11 April 2019
One of the most revered Desert Mothers was St. Mary of Egypt. She is depicted in this painting from the 16th century.
(image: Wikimedia/by Jacopo Tintoretto/Scuola Grande di San Rocco)
For more than 90 years, Catholic Near East Welfare Association has worked to be a beacon of hope — beginning in the Near East, then spreading to Africa, Central Europe and India. Through the generosity and commitment of its donors, CNEWA has brought help and hope to countless Christians and non-Christians in the world who otherwise would have had neither hope nor future.
Ninety years is a long time and the world has changed a great deal in that time. There have been two world wars, countries and even empires have come and gone; ideologies have sprung up, flourished and been replaced by new ideologies.
And yet so often things seem depressingly the same. The poor and innocent remain victims of war and oppression. The geography and the actors may change but it seems that the script remains relatively constant: war, refugees, famine, and migration. For nearly a century, CNEWA has struggled to deal with these almost intractable issues.
Charitable organizations such as CNEWA, whose work is dependent of the generosity of donors, often speak of “donor fatigue.” Donor fatigue is a very real thing. Even the most committed and generous donors can be excused if they wonder if their generosity is making a difference. The problems of the world can be overwhelming. Do their gifts make the world a better, safer, more just place? The questions are real and they are valid.
In thinking about these questions, I found some answers in an unexpected place: the desert.
As many know, CNEWA works with the Eastern churches--both Catholic and Orthodox. These churches date back to the time of the apostles and have rich traditions which are often unknown to Christians in the West. For example, Christians in the West are familiar with monasticism but almost exclusively in its western (Benedictine) form. They are unaware of a much older monastic tradition that existed centuries before St. Benedict in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Holy people went into the desert to live a life of prayer and penance as hermits. They often attracted followers and disciples and wrote treatises on the spiritual life. A body of literature exists consisting of the writings of these “Desert Fathers.” More recently and very happily, research has uncovered a tradition of the “Desert Mothers” as well — women who lived as hermits, had disciples and left behind “sayings” and writings.
In their aphorisms and writings, the Desert Fathers and Mothers spoke extensively of the spiritual life — the things which promoted it and things which damaged it. They wrote of virtues and vices and were the predecessors of the great medieval theologians. Many of the Desert Fathers and Mothers contributed to the development of the notion of the ”seven deadly sins”: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, anger and envy.
However, these men and women also wrote about what they called acedia. For the Desert Fathers and Mothers acedia was the most frightening vice of all. Acedia was the root of all vice and the opposite of all virtues. The word acedia means “not to care.” It is the state in which nothing matters. It lacks the violence of anger, the obnoxiousness of pride and envy, the prurience of lust. Nor does it evoke the guilt those vices do. Acedia, in fact, evokes nothing but indifference.
Acedia is the deep feeling that one can no longer make a difference. There is neither joy in doing good, nor guilt at doing nothing. But as time has gone on, one almost never hears of acedia any more. It is often weakly translated as “sloth.” That is, I suspect, a loss.
Faced with a world of overwhelming—and seemingly insoluble—problems, it is understandable that we get tempted to shut down. It is human to think, “I just cannot afford to care.”
It is precisely here that CNEWA takes up the ancient challenge of those holy Desert Mothers and Fathers. CNEWA reminds us that caring, hoping and believing—sometimes against the odds—matters.
At bottom, this is our call as Christians.
Believing that we can and do make a real difference is at the center of what it means to be followers of Jesus — and, by extension, distant descendents of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
7 February 2019
Pope Francis meets Sheikh Ahmad al Tayyeb during his visit to the U.A.E. earlier this week.
(photo: Vatican Media)
On Sunday 3 February Pope Francis made history, when he began a three-day visit to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and became the first pope to visit the overwhelmingly Muslim Arabian Peninsula. The visit coincided with an interfaith meeting of religious leaders and theologians which was taking place.
The pope was greeted by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed al Nahyan. The U.A.E. are home to a large number of Christians from south Asia who are working there. For several years the government has had a Ministry of Tolerance; Christians for the most part are able to worship freely, although not publicly. The U.A.E. is one of the more tolerant and open countries in the region.
