communion with Rome, they're submitting some ideas to the Orthodox to see what can be done to bridge the divide,”he said.

Robeson noted that if the Orthodox have not yet formulated a response to the Melkite initiative, neither has the Vatican. “While I'm not sure the [Melkite] document was submitted to Rome for approval,” he said, “I wouldn't read too much into Rome's silence on this matter. In fact, I don't see how Rome could object to the document as it now stands. After all, the Melkites remain in full communion with Rome, and they won't take any major step without Rome's approval. There's nothing objectionable here.”

As for the Orthodox, Robeson thinks that if the current Greek Catholic initiative is accepted by the Antiochenes, the two hierarchies will likely discuss the proposal, and then submit their findings to a broader consultation involving Rome and the other Orthodox Churches.

“This is the future,” said Robeson. “The Eastern Catholic Churches are realizing a greater and greater autonomy than before—as Churches, not as merely rites within the Catholic Church. The more that develops,”he speculated, “the more they approximate their Orthodox counterparts, the more solutions like this we can expect.”

Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.