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The Oriental Churches: Communities with more to offer than incense

Vatican News continues with its series on the history, mission, objectives and operating costs of the Vatican offices assisting the Pope in his pastoral ministry. We feature here the Congregation for Oriental Churches with an interview of the Prefect, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri.

By Alessandro De Carolis - Vatican City

The Eastern Churches are often noted for their icons and rich liturgies with incense, candles, and ancient chants. But the challenges they face are the focus of the service provided to them by the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

The responsibilities of the Dicastery include the Holy Land, which recalls the sacredness of these sites, but also the long-standing suffering caused by human conflicts. The Congregation also deals with the churches outside of the places where they originated, the reality of celibate and married priests in local societies, and many other unique and local situations.

The pandemic has created special challenges for everyone. The mosaic of eastern churches "is manifested in this variety" and unity with the Pope, according to Cardinal Leonardo Sandri who heads the Congregation.

Q: Up until the reform of the Roman Curia in 1967, the position of Prefect of the Congregation was reserved to the Pope, reflecting the importance attributed to the care of the Oriental Churches. In what way is this concern for the communities of the Christian East expressed today?

A: I believe it helps if we use the image of Pope Francis a few moments prior to the Mass inaugurating his pastoral ministry, when he went to pray at the Altar of the Confession in St. Peter's Basilica near the relics of the Apostle. He wanted to be flanked by all the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches in order to visibly manifest the profound unity within the Catholic Church. The Latin Church is one of the Churches sui iuris and the Pope as Bishop of Rome, although he is a Latin Bishop, exercises his guidance by respecting and taking care of all the Eastern Catholic Churches, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe, to India, and of all the communities coming from these Churches spread in so many territories outside of their places of origin – on the American continent as well as in Europe, Australia and Oceania.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri at his desk
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri at his desk

Q: What is involved in assisting the local realities of the Churches outside of the places in which they originated?

A: It is a feature of the care for the Oriental Churches expressed by the Popes who, however, no longer exercized the role as Prefect of the Congregation, continue to exercise their special care for the Eastern faithful through the Dicastery. The very fact that in predominantly Latin territories - as for example in Europe and the United States - Popes have chosen to institute eparchies or exarchates for the care of the Eastern Catholic faithful speaks of the importance and profound respect for their identity and tradition. Where they go in the world creating structured communities of a certain size, the Apostolic See recognizes the possibility of continuing to govern themselves according to their own tradition, their liturgical, disciplinary, spiritual distinctiveness, providing for the appointment of Bishops and the foundation of eparchies and provinces so that they can continue to live their belonging to the Lord in the Catholic Church through that unique expression of their Church of origin.

Q: These are often faithful fleeing from wars, violence, and poverty?

A: Yes, attention to the Eastern faithful in the so-called “diaspora” is also a special way of living out that care for the reality of migrants and refugees, so dear to Pope Francis’s heart. Those in the diaspora are the children of populations who, in order to escape war and violence or for economic reasons, emigrated from their homelands and have formed communities to continue to live their faith with links to their homelands and with their Church of origin. Pope Francis's attention to the reality of migration is also made concrete through our Dicastery through the pastoral care of these faithful who are migrants wherever they have come in the past, as well as today and wherever they will go in the future. Of course this does not mean promoting a process of the departure of Christians from the Middle East, for example, which perhaps may serve the interests of some strong international powers, but instead witnesses the Pope in the forefront of claiming the right of Christians to remain, to live and to profess their faith at home. The presence of Christians in a Middle East that we would like to see finally in peace, with no more wars, would mark a fundamental contribution to peaceful coexistence following a model of human fraternity, overcoming historical cycles of opposition or mutual oppression that have characterized past decades and centuries in those territories.

Crucifix in the Dicastery's chapel
Crucifix in the Dicastery's chapel

Q: When one speaks of Oriental Churches, the first images that come to mind are those of ancient origin that safeguard artistic treasures and symbolically liturgies rich. What other elements characterize the specific identity of the ecclesial communities of the East?