While words like “unprecedented” are often used in the context of what Pope Francis does — and while such words tend to get overused and with inflation comes devaluation — one result of the visit, nevertheless, stands out in a special way. Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad al Tayyeb, the head of Al Azhar University, arguably the premier Sunni Muslim university in the world, produced a common document entitled Human Fraternity. It is a landmark document in many ways. While popes and Muslim leaders have made similar calls for peace and justice, this is unique in that it is a joint call, signed by the two men.
People familiar with reading statements of religious leaders recognize a certain “style” of writing peculiar to different traditions. Human Fraternity, however, is unique in that it evidences not only a “Catholic” style of writing but also a “Muslim” style of writing. It was and is intended to be both a Muslim and Catholic statement.
And this is especially significant: there is something new happening in the ecumenical and interreligious movements that can be seen at work in Human Fraternity. The Ecumenical and interreligious movements have been part of the central mission of the Catholic Church since Vatican II (1962-1965). In the decades following the council, there was tremendous progress made in the official dialogues between the Catholic Church and other churches and religions. Several “convergence” documents have been agreed upon, and in 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church published A Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The Doctrine of Justification was the primary theological point of difference between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Reformers in the 16th century.
Yet for all the tremendous progress made on the theological level, by the 1990’s one began to hear of an “ecumenical winter” — or at the very least, ecumenical doldrums. It seemed to many that the incredible progress made through dialogue had not been translated into a change of attitudes. To many, it seemed that something was missing; on so many levels, it appeared that little had really changed.
But Pope Francis, merely by his presence and his approach, appears to be causing a noticeable shift.
One of the outstanding things about Francis’ various encounters is that there is — though it may be overlooked — a genuine sense of friendship and affection between the pope and his dialogue partners. This is most evident in the relationship between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It is very obvious that they like and trust each other; they are friends. This has led to extraordinary cooperation between the two leaders and their churches in areas of ecology, human rights, refugees and immigration. Both are very smart men. They realize that friendship and trust alone will not overcome the divisions between the churches.
They also realize, however, that all the convergence statements and joint declarations remain merely pieces of paper if trust and affection are lacking between the churches and their leaders.
This brings us to this week’s historic meeting. One can see a similar phenomenon between Pope Francis and Sheikh al Tayyeb. Al Azhar University broke off relations with the Holy See in 2011 after Pope Benedict XVI’s statement on the situation of Coptic Christians. Relations between the Holy See and Al Azhar were resumed under Pope Francis. The pope and the sheikh have met several times and it is clear that a warm and cordial relationship has developed between them.
Neither man, of course, is naïve about issues dividing Catholics and Muslims. However, both have achieved a level of trust that allows them to cooperate on a document which is at once truly Catholic — and truly Muslim.
Much of CNEWA’s work, of course, involves work among Muslims, especially in the Middle East. Witnessing this historic moment, with its spirit of cooperation and collaboration, is both an inspiration and a beacon of hope.
And it should serve as a sign to us all. Pope Francis has shown that theological ecumenism is not dead, but that it needs the human components of trust and friendship to transform theological papers into living documents that can change lives and help make our world a better, safer place.
31 January 2019
Tags: Pope Francis Ecumenism Muslim Abu Dhabi
In this image from 2016, Pope Francis greets a Buddhist monk during a an audience with religious leaders at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)
On Friday 1 February, the UN begins the observance of Interfaith Harmony Week. No one knows better than CNEWA how important interfaith harmony is and how difficult it is to achieve. Many of the places where we work are the scene of discrimination and outright persecution, not only of Christians but of other believers. In Iraq and parts of Syria Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and others have been massacred by the Islamic State. Egypt is the scene of ongoing sporadic violence against all types of Coptic Christians. In India there has been an increase in violence against Christians. There has, of course, been a long tradition of violence between Christians and Muslims in northern India.
Over the years, the Pew Research Center has documented persecution of and discrimination against all faith groups. The situation throughout the world is not getting better. One of the more disturbing findings is that most of the persecution and discrimination occurs in countries with some type of religious marker in their self-identification. Looked at in the broadest of terms, Pew’s record of religious persecution and discrimination is a record of one religious group behaving badly against another religious group.
