by Gianni Valente
Erbil (Agenzia Fides) - A synodal ecclesial program is fruitful if «it helps everyone to walk in the faith of the Apostles cherished by Tradition». For this reason, references to synodal dynamics «cannot be used to open fractures among members of the Church on questions of faith or morals». Thus Mar Awa III, Patriarch of the Church of the Assyrian Church of the East, offers from an oriental perspective suggestive and useful coordinates for looking also at the synodal process started in the Catholic Church.
On Saturday, November 19, Mar Awa III made his fraternal visit to Pope Francis, who received him in the Apostolic Palace. On the occasion of his first trip to Rome as Patriarch, Mar Awa III also held a conference at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) on the "theology of synodality in the Church of the East", within the framework of the international ecumenical symposium “Listening to the East” promoted by the Angelicum and the Pro Oriente Foundation to listen to reports, debates and testimonies on synodality in the life and mission of the Orthodox Churches and in the ancient Eastern Churches.
In an in-depth interview, released to Fides Agency, the Assyrian Patriarch criticizes the "demonization" campaigns of the Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch Kirill. Mar Awa also offers unexpected and illuminating answers on the condition of Christians in the Middle East, on the search for a common date for the celebration of Easter, on the path towards full communion between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Church of Rome. The Primate of the Assyrian Church also mentions the "secret" of the great missionary progression of the ancient Church of the East, which in the first Christian centuries had brought the proclamation of the Gospel as far as China, Mongolia and the Arabian Peninsula.
The 122nd Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, elected on September 8, 2021 (see Fides, 9/9/2021), comes from the USA and completed part of his formation in Catholic academies.
He was born 47 years ago in Chicago, and therefore a son of the Assyrian diaspora in the USA, David Royel was already ordained a deacon at the age of 17, and later obtained degrees in sacred theology at Loyola University of Chicago and the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He then obtained a licentiate in Sacred Theology and a doctorate at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He was ordained Bishop by then Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV in 2008, taking the name Awa (meaning "father" in the Assyrian language) and became the first US-born Bishop of the Assyrian Church. Before the patriarchal election, Mar Awa was Bishop of the Assyrian diocese of California (USA) and Secretary of the Holy Synod.
In the synodal process started in the Catholic Church, some still suggest looking to the Eastern Churches to "learn" synodality.
In the experience of the Eastern Churches, what is the criterion that guides and can make the exercise of synodality fruitful in the Church?
MAR AWA III: The synodal dynamic of the Church consists in walking together in the faith of the apostolic Tradition. The synodal modality serves to safeguard and confirm the unity of faith in this path, facilitating it for all and freeing all from useless burdens and ecclesial practices that hinder it.
Therefore the criterion for evaluating the validity and fruitfulness of a synodal process is whether it, in the present time and in the current historical condition, helps everyone to walk in the faith of the Apostles cherished by Tradition.
The exercise of synodality, if it really is the path of all the baptized and of all bishops as successors of the Apostles, can never be used to move away from the riverbed of the Apostolic Tradition, of the faith transmitted to us by the Apostles, which unites the Catholic Church and the ancient Churches of the East. We share the same Depositum fidei received from the Apostles.
In many cases the synodal path is presented as a dialectical process between different positions that seek to obtain a consensus to maintain or change the position of the Church on an agenda of ecclesially and doctrinally sensitive issues. With dynamics that resemble those of politics and "parliamentarians".
MAR AWA III: Someone told me about this. Perhaps this risk can be run when one passes from a centralized management in which everything is in the hands of a single person to a synodal method of conducting ecclesial dynamics. Yet the synodal model practiced in the Eastern Churches is not interesting because it is closer to the modern management systems of power, but because it is more suitable to manifesting consensus around the Depositum fidei, and to guarding it together.
An authentic synodal dynamic arises precisely from the fact that the bishops and all the baptized walk together in the same faith, and converge in seeking together the most suitable forms and practices to bear witness to the same faith in the present time. I imagine that most Catholic bishops also share the desire and willingness to maintain traditional doctrine, even on issues such as marriage.
If the synodal dynamics express the path of the whole Church in the footsteps of the faith of the Apostles, they cannot be used to open divisions among the members of the Church on questions of faith or morals. Rather, the exercise of synodality also serves to maintain unity on the same path of different sensitivities, including those who wish for greater adaptation to the mentality of today's world.