A: It is true, we must not lose sight of how special they are: ancient, precious – treasures of wisdom, beauty, art, color – as this is the experience you have when you enter an oriental church anywhere in the world. You are fascinated by the prayers, the chants, the hymns, the scent of incense, the candlelight, the vestments... but all this is not something that belongs to a museum! They are living communities that, with different traditions from ours (we can think about all the debate within the Latin Church on the orientation in liturgical prayer) continue to live their faith in a deeply Catholic way, even if different from what we are used to.

Q: One of the characteristics, that of synodality, is a theme that is very close to the Pope's heart...

A: The Holy Father has asked, and continues to ask, the whole Church to reflect on the meaning of the exercise of collegiality and "synodality". From the beginning, this synodal perspective characterizes the life of the Eastern Catholic Churches because the Patriarchal and Major Archbishopric Churches are structured in a special way around a Patriarch or a Major Archbishop, who exercises the leadership of the Church together with the Synod of Bishops, in a path of communion and collegiality.  Synodality is evident, then, in the practice related to the election of bishops for the Sees of the territories proper to the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Holy Father is called, in fact, to express his consent regarding the worthiness of a candidate for the office of bishop, but the assignment to one see rather than another in the territory is the responsibility of the Synod of Bishops. Or think again of the much-debated issue of married priests. Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches have maintained this practice (which is also present in the Orthodox world) whereby there are celibate priests and married priests.  Following the Plenary of this Congregation in 2013, Pope Francis allowed them the possibility of exercising ministry for their faithful outside of their traditional territories, something that was previously not allowed, if not explicitly prohibited, as for example in the United States for the Ruthenian Church beginning in the late 19th century. These themes, that of synodality and that of the exercise of the priesthood, both celibate and married, often the object of reflection and debate in our day, are in fact experiences already concretely lived out in the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Let us also think about how over decades the popes have presented the Eastern tradition as a particular way for an authentically Catholic perception of being Church. On the one hand with an attention to concrete realities, such as that in Lebanon (the Special Synod of 1996) or that of the entire Middle East (the Special Synod of Bishops of 2010), but I am also referring to legislative interventions, such as the promulgation of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches in 1990 by St. John Paul II, as well as his attention to the realm of Eastern Europe, especially with the reference to Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Sign in Latin over the entrance of the Dicastery
Sign in Latin over the entrance of the Dicastery

Q: The history of the Eastern Churches has been and is bloodied with conflicts and violence that have decimated the presence of Christian minorities over the years and have forced entire populations to what seems to be an endless exodus. What are currently the most explosive crisis situations in the areas under the Congregation's jurisdiction?

A: During the 2010 Synod for the Middle East, many prelates from those lands asked that the concept of minority not be used, but rather that of presence, in order to say that the concept of minority and majority - however understandable at the statistical level - is not the key to interpreting their existence in the Middle East. This is because we are talking about an uninterrupted Christian presence in those lands, but one that numerically has always been symbolic compared to the wider population, with the exception of the very first centuries... a presence that is, however, and wishes to continue to be a witness.  Certainly, the fronts on which our Eastern faithful live are particularly dramatic: we have now reached the tenth year of the Syrian conflict and no solution seems to be in sight. Here different positions and sensitivities appear, but there is only one certainty: millions of people (including those belonging to the weakest sectors of the population, such as young people, children, women, and the elderly) are deprived of a home, a school, sometimes a place for medical care, a place where they can grow, where they can play, where they can hope, a place where they can live and love.

Q: Can you mention the most dramatic situations today?