It is very important to avoid two extremes here. One extreme would blame religion for all the persecution and conflict in the word. The other extreme is for religions to excuse themselves and to declare that their members who are acting violently against others are “politically” motivated and not really good believers. This is becoming increasingly untenable morally. Very few conflicts are purely political, purely economic or purely religious. Most often, they are a mixture of all three. However, it has been shown that conflicts that have a religious element tend to be more intractable and more difficult to solve than those lacking a religious element. Religions can provide powerful symbols which can demonize the other and rend compromise something akin to apostasy.
No religion is free of these tendencies to discriminate or even persecute. In Muslim majority countries, we find violence by Muslims against religious minorities. The Muslim Rohingyas of Burma are suffering greatly at the hand of Burmese Buddhists, a religion which supposedly values non-violence. In India Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians are often involved in persecution and conflict. In Russia, non-Orthodox Christians are legally discriminated against by fellow Christians who are orthodox.
On 31 March 2005, at the opening of the Exhibit of the World’s Religions at Santa Clara University in California, the famous German theologian Hans Küng made a statement which has been repeated hundreds of times and which perfectly encapsulates the meaning and importance of World Interfaith Harmony Week: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the nations.”
This is a truth which CNEWA experiences every day in the places where we work. Interfaith dialogue leading to interfaith understanding, harmony and cooperation has also been a constant teaching of popes since the Second Vatican Council. St. John Paul II even made interfaith dialogue a key part of his very first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, (The Redeemer of Man), when he wrote about the legacy of Vatican II in 1979:
“The Fathers of the Church rightly saw in the various religions as it were so many reflections of the one truth, ‘seeds of the Word,’ attesting that, though the routes taken may be different, there is but a single goal to which is directed the deepest aspiration of the human spirit as expressed in its quest for God and also in its quest, through its tending towards God, for the full dimension of its humanity, or in other words for the full meaning of human life. The Council gave particular attention to the Jewish religion, recalling the great spiritual heritage common to Christians and Jews. It also expressed its esteem for the believers of Islam, whose faith also looks to Abraham.”
We need to take these words to heart; they help remind us that working for interfaith harmony is part of what it means to be a Catholic in the 21st century.
24 January 2019
Tags: Muslim Jews Interfaith
Pope Francis remembered the Holocaust and honored its victims with a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in 2016 (video: CNS)
This year on Sunday 27 January, the world observes Holocaust Remembrance Day. Different from the Jewish observance of Yom HaShoah, The Day of the Holocaust (this year on 2 May), Holocaust Remembrance Day is the result of a UN resolution on 1 November 2005. It chose 27 January for the observance because it was also the 60th anniversary of the liberation Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi extermination camp, on 27 January 1945. In the resolution, the UN recognized the horror of the Nazi extermination program which killed 6 million Jews, 5 million Slavs, 3 million Poles and over a half million more “undesirables.”
Figures like this are almost impossible for the human mind to comprehend. It has been said that the human mind can visualize nine as three rows of three. Beyond that visualization becomes more and more difficult. The number 14 million simply cannot be visualized. It is something like the complete annihilation of New York, London or Tokyo. The suffering which that involves overloads the human capacity for compassion and we tend to shut down. That is why the UN Holocaust Remembrance Day is so important: it reminds the world not merely of the horrors of which we are capable but of the horrors which we have actually committed.
Every generation creates its own vocabulary. The experience of the 20th century resulted in the word "megadeath." Between the beginning of World War I in 1914 and the end of the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1979, it is estimated that over 135 million human beings were killed. Jews, Armenians, Slavs, Gypsies, Ukrainian peasants, soldiers, Cambodian intellectuals and others were killed in numbers that stagger the imagination. Megadeath had become a reality. Technology has been harnessed and used with incredible effectiveness to kill tens of millions of people.
In CNEWA’s world this has been a tragic, almost unbearably cruel fact of life. The Middle East was, especially between the two World Wars, the scene of numerable massacres of tens of thousands of people at a time. One of the things that deeply motivated Fr. Paul Wattson to co-found CNEWA was precisely the suffering of millions of Christians in Armenia, Turkey and the Middle East.
It is easier for the human psyche, even the psyche of a compassionate person, to forget the horror of megadeath than to deal with it. But wise people know that forgetting is a dangerous thing. Forgetting allows the horror to fade and, when the horror fades, the will to prevent that horror from reoccurring also fades.