Many Christians leave the Middle East. The Assyrian Patriarchate, on the other hand, returned to Mesopotamia a few years ago, after eight decades of "exile" first in Cyprus and then in the USA. You now reside in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. From your point of view in Iraq, what are the things really necessary to preserve the presence of Christians in the Middle East?
MAR AWA III: It takes commitment at the level of political and military authorities to guarantee security, and that one day, perhaps in a few years, another "Islamic State" returns to spread fear and anguish among Christians. It is also necessary to create job opportunities to guarantee a minimum of economic security. Now, the situation appears difficult for everyone, and it is even more so for the weakest and minority social groups. And the widespread corruption in the country makes everything worse. But there are places where good signs of hope can be seen, as is precisely the case in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah said that the future of Christians in the Middle East is not a matter of numbers, but of faith.
MAR AWA III: If there is no bond of affection and gratitude with the lands where one was born and where one received the gift of faith, then it is easier for many people to prefer to leave for legitimate reasons. Not everything can be explained only by the discrimination and mistreatment suffered. Christians can remain only if the bond of affection with a land and a history rich in faith is revived in them, as our ancient monasteries testify. And even on this point the civil authorities can do something. I suggested to Masrour Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, that religious tourism and pilgrimages to ancient monasteries and places dear to the memory of our Churches should be encouraged. Thus, even our emigrated people and their descendants born in the diaspora can return to visit the ancient villages of origin, with their churches, and rekindle the bond with the lands of their fathers.
What reflection does Pope Francis' dialogue with authoritative exponents of Islam, focused on the rediscovery of universal fraternity and inspired by the Abu Dhabi Document, have on the condition of Christians in the Middle East?
MAR AWA III: Perhaps some may think that dialogue on fraternity expresses an idealistic perspective with little possibility of generating concrete consequences. I also spoke about this, in my meeting with Pope Francis. I believe that these meetings and these dialogues are still useful, even when they remain at the level of wishes and declarations of intent. In any case, it is comforting to see that the Pope and the other Heads of Churches have the fate of Christians in the Middle East at heart, and also for this reason they weave fraternal relationships and dialogues with Muslim leaders. Even fellow Muslims, when they see their leaders in dialogue with senior representatives of the Churches, can free themselves from prejudices and hostile feelings towards Christians. This does not magically solve all problems, but it still helps a lot.
Between the Church of Rome and the Assyrian Church of the East there has never been any direct break on dogmatic and theological questions. Important results have been achieved in the theological dialogue between the two Churches. Pope Francis, in his address to you, expressed the hope that the Assyrian Church will become the first of the ancient Churches of the East with which the Church of Rome can rediscover full sacramental communion.
MAR AWA III: There was no anathema between the ancient Assyrian Church of the East and the Church of Rome. The separation began with the Council of Ephesus in 431, but the Depositum fidei that we celebrate before Ephesus is shared, and we are called to guard it together. In 2025 we will celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea. We started talking about the possibility of having a meeting to celebrate that Council all together: the Church of Rome, the Orthodox Churches, the ancient Churches of the East... Nicaea unites us. Nicaea belongs to everyone. In all of our different liturgies we recite the Nicene Creed, even if we are not in full communion.
At what stage is the path of ecumenical dialogue between the Assyrian Church and the Church of Rome, after the fundamental common Christological declaration signed by John Paul II and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV?
MAR AWA III: In 2017 we signed a text in which Catholics and Assyrians mutually recognize the validity of the sacraments celebrated and administered in the Catholic Church and in the Assyrian Church of the East. So we can say that the second stage of the path has ended successfully. We have now entered the third phase of our dialogue, which deals with the Constitution of the Church. And obviously in this phase the question of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the question of communion and primacy at the local and even universal level are also involved.
What does consensus on the validity of the sacraments entail?
MAR AWA III: We have not yet reached the full and unconditional possibility of receiving the sacraments administered by priests and bishops of the other Church. But since 2001, with an agreement that came into effect at the time of Pope John Paul II and Mar Dinkha IV, a special "sacramental hospitality" can be practiced between the two Churches, for pastoral reasons of necessity. This remains. And in addition, the recognition that the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church agree in sacramental doctrine and theology was added. However, reaching full communion is a long-term journey and would be a path to be shared with all the other non-Catholic Churches, a path guided by intense prayer and by the Holy Spirit itself.
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, as Patriarch of the Chaldean Church - which shares the same liturgical and theological patrimony with the Assyrian Church - proposed to start a process of reunification between the two Churches, both "heirs" of the Ancient Church of the East...