A: Look at the millions of internally displaced persons in Syria and the millions of displaced persons outside Syria, in neighboring Lebanon, in Jordan, but then also in Europe or the United States... The Syrian situation is a wound that continues to bleed and seems unable to heal with the culpability of all those who could act but remain silent in the face of the cry of suffering, as Pope Francis has very clearly pointed out several times. I especially like to recall the Pope’s journey to Bari, in southern Italy, on July 7, 2018, and his words calling attention to the cry of pain that rises from the lands of the Middle East and particularly Syria. Iraq, where the Holy Father plans to visit from 5-8 March, remains a place of strong instability, a land still not at peace, also due to the serious consequences of the invasion of the “Islamic State”. It is difficult to think that those who migrated abroad can ever return. But we also look at the big question regarding the life of Lebanon, devastated recently by the consequences of the serious explosion in the port of Beirut, but already experiencing strong instability for months before that, a deep economic crisis with thousands of people living below the poverty level. Lebanon’s political situation seems to jeopardize the very existence of “a country that is a message” where the coexistence between Christians and members of different Muslim denominations seemed to be a reality that made it a privileged place in the Middle East. Before the war of the past decades, Lebanon was considered the Switzerland of the Middle East for its beauty and richness, but we might also add a unique place of peaceful coexistence among the different components of the population. But we do not wish to forget other realities, the challenges of being a Christian in today's India, as well as the continuing tensions and the consequent suffering of the populations in eastern Ukraine.

A Marian icon in the Dicastery
A Marian icon in the Dicastery

Q: In what way does your Dicastery offer a concrete contribution to help face the tragedy of displaced persons, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic?

A: The Covid pandemic has affected the whole world and calls on us for additional attention and care for the populations we serve. Safeguarding the competencies of international cooperation and those of the Roman Curia itself (organizations such as Caritas Internationalis or the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development), the Congregation has decided to establish an emergency fund for the Eastern Catholic Churches after having informed the Holy Father and receiving his approval. The purpose at this time is to manage pandemic-related crises. The funds used come from the Holy Land Collection and from other benefactors who are willing to help. The Dicastery has provided more than $700,000 in resources for the purchase of preventive hygiene and health care equipment (such as ventilators) for Jerusalem, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq. Above all, a virtual "synodal" mechanism has been put in place through some of the agencies of the ROACO (Riunione Opere Aiuto Chiese Orientali, or Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches). Requests for aid due to the Covid crisis arriving from various ecclesiastical circumscriptions under the jurisdiction of the Dicastery were sent to them. These requests received a prompt response making it possible to provide Covid-related crisis assistance during these difficult times.

Q: The presence of Eastern Christians in countries with a Muslim majority raises the question of a common commitment against fundamentalism, as affirmed a year ago in the "Abu Dhabi Declaration." What role does the Congregation play in promoting the appeal for "human fraternity" made by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar?

A: The Congregation welcomed with amazement and joy the gesture that Pope Francis wanted to make during his Apostolic Journey to Abu Dhabi. As Prefect, I had the joy of being able to accompany him and witness that historic event. Christians in the Middle East in particular (but also in India, with such a significant presence of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara faithful in a territory with an overwhelming Hindu majority), offer a vocation to witness to coexistence and dialogue with the hope that through the mutual respect of one another’s rights, might promote the common good of every citizen, the community and the good of the country. The Eastern Catholic Churches have, therefore, seen in this almost a recognition of this desire, also a way of life that they have lived despite countless difficulties and suffering, in order to witness and live their millennial experience in so many places in the Middle East.

Inside the Dicastery's chapel
Inside the Dicastery's chapel

Q: Can you give a concrete example of this vocation for mutual coexistence?

A: The one I mentioned earlier about Lebanon is the most concrete example. 2020 marked 100 years from the so-called "Greater Lebanon" and the prospect of a nation constituting itself and recognizing as a fundamental charter of its identity that of mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence among different confessions and creeds, learning to rejoice in each other's celebrations and testimonies of communion. For example, look at what the celebration of the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25 has become over the years. Even before the message of Abu Dhabi, it has been a celebration that is truly a shared feast. At the center is the person of Mary as a message of salvation for humankind for us Christians, but also as the announcement of the birth of one of the Prophets according to the Islamic tradition.

Q: How has the Congregation worked to ensure that the Declaration bears fruit?