The UN is acutely aware of this. When Auschwitz-Birkenau becomes a faded memory, expressions like “some Nazis are good people” move into the field of acceptable speech. When anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism edge towards the center of our societies and threaten to become “mainstream,” the overwhelming evil of megadeath begins to lose its horror; we and our leaders begin to believe that there are worse things than total war. The UN knows this is wrong. Popes throughout the 20th and 21st centuries know this is wrong and have continued to forcefully call for peace and justice.
UN Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds the world of the evil we have done. This day challenges us to face the horror of megadeath and to realize that it must not happen again—ever or anywhere.
17 January 2019
In this image from 2018, Pope Francis, surrounded by clergy of different Christian traditions, holds an icon as he exchanges gifts with students of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute at Bossey near Geneva. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
In all of the countries where CNEWA works, from India to the Horn of Africa, Christians will be observing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Catholics of the Latin and Eastern rites, as well as Orthodox Christians, will pray for the unity of the followers of Christ. This week is especially important for CNEWA because it was initiated 101 years ago by the Rev. Paul Wattson, S.A., who happens also to be one of the co-founders of CNEWA.
The theme for 2019 was chosen by Christians in Indonesia and is taken from Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, only justice, you shall pursue.” By choosing the theme of justice, Indonesian Christians wanted to make an important point. Living as they do in the most populous Muslim country in the world, they are acutely aware of two things. First, they realize that they are not only a minority but a divided minority. Many different churches with their believers can be found on the Indonesia archipelago. They realize that their divisions weaken the power of their witness in an overwhelmingly non-Christian environment. And secondly, they are aware of the importance of justice both for themselves and others.
The whole notion of Christian Unity can understandably come across as a rather “churchy” thing that deals with ancient doctrines, rituals, and controversies which many modern people no longer understand and hostilities which many Christians find scandalous. The struggle for Christian Unity can appear to be a rather inward- looking affair, disconnected from the world at large.
The theme of justice, however, adds an important element to the quest for Christian Unity. Unity does not merely look inward; it is profoundly related to the world. All Christians see the Gospel of Jesus as transforming the world. Christians have never and can never be indifferent to the problems we all face: war, oppression, violence, racism, hatred, poverty, etc. The biblical call to justice is a call to Christians to work together to overcome these problems and to transform the world into the Kingdom of God.
The regions in which CNEWA works experience all these challenges. In dealing with the problems mentioned above, we work closely with the different local churches—both Catholic and Orthodox—in service to people who are vulnerable and suffering.
When our efforts are scattered and divided, when there is even competition between churches, the task of seeking justice in our world is significantly weakened. By stressing justice this year, the ideal of Christian Unity is put into a very important context. Christian Unity is not seen primarily in the context of overcoming ancient controversies. Rather Christian Unity is seen in the context of service to the world.
The pursuit of justice to which all Christians are called is weakened and even compromised by our divisions. If Christians see their God-given calling as serving the world and transforming it into the Kingdom of God, we must work to remove any obstacles that make that calling harder to fulfill.
The Christians of Indonesia have given us all a challenge in the theme for the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity—a challenge both ancient and new: ”Justice, only justice shall you pursue.”
10 January 2019
Tags: Ecumenism Christian Unity Orthodox
Vested in silks and damask, Ethiopia's clergy mark Epiphany with a distinctive liturgy, a reminder of how different countries and cultures have adapted this feast as their own.
(photo: Asrat Habte Mariam)
The Christmas season is composed of several feasts which recount the beginnings of the life of Jesus and his ministry as an adult. Christmas recalls his birth; his baptism is celebrated at the end of the season.
But in the middle of the season is Epiphany. It was celebrated on the Christian calendar last Sunday, 6 January.
Epiphany is built around the account of the visit of the Magi which appears in the Gospel of Matthew and only the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew provides little or no information about this visit. We are told that wise men (magoi) came from the East. We are not told where in the East they came from or even how many there were; but since magoi is plural, Matthew indicates there were more than one. Different traditions count as many as 14, but the common number three is deduced from the gifts—no one came empty-handed.