MAR AWA III: With the Chaldeans, who are certainly our brothers, we are always ready to talk about unity and reunification in a single Church of the East. However, we totally reject uniatism, which was at the origins of the schism of 1552. I believe this is Patriarch Sako's proposal: the two Patriarchs, the Chaldean and the Assyrian, resign from their offices, and the Assyrian and Chaldean bishops elect together with another Patriarch of the Eastern Church, but then that Patriarch must be in hierarchical communion with the Pope. And this procedure does not seem feasible to me. The way is to rediscover the roots of the Eastern Church, go back to before 1552, see what was the shared ecclesiology at the moment of separation.
Also in the meeting between you and Pope Francis the question of finding a common date to celebrate Holy Easter was touched upon. Do you think this is really a future possibility?
MAR AWA: In the Synod of 2019, under my predecessor Mar Gewargis III, we accepted the idea of finding a fixed common date with the other Churches to celebrate Easter. As far as I know, the Copts and Syrian Orthodox also agree on this possibility. Pope Francis is very helpful on this. And lately Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has also expressed openness. Perhaps we could first try to find an agreement on the common date for the celebration of Easter between the Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church and the other ancient Eastern Churches. The Orthodox could then progressively join, if from time to time the consensus matures in each individual Orthodox Church.
Before coming to Rome and meeting Pope Francis, you met Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow.
MAR AWA III: Yes, the week before I went to Russia, to meet our community in that country, and I also met Patriarch Kirill in Moscow. We talked at length about the current condition of Christians in the Middle East. He also told me to convey his sincere greetings to Pope Francis, which I did a few days later.
Patriarch Kirill is attacked as an accomplice and almost co-responsible for the war in Ukraine. According to you, how is he? And what do you think of the measures taken against him and against the Russian Orthodox Church?
MAR AWA III: Patriarch Kirill seemed very sincere to me. And in any case, any demonization of the Russian Church or of Kirill himself is not right. He is the head of a Church, he does not lead the Country's politics. And it is clear that he is in a very difficult position. This must also be taken into account. Even the decision of the European Union to impose ad personam sanctions against him is an inopportune thing, it creates a serious precedent and contradicts all calls to distinguish the ecclesial sphere from the political sphere, the Church and secular government. If this path is taken, the same can happen to other leaders and ecclesial exponents who are subject to negative evaluations by some political apparatus.
The war in Ukraine is also a great Christian tragedy. Did you talk to Kirill about it?
MAR AWA III: I expressed the wish that a ceasefire be reached soon, and a solution be reached to end the suffering of the people. Ukrainians and Russians share the same baptism, draw from the same spiritual source. And I also did not find the pressure exerted to marginalize the Russian Orthodox in ecumenical meetings right, as was attempted to do in the Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) hosted between August and September in Karlsruhe, Germany. We must always leave the doors open to dialogue. While if certain reasoning is followed, for the sake of consistency it would be necessary to eliminate all military chaplains, who bless soldiers sent to war, on one side or the other.
The theology and spirituality of the Assyrian Church strongly emphasize the human nature of Christ. Couldn't this spiritual perspective be more valued for the Christian proclamation in the times we are living in?
MAR AWA III: In the classic manuals of theology, it is written that the Assyrian Church strongly emphasizes the humanity of Christ. But first we need to clarify that we confess the unity of divinity and humanity in the single person of Christ. As Scripture shows and as various common Fathers of the Church also affirm, we recognize that we come to contemplate the mystery of Christ's divinity through the concrete gestures of his humanity. This is part of the daily experience of Christians when they pray, when they go to Mass and receive the Eucharist.
Proclaiming the Gospel with this accent, the ancient Assyrian Church of the East experienced one of the most impressive missionary progression adventures in history. What can that experience of the first centuries of Christianity suggest to today's missionaries?
MAR AWA III: In 1904 in Turfan, in the present Chinese province of Xinjiang, they found a prayer book in which the formulas were in Syriac and the rubrics were given in the local language. Remains of churches and monasteries that belonged to that Christianity continue to be found in present-day Mongolia and throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The missionaries of the ancient Church of the East were an "army" of a spiritual kind. They were above all monks and nuns, and they went to contexts shaped by other thoughts, by ancient cultures and religious mentalities. They captivated people's hearts with sweetness, and not for the dynamics of conquest. And then they helped the local populations to find the graphic signs to put their languages and their spoken words into written form. And every urgency, every concrete problem of life became an opportunity to do good, becoming friends and brothers with everyone. (Agenzia Fides, 5/12/2022)