A: Responding to what the Holy Father asked of us immediately after returning from Abu Dhabi, the Congregation immediately wrote in his name to all the heads of the Eastern Catholic Churches, sending a copy of the message and asking that this message be a source of reading, reflection, in-depth study, and debate, within formation programs (for example, among candidates for the priesthood and religious life), but also in parishes, universities, and cultural institutions. In this sense, the Oriental Churches and the Dicastery became aware of the Holy Father's desire that the message be known and shared. Certainly, some experiences of life tell us that this message indicates a broad, beautiful and shareable goal, but that it does not always correspond to reality, but this should not discourage or diminish the value of the document if at some historical moments or the present it seems to be disregarded. The hope is that the desire and the personal commitment of each person for the promotion of "human fraternity" may hasten the pace of its fulfillment...

Q: The contribution of ROACO to the activity of the Congregation constitutes a unique form of "synodal" collaboration between a Dicastery of the Roman Curia and the charitable agencies of various countries of the world. How is this important?

A: I am pleased to note in this question an underscoring of the "synodal" dimension you mentioned earlier. The Prefect of the Congregation is the President of ROACA. Since its inception more than 50 years ago it functions as a reality in which the Dicastery lends itself as a coordinating entity for networking and sharing information, resources, and projects. This role brings together the Congregation, an office of the Roman Curia that oversees the life of the Eastern Catholic Churches in the world, the other situations under its competence, and especially new local realities that have arisen over the years in different nations. The goal is to express a solidarity, a concrete closeness to the life of these our brothers and sisters. I am thinking of the CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association), Pontifical Mission in the United States and Canada, the Ouvre d'Orient in France, Missio, Misereor in Germany. There are also the entities linked to the large dioceses of Germany, like the Archdiocese of Cologne, the Italian Episcopal Conference and its Office for Missionary Cooperation.  Therefore, the first level is this aspect of "synodality".

The Dicastery's meeting room
The Dicastery's meeting room

Q: How does this collaboration take place?

A: The way this works is through our exchanges with one another, something that has taken place increasingly through new communication technologies in recent months. We have now established more regular meetings via video-links (over the past summer we already had two) in order to circulate information, and circulate requests for help and further study. The "synodal" structure is present in this way: a diocese, an eparchy, a religious order, a parish or group presents a clear, comprehensible, and well-planned project. The project also foresees local contributions and criteria for transparency and reporting. It is then presented and approved by the local ecclesiastical authority, the bishop. It is sent to use with input from the apostolic nunciature. So there is already a series of consultations, not supervision, but a type of accompaniment in the communion of these realities. This exchange reaches ROACO, our information exchange, and is distributed to the various agencies along with our feedback. The project is later discussed at the plenary assembly, which is normally scheduled in June with a meeting in Rome, bringing together the representatives of all the agencies, usually including an audience with the Holy Father.  Then a second discussion takes place in January with ROACA’s Steering Committee, which is a simpler reality with only a few agencies present to help study the dossiers and plan the work of the June Plenary.

Q: Can you also give us some ideas of associated costs?

A: From 2015 to 2020 the total funding received was 15 million euros covering around 290 projects. Let me mention just a few numbers: Israel received support for 37 projects totaling almost €2 million; Cyprus 2 projects with €250,000; Palestine 31 projects with almost €1,700,000; Jordan 12 projects with close to €700,000; Egypt six projects with approximately €500,000; Lebanon 33 projects with €1.8 million; Syria 18 projects with €1.5 million; Ukraine 23 projects with €1.2 million; India 78 projects totaling €2 million; Ethiopia 11 projects with over €1 million; Turkey three projects totaling €500,000, and so forth. Iraq was the recipient of only three projects totaling €400,000, but those were very difficult years when we had to face the reality of Daesh, Isis, when we had to first deal with a situation of destruction and escape, rather than real reconstruction. These are funds provided via projects explicitly presented to ROACO. This does not imply that organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and those already mentioned above have not offered other significant support in these situations mentioned, even if not doing so through ROACO.

Inside the Dicastery chapel
Inside the Dicastery chapel

Q: Can you offer an "expense budget” for your Congregation, one that puts the expenses into perspective of the needs for the Pope's mission? Can you give us some concrete examples?