The lack of details around this event makes it easy to attach popular traditions to it. And we see that in CNEWA’s world, where the celebrations of the Epiphany in the Middle East, in Ethiopia and in southern India are very different. While these traditions are celebrating the same event, they often do so in strikingly different and colorful ways.
The very diversity of the ways Epiphany is celebrated is a sign that Matthew has succeeded very well in what he attempted to do with his rather sparse account: he made the coming of Jesus an event with universal implications and applications. At its heart, this event, Epiphany, tells of an event that builds bridges and breaks down barriers.
It occurs against an interesting backdrop.
It is generally accepted that Matthew was writing for a community of Jews who had become followers of Jesus. As one would expect, they brought their Jewish traditions with them: the Torah, the notion of the chosen people, etc. As Christianity grew, tensions arose. Paul of Tarsus, in particular, attracted a large number of converts from paganism. While Matthew’s readers might expect the converts from paganism — for all practical purposes — to become observant Jews, that was not what Paul did. His converts to Christianity from paganism did not practice circumcision and did not follow the Law of Moses.
At the time of Jesus—and to some extent even today—religions tended to be culturally and linguistically specific. Even though the Greek and Roman cultures were very similar (even worshipping some of the same gods), the “Roman gods” had different names than the “Greek gods.” This reminds us that the major religions of the ancient world were both the source and result of the cultures in which they arose. Because of this, missionary endeavors were extremely rare, if not non-existent, in the pre-Christian world. It was simply assumed that one adhered to the religion of the culture into which they were born. Of course, there were borrowings and “cross pollination,” but the boundaries were clear and, for the most part, accepted.
The idea that a faith would not only be open to but would actively attract people from all cultures and nations was a new and strange one. It was an idea that many of Matthew’s readers would have found very hard to accept — and would have made Christianity difficult to embrace. But Matthew is the ideal teacher. His Gospel is a model of inclusion. If Jewish shepherds are the first to visit the newborn Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, it is the mysterious Magi who play the role of the first visitors in Matthew.
It is important also to note that in neither Gospel are we dealing with a mere visit, a social call. Whether it is the angels in Luke or the star and the dream in Matthew, these “visits” are also an epiphany, a “shining forth,” a revelation.
We know very, very little about the Magi. One thing, however, is certain: they were not Jews. They were foreigners. For Matthew, the first revelation is to the Gentiles. The Messiah was not born for a specific culture, a specific language, much less a specific nation. The Messiah is sent to all humanity.
Tribalism is a natural human characteristic. We tend to gather with those like us. God is “our God.” But the message of Matthew is clear. To see Jesus as the Messiah of any one group, one culture—to say nothing of one nation—is not to see Jesus at all, but merely to see a reflection of our own fears and prejudices.
We need to remember during this time of new beginnings, and the start of a new year, this salient truth: Epiphany means “to shine forth.” It is a movement outward not inward. The Epiphany is the rejection of all racial, cultural or national supremacy or chauvinism. It is a message of inclusion and, even, of hope.
Matthew helps underscore that point with his account of the epiphany. The writer of this Gospel makes sure that the Messiah is Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God-with-us,” and that the “us” in Emmanuel excludes no one of good will.
19 December 2018
Tags: Ethiopia Middle East
In this image from 2016, women light candles before attending Christmas Eve liturgy at the Melkite Catholic Cathedral in Damascus, Syria. (photo: CNS/Youssef Badawi, EPA)
All over the world in the places where CNEWA serves, Christians—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant—next week will be celebrating Christmas. Earlier in the month Jews around the world celebrated Hanukkah. In different ways both Christmas and Hanukkah are festivals of light.
We human are at times odd creatures. Although we spend as much of our lives in darkness as in light, we are never quite comfortable with darkness. In the modern world we really don’t know what darkness is, other than the condition that exists before we turn on the lights. Blackouts, especially in big cities, become epic events and everyone remembers where they were “when the lights went out.”
For ancient peoples, darkness was far more powerful. What artificial light there was came from candles. While the wealthy might have many candles, the poor had few. When darkness set in, life changed. No one in the ancient world would consider themselves a “night person,” unless they were thieves or robbers.
