‘Walking Together’ at the Heart of the Middle East Synod on Synodality Continental Assembly

Meeting in Beirut in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey Feb. 6, participants discussed how to apply the principles of synodality to the difficult circumstances most local Catholics experience.

The Continental Synodal Assembly for the Middle East gathered Feb. 13-17 in Lebanon, with representation from the seven Eastern Catholic Churches: Maronite, Melkite, Syriac, Chaldean, Coptic, Armenian and Latin.
The Continental Synodal Assembly for the Middle East gathered Feb. 13-17 in Lebanon, with representation from the seven Eastern Catholic Churches: Maronite, Melkite, Syriac, Chaldean, Coptic, Armenian and Latin. (photo: National Catholic Register / Courtesy of Mychel Akl for the Maronite patriarchate)

BEIRUT — With great purpose and deliberation, in an atmosphere of prayer, the Continental Synodal Assembly for the Middle East gathered Feb. 13-17 in Lebanon.

The assembly brought together representatives of the seven Eastern Catholic Churches — Maronite, Melkite, Syriac, Chaldean, Coptic, Armenian as well as Latin — from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, the Holy Land, Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf states.

The 120 participants, meeting at the Bethany Conference Center near the shrine of Harissa, Our Lady of Lebanon, included all the patriarchs of the seven rites as well as bishops, priests, religious and laypeople.

The continental stage is a key step towards the October 2023 session in Rome of the Synod on Synodality, whose official theme is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” The synodal process will conclude with a second session in Rome, in October 2024.

“We are united by the conditions of our countries, where we all often lack freedom of belief, freedom of expression, women’s freedom and children’s freedom,” Lebanese Maronite Father Khalil Alwan, secretary-general of the Council of Patriarchs of the East and coordinator of the Middle East Continental Assembly, told participants at the opening.

“We are all in pain from the emigration of our children, whose horizons for a decent life were narrowed, thus diminishing our existence and our testimony in the land that the Lord chose as his home,” Father Alwan said. 

In reference to the synodal process, Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, in his opening address said, “We can be greatly helped by the Catholic Eastern Churches, which, together with synodal practice, typical of the Christian East, unite fidelity to the Holy See. I am sure that through this path it will also be possible to make progress in ecumenical dialogue.”

Noting that Pope Francis has made synodality understood as “walking together,” Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, general relator of the Synod on Synodality, in his address acknowledged that it “is an easy concept to express in words, but not easy to put into practice."

“This ‘walking together’” is “all the more delicate” in the Middle East, with its multireligious environment, Cardinal Hollerich said.

Speaking to the Register during the gathering, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, who is one of the 15 members of the preparing council of the synod, representing the Catholic Churches of the East, said “we are on the right road of this synodality.”

“However, we have to be very careful that it’s not only ‘walking together.’ Walking where?” he pointed out.

“We have to have a final goal: It’s the Lord Jesus Christ, being members of his body, and to be missionaries. Otherwise, we turn the Church into a kind of association of political parties or a union of workers. We are members of the Mystical Body of Christ,” the Syriac Catholic patriarch stressed.

Following a pastoral visit to Iraq, Patriarch Younan had returned to the patriarchate in Lebanon the day before the synod from Syria, where in particular he visited Aleppo, ravaged by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria Feb. 6. 

In Aleppo, the patriarch said he witnessed “communion between all the people — Christians and Muslims — to help, to open their houses to all who now have nowhere to live, and the churches and its institutions providing all what they need as humanitarian help.”

Cardinal Hollerich came to the Middle East assembly following the conclusion of the European Assembly in Prague, arriving in Lebanon at 4am, in time for the 9am assembly opening, and at its conclusion was next scheduled to attend the continental synod in Bangkok. 

The Middle East synod, he told the Register, involves “a greater complexity, a greater diversity.”

“That’s the beauty of the synod, that each continent can contribute something of its very own to the universal Church,” Cardinal Hollerich said. As for the Middle East, a region which he said is characterized by “immense suffering,” that contribution includes “dialogue with religions, ecumenism and a message of peace.”

For the Catholic Churches in the Middle East, “what unites us, unfortunately, are political divisions, religious divisions, sectarianism, tribalism and conflicts of all different kinds,” Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa told the Register at the synod.

He noted, “In Western countries, we cannot talk about God. But here, in the Middle East, God is very present, for Jews and Muslims” as well. “God is the source of all decisions. But it seems God is ‘saying’ different things” to Jews and Muslims.