A: The Dicastery has greatly appreciated the introduction of this category of a "budget in view of mission", in the sense that it was right to intervene with corrective measures in recent years to try to standardize the practice of presenting financial statements, for example, or the criteria for auditing our Dicastery by the entities of the Holy See. On the other hand, this also helps to understand this work with greater clarity, transparency, and it is a way to make use of the resources that are received, the fruit of the charity of many donors. Our expression of gratitude to the many, many benefactors who, for example, through the Holy Land Collection of which the Dicastery receives 35% annually (the remainder goes to the Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land), represents a small percentage of the worldwide missionary collection. So many individuals, other than institutional benefactors who may give little but regularly, enable us to assist in huge ways our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Q: How would you describe the importance of these small benefactors?

A: In one of the audiences, the Pope described and expressed appreciation for the help of so many small benefactors, as in the (Gospel recount) of the offering of the widow who gave all she had to live on and is praised by Jesus precisely because she gave so generously. This work of transparency and accountability has made it possible to bring more evidently the capacity the Congregation has to assist others, to highlight the good it is doing thanks to the help of so many benefactors as a sign of concrete solidarity and support in the life of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Q: In what way does your Dicastery invest in formation?

A: The Congregation runs eight colleges in Rome where between 200 and 300 students are hosted each year, depending on the year. The pandemic has led to a reduction in these numbers. The scholarships contribute to the life of the college, academic fees and concrete needs. Investing in training supports the future as well as the present of the Eastern Churches. Training priests, seminarians and religious and qualified lay faithful at the Universities of Rome, is not only an academic formation of excellence possible, but is also a special experience sub umbra Petri, being close to the Pope, thus giving them a unique Catholic inspiration. Tuition, board, lodging, academic fees, pocket money as well as ordinary and extraordinary maintenance of the facilities, generate an annual expenditure of around 3 million euros. Another reality is the Pontifical Oriental Institute which trains many future priests of the Eastern Catholic Churches throughout the world through its Faculty of Canon Law and its Faculty of Oriental Ecclesiastical Sciences. One million euros are allocated to it from the annual budget.

Cardinal Sandri at work in his office
Cardinal Sandri at work in his office

Q: How does the Congregation directly support the local Churches?

A: Another item is that of the ordinary subsidies that the Congregation grants each year to the dioceses in the territory in such a way that they can guarantee activities of ecclesial life for the proclamation of the Gospel of Love. The annual total is around 4 million euros. There have been some adjustments of a more extraordinary nature related to the maintenance of priests in territories where no other form of support can be provided, as for example in Italy with the tax mechanism of 0.8% that provides support through which extraordinary subsidies have been provided for priests in Syria so that they can continue to offer their witness alongside the suffering population. I am also thinking of Bethlehem University, a reality that came about after a visit of St. Paul VI to the Holy Land and that functions as a training center in Bethlehem that welcomes Christian and Muslim populations and educates them through the work of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (the De La Salle Brothers). It is a special reality in which the Dicastery invests more than one million dollars a year. But let's also think about the subsidies for schools, those managed by the Secretariat of Solidarity in Jerusalem and those managed by the Latin Patriarchate: often these schools are truly places for growth and formation for peaceful coexistence. At the same time, they can also shelter them from types of discrimination that occur unfortunately in public schools in some contexts where Christians are viewed negatively. Almost two million dollars a year goes to them.

Q: Another category regards extraordinary interventions. What can you tell us about this?

Let us recall some of the Holy Father’s aid, such as the recent contribution given for scholarships in Catholic schools in Lebanon to which the Congregation contributed $100,000 in his name, or the extraordinary outreach to preserve places in the life of the Church, in addition to being a patrimony of humanity. Examples include the contribution given for the restoration of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was recently finished, and that of the shrine of the Holy Sepulcher and now the entire Holy Sepulcher, for which the amount made available over the years has exceeded half a million dollars. As you can see, there has been a great deal of spending at times maximizing the income, but always mindful of St. Paul's expression "there is more joy in giving than in receiving". Even under the attentive eye of the Secretariat for the Economy, every act of generosity is based on the certainty that the Lord will not allow there to be a lack in offering what is necessary to help and show the face of charity of his Church.

15 February 2021, 15:00