In the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, light is a very important thing. Light is connected with divinity: God dwells in unapproachable light. In the highly sophisticated and even academic Nicean Creed Christ is proclaimed “Light of light.” The prophets often spoke of the people walking in darkness — and in describing the saving power of God, Isaiah (9:2) speaks of the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light, which is God. The psalmist (36:9) calls God the “fountain of light” and goes on to say “in your light we see the light.” Bonaventure, the great Franciscan saint and philosopher, spent a great deal of time thinking about what it means to say “in God’s light we see the light.”
Light and darkness also become metaphors for goodness and evil. One of the documents found among the Dead Sea scrolls was entitled “The Battle of the Children of Darkness with the Children of Light.” Light is good; darkness is not. Jesus himself is the light which enlightens his followers.
Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the Temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucid Greek conquerors, recalls how the menorah was able to remain lit in the Temple for seven days, despite having enough oil for only one day. Hanukkah is for Jews the festival of lights par excellence.
Interestingly, while we Christians spend much of this season stringing lights and lighting candles to mark the birth of Christ, the New Testament is silent as to the time of year in which Jesus was born. It was something which just did not interest the Gospel writers, who were concerned with who Jesus was and what his teachings were. The overwhelming event of the Resurrection made things like the date and circumstances of Jesus’ birth quite secondary. In fact, two of the Gospels—Mark and John—do not mention it at all.
As Christianity took root and grew in the Roman Empire, converts from paganism were familiar with two very important pagan celebrations that took place around the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. Those feasts were the Saturnalia and the feast of Sol invictus, “the unconquerable sun.” These feasts were set at the darkest time of the year but also precisely at the winter solstice, after which the days started to become longer. Both of these festivals were extremely popular with Romans.
Not having a concrete date for the birth of Jesus, Christians opted to take the images of light overcoming darkness of the Roman festivals and to give them new meaning with the birth of Christ, the Light of the World.
As we Christians celebrate Christmas in our electrified world, it might be helpful to reflect a bit on darkness as something more powerful and frightening that merely having the switch off. When we see the darkness of war, suffering, racism, poverty and hatred in our world, the importance of light impresses us. The light of Christ dispels and overcomes that darkness.
In his light, the followers of Christ not only see the light but are ourselves called to become lights, to live in our world as enlightened and illuminating witnesses to the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas.
13 December 2018
Tags: Christianity Judaism
An Arab couple are married at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Montreal. Migrants and refugees often struggle to maintain their customs, their faith and their culture in a new land.
(photo: Cody Christopulos)
Last week, I looked at how we live in a world of migrants — and how CNEWA seeks to serve that world. But what happens to migrants after they settle in a new place? This is a question and challenge facing all of us.
We at CNEWA describe our mission as “accompanying the Eastern Churches.” Since our beginning over 90 years ago, CNEWA has accompanied the Eastern Churches through some of their most difficult times — through displacement, exile and outright genocide. More recently, since the turn of the millennium, Christians have been under incredible pressure in the Middle East; threats from ISIS, from civil war, from violence and terror of all kinds in the region have forced many to take flight.
As a result, the Christian population in the Middle East has plummeted. Christians of the Middle East form a considerable part of the movement of peoples we wrote about last week. Tens of thousands of Christians are refugees or displaced persons, forced to emigrate from their homes.
We are—or we like to think we are—familiar with the problems these people face. They are fleeing for their lives; their cities, homes, business, schools and very lives have been destroyed. They are struggling to survive. But even after their survival has been assured, even after they have arrived in countries where they are safe, refugees face new and daunting problems.
To begin with, there are problems of how they can practice their faith. Christians refugees from the Middle East often belong to one of the Eastern Churches—the so-called sui juris churches, which are fully Catholic and in communion with Latin Rite Catholics. Like their Orthodox counterparts, these Eastern Catholics are often quite different from their fellow Catholics of the Latin Rite. They have traditions which go back to the time of the Apostles. Their liturgical and sacramental practices are often the things which make these churches most visibly different from Latin Rite Catholics. They traditionally use ancient languages such as Syriac and Coptic. They very often have married clergy, which is now permitted outside their historical territories. Many of these churches have a Patriarch or Major Archbishop. They have a unique spirituality and theology which has sustained them for 2,000 years. But suddenly they find themselves in Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and to a lesser extent in the United States. Sometimes they are even surrounded by fellow Christians who view their Eastern form of Christianity with confusion and even suspicion.