The challenge, he noted, is “how to be, to live, in this conflict as Christians.”

“Our people, especially youth, want to feel being more a part of the life of the Church. This is the main challenge, and this will also strengthen the feeling of community,” Archbishop Pizzaballa said.

Working groups during the assembly were each comprised of people from a mix of countries and Catholic rites, with participants ranging from a patriarch to laypeople. 

From the outset, Jesuit Father Dany Younes, provincial of the Middle East, guided participants in the way of “spiritual conversation,” based on the model of St. Ignatius, as an approach to speaking and listening from the heart.

Middle East Synod Continental Assembly Feb. 2023
The clergy and laity from seven Eastern Catholic Churches gathered for the Continental Synodal Assembly for the Middle East Feb. 13-17 in Lebanon at the Bethany Conference Center near the shrine of Harissa, Our Lady of Lebanon.(Photo: National Catholic Register)

“I am so optimistic,” Sawsan Bitar, a Latin Rite laywoman from Jerusalem, told the Register after a working session. “It was very powerful. I felt the Holy Spirit was with us.” In particular, she noted that hearing directly from the Church hierarchy “means knowing exactly what’s going on, on the ground. They are really looking for a change, and that’s what the synod is all about.”

One of the key issues discussed in one of her working sessions was “the family and the importance of formation for young people, as well as priests,” she said.

Lebanese Melkite Father Gabriel Hachem, chair of the spiritual and liturgical committee for the Middle East Continental Assembly, pointed out to the Register, “We are apostolic Churches, and we are synodal as patriarchal Churches. Our specificity is that we are bearing this apostolic tradition while living under difficult conditions on all levels.” 

“We are a suffering Church, but we also keep in hope,” Father Hachem pointed out, noting that “emigration is a big source of suffering for all of us.”

“We have our experience of diversity and how to manage diversity, despite all the pressures and severe conditions we face. So there are things we can contribute to the global process” of synodality he said, adding that “we always have to be very humble in sharing our experiences, our life.”

Mass was celebrated each day throughout the synod in a different rite. 

Celebrating the opening Mass at Our Lady of Harissa Basilica, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch, said the synodal Church is the “ship that sails the sea of this world, raging with the crises of wars and their calamities.” 

Later that week, Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak, in his homily at Mass in the Bethany Conference Center church acknowledged, “Since the start of the process of preparing for the synod, we feel that we are lost. Perhaps because we are walking in an unusual way, and we are thinking about a subject that is the nature of the Church in its essence. Such issues require time, courage, repentance and openness to the Holy Spirit, and thus to each other, and listening to what is behind the words.”

Yet the Egyptian patriarch affirmed, “Therefore, we felt as if the deeper we went into this ocean, the greater our ability to swim and enter the depth.”

In the Feb. 17 closing statement, the assembly said their meeting “comes in difficult circumstances for our region,” especially economic and humanitarian, in particular “the devastating earthquake that struck our brothers in Syria and Turkey.” Participants “stopped at this painful and heartbreaking event and raised daily prayers for the intention of the victims, the wounded and the displaced in the stricken areas,” the statement said.

In their 13-point closing statement, the participants reaffirmed basic constants of the Catholic Church, including:

“Synodalism is one of the essences of the heritage of our Eastern Churches,” the statement said. It cited “the presence and talents of the laity in the service of the Body of Christ, in particular the role of young people, their capabilities, and their expectations for a renewed Church that reflects the challenges they face and the importance of the role and mission of women in the Church and their participation in decision-making and service.”

“The liturgy is our life,” the statement said, acknowledging “the call for a liturgical renewal that is compatible with the aspirations of our youth while preserving its essence and symbols.”

The statement called for “a creative and renewed ecumenism and stimulating ecumenical dialogue,” as well as “the Church of openness to others who are ecclesiastically and religiously different, by listening, dialogue, and togetherness, in living together, dialogue, cooperation, and mutual respect, in order to show the face of the One God.” 

They also affirmed “the mission, the witness, and the renewed structures of a more synodal Church” and “pastoral women specializing in the family, women and youth.”

“We are children of the Resurrection,” they affirmed in their statement, stressing the “profound positives that unite our Churches … as a Church of hope in the countries of the Middle East, despite their presence in the heart of adversity.”