The Middle East Council of the Patriarchs of the Catholic Churches opened the Continetal Synodal Assembly of the Catholic Churches on Monday February 13 with sessions due to last on February 18 at Beit Anya, Harissa, Lebanon, a year after the inauguration of this synodal course, in which millions of people from all over the world participated in its first advisory phase, at a time when it is moving to its second continental phase.
Pope Francis had asked all Catholic Churches in the world to "review their Christian lives and to walk together" in the light of the Holy Gospel and the requirements of the present time in preparation for the Synod that will be held in the Holy See in October 2023 and 2024, titled: "For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission”.
In the opening session, the participants included Head of the Synodal Assembly and Head of the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Al-Rahi, Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem His Beatitude Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius III Yonan, Patriarch of the Armenian Catholic Church Raphael Bedros XXI Minassian, and Patriarch of Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac.
Further participants in the session were Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops Cardinal Mario Grech, the coordinator of the next General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon Archbishop Paolo Borgia, representatives of the Orthodox Evangelical churches, and Islamic denominations, as well as a group of general superiors, priests, nuns, and lay people from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and the Arab Gulf states.
At the outset of the session, prayers were said by Patriarch Al-Rahi for the victims of the destructive earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey. This was followed by the opening prayer by coordinator of the Continental Synodal Assembly Fr. Khalil Alwan titled, "In the East, we are either Christians being together or we are not s such at all".
Fr. Alwan said: "In 1992, the Catholic patriarchs of the East sent a pastoral message to their sons and daughters living in various parts of the East and the world titled, "The Christian Presence in the East, Testimony and Message". This message mapped out for us the path of the Catholic Churches in the East and summed up their identity and future with the word "presence".
He added: “This pastoral letter, addresses at length our presence in this East as a call from God, which is a testimony and a message. Following the model of Lord Jesus Christ and His Church, this presence of us is physical, active and authentic in the Arabic language as well as in the Arab heritage, at a time when we built it up while we contributed to setting the grounds for the Arab civilization. Our presence is also manifested in the service of humanity without distinction or discrimination. Our presence is an ecumenical one designed for attaining joint cooperation, and our presence in the East is the presence of dialogue with the people of good will including Muslims and Jews. Finally, our presence globally is attributed to our sons and daughters living in various parts of the world as well as the communion of faith, love and civilized belonging wherever we are."
He continued, "Our continental assembly is different from the rest of the continental assemblies as it is not continental in the exclusive sense of the word. It is distinguished from the rest of the episcopal councils in the world by consisting of seven Catholic, apostolic, patriarchal and autocephalous Churches which are all governed by the "set of laws of the Eastern Catholic Churches" as each and every one has its own laws, traditions, customs, and liturgical rites. For several reasons including political, social, economic, and religious reasons, people emigrated to all parts of the world and established dioceses and parishes, where the bishops joined the local episcopal councils while preserving their relationship with their homelands and maintaining communication and unity with their mother churches."
He added, "we are meeting today, with a total of seven Catholic Churches, namely Copts, Syriacs, Maronites, Melkites, Chaldeans, Armenians and Latins. We flocked from the Holy Land, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Armenia, "to hear what the Spirit says to the churches," (Revelation2:7) to pray and think together about our common concerns, and to share our future aspirations with hope that does not dissipate." Fr. Alwan continued, "Numerous issues unite us. We are united by the conditions of our countries, where we all often lack freedom to practise our faith, freedom of expression, women's freedom, and children's freedom. We all seek, according to our energies, to fight corruption in politics and the economy. We all seek to practise transparency in our religious and social institutions, and we yearn to practise responsible citizenship, as well as to fight poverty and ignorance. We are all in pain from the emigration of our brothers for whom the horizon of a decent life has dwindled, thus diminishing our existence and our testimony in the land that God has chosen as His home.”
He continued, "We, the children of the Church, are not only united by life’s concerns and difficulties, but also by the baptism, by faith, by love and hope. Based on this that unites us, this week we hold our Synodal Assembly to conclude the second stage of “walking together”, I mean the continental stage."
Then, General rapporteur of the Synod Cardinal Hollerich said: "After the conclusion of the first phase of our synodal journey concerning private churches and other ecclesiastical realities, in February 2023 the continental phase begins. On this occasion, I am particularly honored to be present in the Middle East, where Synodality has a long tradition and it is my desire to experience and learn synodism from you. And with your invaluable contribution, I am firmly convinced that the universal Church can become more synodal, that she is able to enlarge her tabernacle."
He added, "Of course, this continental stage will not bring back consultation, listening and discernment that took place at the level of our local churches with the entire people of God. It is rather a process of entrenching discernment by individuals who have been identified to represent our local churches in the gatherings that precede the Continental Assembly. Consequently, the continental phase consists of a time to listen to the entire God's people and to all local churches, namely by making sound judgment with prudence, while maintaining a continental basis.
Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops Cardinal Mario Grech, spoke about the "continental stage: An unprecedented step in the Synod's march." He said: "The Synodal Church is the Church of listening." He added that the principle of listening is the basis of the entire synodal journey, which has crystallized in the stages established by the Episcopalis communio, which transforms the synod from an event into a procession. With the continental stage, we will close the first stage, that is, the stage related to private churches and their congregations.
He added that the first relevant aspect that is important to make it clear to all that the success of the procession depends on the active participation of God's people and pastors. While the second aspect depends on the importance of listening, namely listening to the Holy Spirit that addresses the Church. He continued," In this regard, I feel the need to emphasize that, starting from this particular continental stage, we have to be more attentive to the voices “inside” the Church, and specifically to those voices that frequently disturb the church body.
In his address Patriarch Al-Rahi said,: “We do not miss the basic question relevant to the synodal procession, which is twofold: How can this joint procession be achieved today, locally and globally, which enables the Church to proclaim the Gospel according to the message that was delivered to her? Then, what additional steps does the Holy Spirit inspire us to take in order to grow as a Synodal Church? But I hasten to say that the subject is not purely academic, but it is based on prayer, listening to the word of God, and to the spirit of repentance and thus on mutual listening, dialogue, and discernment. Based on this atmosphere, the "Document" invites us to reflect on three basic questions.
He pointed out that the title of the document: “Enlarge the place of your tent,” which is taken from Isaiah (54: 2), is an image that explains the subject of the 16th ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which convenes on October 4-29, 2023. The tent is the space of communion, the place of participation, and the basis of the message. ("Document" 11) Our task in this continental assembly is to define the priorities that will be studied in the next general assembly. ("Document" 7) We place the sessions of the assembly under the lights of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of Our Lady of Lebanon, and we pray that it will be successful and fruitful by the Divine grace, in fulfillment of the wishes and intentions of His Holiness Pope Francis.