Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, has released a message ahead of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
In the letter, entitled “The Eastern Churches need a breath of fresh air”, the Iraqi Patriarch – who Pope Francis named a Cardinal in 2018 – stressed that much current preaching is out of touch with the times, and emphasised the necessity of unity given the many threats faced by Churches in the Middle East.
A breath of fresh air
Patriarch Sako began his message by noting that, over the Christmas period, he listened to the sermons of various Eastern clergy, and watched their television interviews.
“I found,” he wrote, “that the ideas put forward are outdated, and that what they said does not communicate with the current reality (…). Therefore, it does not move the recipients, nor does it give them hope, nor does it give them a feeling of reassurance and refreshment.” Such preaching, he warned, discourages young people from coming to church, and, “if the situation continues as it is now, future generations will be without faith.”
Part of this problem, he said, is that the Eastern Catholic Churches “did not benefit much” from the Second Vatican Council or 2010’s Special Assembly on the Middle East.
What is the solution? Priests, Patriarch Sako said, should bear in mind the close relationship – insisted upon by the late Pope Benedict XVI – between faith and reason, and speak “honestly, transparently, [and] rationally.” The Church, he stressed, should respond to “cultural and social changes”, just as Christ did.
“Truth and renewal are at the heart of the Church’s nature,” the Patriarch emphasised.
The necessity of unity
Given the precarious state of the Eastern Churches, Patriarch Sako went on to say, “priority must be given to the issue of unity”, which is “the only guarantee of our survival.”
Such unity, he stressed, does not mean erasing the “spiritual, cultural, and theological heritage” of each particular Church. Rather, “unity is about accepting differences and respecting them through mutual humility and fraternal encounter, working together based on the Gospel.”
“In division there is no future for us, in unity and marching together the guarantee of our survival,” he wrote, urging the Eastern Churches to adopt a synodal style of co-operation.
A warning from Constantinople
The Patriarch concluded his letter by drawing a parallel between the current situation of Middle Eastern Churches and the city of Constantinople before its conquest by the Ottomans. As enemy forces were gathering at the gates, he wrote, “Byzantine theologians were arguing about the gender of angels.”
Rather than focusing on trivial issues, the Patriarch stressed, “heads of Churches must overcome non-essential differences, fanaticism, and fear to defend the Christian presence in the East.” Unless the Christian minority becomes “creative”, he warned, it will disappear.
“Let us reconcile and unite so that the original inhabitants will not be emptied out of the land of our ancestors, the land of history and thousands of martyrs. Our Churches bear in their bodies the pain of Christ, so let us strive for their revival as he did, and for the renaissance of our countries as well.”
By Joseph Tulloch