How do these Christians maintain their traditions, rooted in the culture, theology and languages of the Middle East, in the West of the 21st century?
To me there seems to be two extremes which must be avoided.
The first extreme to avoid is complete assimilation to the new culture. The traditions, foreign as they are to the new cultures, may seem to become quaint and eccentric and ultimately become irrelevant. Often lacking infrastructures for their own churches in a new homeland, these Christians become absorbed into the majority Latin Rite or Protestant churches and, after a few generations, disappear. An important part of their history, thus, is lost.
The second extreme to avoid is the formation of ghettos. ”Little Assyrias,” “Little Chaldaeas,” etc. can spring up where these Christians separate themselves from the surrounding culture and live as if they were still in the Middle East, still speaking their ancient languages and maintaining their customs. While this may work for a while, the younger generations will ultimately resist speaking the language of the immigrant community, separate themselves by adapting to the dominant culture and leave behind shrinking populations of people who are ultimately alienated from their homelands and not integrated into their new country.
We need to remember that despite appearances, Christianity is not exclusively a western European phenomenon. The categories of the Greek and Roman world have played a huge part in the development of Western Christianity. But the operative word here is part. Christianity is far broader, richer and more diverse than Western Christianity alone. A thriving Eastern Christianity is important for the health of all Christians.
As more Eastern Christians settle in the West, and as the horror stories from the Middle East recede into memory, it is easy to forget these people. They are in new countries. They are out of danger; they have new homes, new lives. They are OK—or so it might seem. But we shouldn’t overlook them.
If their physical existence seems secure, in fact, these Christians are facing new challenges that threaten their spiritual existence.
How can they live their faith, so deeply rooted in the East, in a new world? How can they be part of and contribute to their new home countries and at the same time be faithful and authentic to their ancient heritage?
These are questions without easy answers — and merit our time, our study and our prayers.
6 December 2018
Tags: Refugees Migrants Eastern Catholics
This image from January shows one example of modern migration that has become all-too-common: a raft with 112 passengers drifts in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast before being rescued. (photo: CNS/Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)
On 18 December every year, the United Nations observes International Migrants Day. There are very clear and important legal differences between refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers and migrants that should not be forgotten. (You can read more about what they mean at this blog post.) These categories are kept separate and distinct by the UN. However, CNEWA works in a world where all of these categories are present — and, at times, massively present. Today, I will look at how the various migrations of peoples have affected the globe and had a significant impact on the world CNEWA serves.
It is important to understand several things. Mass movements of people are not new; as you’ll see below, they have occurred several times in at least past two thousand years. The movements cause untold suffering for those who are displaced. However, they have also caused the destabilization and even destruction of civilizations and cultures which were the “host” or target countries/peoples. The problems caused by these movements often provide demagogues with deceptively easy “solutions,” which are often little more than thinly veiled forms of racism. Nevertheless, the problems and challenges are real.
Let’s look at how these migrations have occurred, and some important examples.
Throughout history people and groups have moved to find better or safer living conditions — at times, doing so in great numbers. There are many causes for this. The biblical book of Ruth speaks of Naomi and her family leaving Judah for Moab because of famine. Over the last 2,000 years there have been times of massive movements of peoples. War and military aggression are among the chief drivers of the mass movement of peoples. The arrival of the Huns on the stage of world history in the 4th to 6th centuries caused massive movements of peoples from Central Asia to the west, fleeing the armies of the Huns. The Huns coming from the east put pressure on the Goths and other “barbarians” who, in turn, pressured and ultimately brought about the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west.
In the late 11th centuries, it was the Mongols, again coming from eastern Asia, that caused great destruction and displacement from central Asia to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The Mongols brought the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate to an end and destroyed other kingdoms in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Lastly, the mass movement of Europeans to the “New World” which began in the 16th century had major impact on the indigenous peoples of North and South America, causing the extinction of many native civilizations and cultures. In each of these, climate, military conquest and economic issues all played varying roles.
In the last 20 years, it appears that there is a new mass movement of peoples. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are 68.5 million “forcibly displaced” people in the world. That number is broken down into 40 million internally displaced people, 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum seekers. As has been the case with every massive movement of peoples, this brings with it huge social, political and economic changes, all of which—at least initially—are destabilizing.
