By Christopher Wells
Pope Francis on Friday received participants in the Plenary Assembly of ROACO, which this year coincides with the 50th anniversary of the organization.
The Reunion of Aid Agencies to the Oriental Churches (ROACO: Riunione Opere Aiuto Chiese Orientali), unites funding agencies from various countries in order to assist Catholic Oriental clergy and faithful in Rome and in their different countries of origin. The twenty-three Oriental (or Eastern) particular Churches sui iuris are all in full communion with Rome, and are all part of the Catholic Church. According to the teaching of the Church in the Second Vatican Council, all particular Churches, whether or East or West, “are of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others.”
Those attending the audience were given printed copies of the Pope's address, which Pope Francis said he hoped they would read. He then spoke off-the-cuff about his concern for the situation in the Middle East.
In his prepared remarks, the Holy Father noted the fiftieth anniversary of ROACA, and recalled the biblical concept of the jubilee year, a year of “freedom of slaves, the cancellation of debt, and the restitution of land,” which was based on God’s covenant with His people. He called on the participants in the Plenary Assembly to think back “with gratitude” on the past, and especially on those who have worked in the various agencies in support of “their works of charity and assistance.”
The Pope focused especially on the assistance given to the Oriental Catholic Churches “to carry forward their witness to the Gospel,” both in their native lands and in the diaspora. This witness was often tested by suffering and persecution, notably in the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe, and more recently by various forms of “fundamentalism and fanaticism” in the Middle East. In marking the anniversary, he noted, too, that the “year of grace” of the Lord is marked both by internal liberation from sin, and by external liberation “in the new life of the redeemed.”
Pope Francis continued to emphasize the theme of witness as he called to mind St Peter’s invocation, on the day of Pentecost, of the prophecy of Joel: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The Eastern Catholic Churches, he said, “are called in a special way to protect and pass on a spark of Pentecostal fire.” Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, this mission continues, even in places, like the Holy Land, where Christians are in the minority, and even in places where they face ongoing persecution.
The Pope also prayed that “the sons and daughters of the Oriental Catholic Churches cherish their prophetic charge to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, even in settings that are often even more secularized than in the West, where they come as immigrants or refugees.” He asked that they be welcomed “as they seek to preserve and enrich the patrimony of their various traditions.”
Finally, Pope Francis offered a word “of thanks and encouragement” to ROACO for its work in sustaining the Oriental Churches, which allows “the Successor of Peter,” the Pope, to continue the work of ecumenism. He assured the members of those Churches that, “in the effort to extend a cordial and sincere hand to our most distant brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters are no less loved, and certainly not forgotten.”