(Vatican Insider) - He didn’t shout it about but the proposal made by Patriarch Louis Raphael, Primate of the Chaldean Church was still shocking: doing away with the three Patriarchates rooted in the ancient Church of the East - the first Church to bring Christianity to Persia, India and even faraway China – and unifying the three ecclesial communities, bringing them under the leadership of one single Patriarch.
This is a delicate moment for the three local ecclesial communities of Mesopotamia as their very existence is at risk in their own homeland. The Chaldean Church, which is the largest and tied to the Apostolic See in Rome, has been haemorrhaging faithful since the US-led western military invasions took place. It is losing faithful in Iraq and as such Christians risk extinction in areas where it has been present for thousands of years. For decades now, most of the faithful belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East have lived in flourishing diaspora communities spread across America, Europe and Oceania. This Church is going through a delicate transition phase: after Patriarch Mar Dikha IV’s death last 26 March, the election of a successor was put off until September, while the re-transferral of the Patriarchal See from Chicago – where the Patriarch migrated to as an “exile” in 1940 – to Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is at stake. Meanwhile, the minority Ancient Church of the East – created in 1964 as the result of a schism in the Assyrian Church of the East, currently headed by Patriarch Mar Addai II, who is resident in Baghdad – faces re-unification after a proposal presented by Assyrian bishops.
In light of these developments, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael published some “personal thoughts” on the Patriarchate’s website. He sketches out the early stages of an actual plan for the re-establishment of the Church of the East as a Patriarchal Church that is independent from a jurisdictional point of view but in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The full re-unification of the three Churches of Nestorian descent would help deal with the dangers that threaten the survival of local Christian communities across the Middle East, together, the Patriarch said in his proposal.
What the Chaldean Patriarch’s proposal means in practical terms, in the unconditional renunciation of the patriarchal title on his part as well as on the part of Patriarch Mar Addai. All bishops of the three Churches currently in existence should then meet in a joint Synod to elect a single Patriarch who would then choose three bishops from the three Churches “being merged” as his main coadjutors. The “ethnic” self-definitions that currently distinguish the Chaldean and Assyrian Churches would have to be set aside: the new Church would simply be called: Church of the East, a Church that is universal and open to all, without any “nationalist” reductionisms. A programmatic general Synod, open to the laity, would have to plan the concrete implementation of full hierarchical and structural unity between the different Churches.
As far as the central issue of communion with the Bishop of Rome is concerned, the Chaldean Patriarch reiterated that this communion is based on the sharing of a common faith and doctrine, confirmed also in the joint Christological declaration signed by John Paul II and Mar Dinkha in 1994. In this declaration, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Catholic Church state that they profess the same faith in Christ and it recognises that the Christological controversies of the distant past were mostly down to misunderstandings. Rome is Prima Sedes – Patriarch Louis Raphael recalls, referring back to a shared ecclesiology between East and West for the entire first Christian millennium – and being in full communion with the Bishop of Rome does not involve a “dissolution” of one’s ecclesial identity but it helps protect “the unity of plurality”, maintaining a Church’s individual features on a liturgical, canonical, disciplinary and jurisdictional level, thereby also protecting the prerogatives of the Patriarch and the Synod.
Even as far back as September 2013, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I invited the Assyrian Patriarch of Mar Dinkha to begin a path of dialogue with the aim of restoring full ecclesial communion between the Chaldean Christian community and its Assyrian counterpart. At the start of October 2013, Mar Dinkha accepted, suggesting the creation of a “joint committee” as an instrument for dealing with the emergencies the two sister Churches had in common. Said Churches share the same liturgical, theological ad spiritual heritage.
There is a recent precedent to the Chaldean Patriarch’s initiative, which is evocative and important also in terms of its outcome: In the mid-1990s, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch had started a project for the full sacramental re-unification with the Greek orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, while at the same time maintaining full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It was the elderly Melkite bishop Elias Zoghby who set all this in motion. He was known for his fervent pro-unity interventions during the Second Vatican Council. In February 1995 he wrote a two-point profession of faith testimony in which he confessed that he believed “in everything Eastern orthodoxy teaches” while at the same time being in communion “with the Bishop of Rome, within the limits attributed to the Bishop of Rome by the Holy Fathers of the East in the First Millenium and before the separation”. Just a few days later, this profession of the faith was signed by Georges Khodr, orthodox Metropolitan of Byblos: ““I consider this profession of faith of Kyr Elias Zoghby to fulfil the necessary and sufficient conditions to re-establish the unity of the Orthodox Churches with Rome,” Khodr wrote. On this basis, the plan to restore “Antiochian” unity between the two Churches was supported by almost all Melkite Greek bishops. Meanwhile, in September 1996, the Holy See urged caution. According to the Pope’s collaborators, Rome could take into considerations any “Antiochian” decisions only if these did not create conflict and tension within the Orthodox world. The aim was to avoid being accused of creating division between the Orthodox Churches, seeing as though the Church of Rome had begun a theological dialogue in order to improve relations with Orthodoxy as a whole. In the end, it was the bishops of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch who suspended the project during a Synod, stressing that the bilateral dialogue with their Melkite Greek “brothers and sisters” “could not be separated from the resumption of communion between the See of Rome and Orthodoxy as a whole”.
It is likely that the proposal put forward by the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I will come up against insurmountable obstacles, particularly within the Chaldean and Assyrian communities in diaspora, where the ethnic and national element has been nurtured and fomented, even by some representatives of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as part of their identity. Nevertheless, the Chaldean Patriarch’s proposal is valuable in that it tries to overcome existing obstacles with a sense of goodwill, promoting – as Francis has done on more than one occasion – the experience of communion of the first Christian millennium as a model to be followed on the concrete path towards achieving full sacramental communion between sister Churches.