While it is common for the media in Europe and the United States to focus on the impact these people have on the situation in Europe and the U.S., in point of fact, the major “hosting countries,”— i.e., countries targeted by the movement of peoples—are Turkey (3.5 million displaced people), Uganda (1.4 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (just under 980,000).
The UN recognizes that this is a humanitarian crisis of the highest magnitude for those people who are displaced. However, it presents almost insurmountable political, social and economic problems for the “hosting countries,” few of which are that economically—and at times politically—stable themselves.
In an attempt to address this, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was signed 13 July 2018. While not a treaty and not formally binding under international law, the Compact is an attempt to deal both with the problem both practically and compassionately. The Holy See. especially through its Permanent Observer Mission at the UN, has been active in promoting the Global Compact as a possible way of dealing with the problem. The main goals are not merely to provide for a safe and orderly migration of peoples but also to eliminate those “drivers of migration” that force people to leave their homes— i.e., climate change, war, poverty.
As a papal agency working in areas where the mass movement of peoples has had profound and almost invariably negative impact on all involved, CNEWA encourages our readers to become informed about the issues involved and remain familiar with what the Catholic Church is trying to do to address these important challenges.
Next week, we’ll look at how the various migrations of peoples have had a lasting impact — spreading new traditions, beliefs, practices and cultures to different corners of the world.
29 November 2018
Tags: Refugees Migrants
In this image from May, Pope Francis greets Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople during a meeting in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
The last day of November holds a special significance for many Christians — and serves to remind us of the much-desired unity for which CNEWA and so much of the Christian world ardently pray.
In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) of 25 May 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote of the necessity of the church living and breathing with its “two lungs.” By that he was referring to the Catholic Church including Catholics not only of the Latin Rite but also the many different Orthodox Churches who were not in communion with Rome.
Historically it seemed that once Christians stopped being persecuted, they started arguing with each other. Churches broke relations (communion) with each other starting in the 4th century and continued to do so throughout the centuries. Some of the breaks were not that noticeable; others such as the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation which started in 1517 were nothing short of tectonic and impacted major parts of the Christian world.
At the opening of the 20th century, Christianity found itself seriously divided and it seemed that those divisions were incurable. However, there were stirrings of the Spirit among some broad minded Christians, leading them to believe not only that divisions among Christians were wrong but also that they could be healed. The Ecumenical Movement was born.
With Vatican II (1962-65) the Catholic Church formally committed itself to this movement and to work for Christian unity by engaging in dialogue with other Christians. One of the most dramatic ecumenical events to occur took place during the council. Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land—the first pope to do it since St. Peter. While there, he met with Athenagoras, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople in January of 1964. Although the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople among the Orthodox Churches is quite different than that of the pope in the Catholic Church, he is, nevertheless, the “first among equals” and the Ecumenical Patriarch.
The historic meeting ultimately resulted in the lifting of the mutual excommunications which had been promulgated by the two churches in 1054; it also brought about the commitment to engage in dialogue and the pledge of regular visits between the Phanar (the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople) and the Holy See. It was decided that the patriarch would visit or send a delegation to the Holy See every year on 29 June, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the patron saints of Rome. The Holy See would return the visit every year on 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, patron saint of Byzantium.
The initial meetings were cordial, ceremonial and, of course, very important. Sometimes the patriarch himself came to Rome and the pope went to the Phanar in Istanbul. More often, high level delegation exchanged visits to celebrate the feast of the other church.
Over the decades what had begun as a cordial and ceremonial—though important—event has evolved into the meeting of friends and brothers. The small steps of rapprochement made by Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras in the Holy Land, have evolved into a deep friendship and cooperation between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
When the representatives of Pope Francis celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew tomorrow in Istanbul, they are representing two friends—Francis and Bartholomew—who have not only met several times but have worked together in issues such as the environment, world peace and the plight of refugees.
CNEWA’s world is deeply rooted in places where Orthodox Christians are in the majority. The yearly meetings between the pope and patriarch are signs to us that in a world of nationalism, xenophobia—if not downright hatred of “the Other”—and division, the “two lungs of the church” are working together to breathe new life in the two major Christian traditions of the world.
Tags: Pope Francis Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople