The Symposium of the Churches in the Middle East, “Rooted in hope” came to an end in Cyprus on 23rd April 2023. The initiative was organized by the R.O.A.C.O. (Assembly of Organizations for Aid to the Oriental Churches), and supported by the Dicastery of the Oriental Churches to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in the Middle East” signed in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI on the Church in the Middle East on the aspects of communion and witness.
Father Custos, ten years after its publication, how meaningful is this Apostolic Exhortation and its contents? And in your opinion, how much has been achieved?
The points sketched out ten years ago in “Ecclesia in the Middle East” are still very meaningful: perhaps precisely due to the fact that immediately after the Apostolic Exhortation of 2012, a series of tragic events ‘froze’ and even overturned the situation and which, from certain aspects, led to the existence of that document being forgotten. However today, the appeal in the Exhortation to pay attention to the dimensions of communion of the various Churches, to monitor their entrenchment in the Middle East and to curate the formative paths and paths of faith for the clergy, the religious and the faithful is still extremely important. The topics of interreligious dialogue have become even more urgent.
There are also some questions which, perhaps ten years ago were only a projection, but now impose themselves as a necessity. I consider as particularly significant the subject of migration, because today we are seeing a twofold phenomenon: on the one hand, the exodus abroad of the faithful belonging to the Churches of ancient tradition, and on the other, the massive immigration to the whole of the Middle East, in the last ten-twelve years, of many Christian workers, especially from South-East Asia. This calls on the Oriental Churches which have to find the way to accompany their faithful in the diaspora so that they do not lose their cultural, spiritual and religious roots. On the other hand, we too, as the Latin Church, together with the Oriental Churches, are called on to look after these migrant workers, who have to be welcomed and fully integrated into the religious experience. We have to learn how to reason in terms of faith and pastoral. On the level of faith, we have to remember that we are all “pilgrims and strangers in this world” as St Peter says (1 Peter 2,11); but the Apostle Paul also reminds us that “we are all fellow citizens with the holy ones and the household of God” (Ephesians 2,19). We have to be a church that welcomes the migrant workers not as “foreigners” but as brothers and it has to be able to involve them fully in the experiences of the local church.
Many contributions during the Symposium emphasized the global phenomenon of secularization and dechristianization of society, which does not spare our communities in the Middle East either.
The phenomenon of secularization is mainly a Western one which is reaching the Middle East at the same time as Western culture itself. There can be no doubt that today the socio-religious component most open to Western culture is the Christian one. Secularization and dechristianization concern the Christians who live in Israel and, to a lesser extent, those in Syria and Iraq – who are the Christians who have suffered the strongest persecution. The answer to this phenomenon is not a magic formula. In this regard, the Custody of the Holy Land makes a substantial contribution which is called “looking after the Holy Places.” If the local Christians, who are the “living stones” of this land, do not reappropriate the relationship with the Holy Places, they will have neither a specific Christian identity nor a strong sense of religious belonging. It is precisely because they were born and grew up around the places of the Gospel and are those who, throughout the centuries, have kept alive the memory of these places, that they have to reclaim and recover the relationship with them. Unfortunately, today the risk is that the Christians of the Holy Land are those who least know their land and their roots. This is why we have to commit ourselves to asking for programmes of pastoral care, of catechism and of education that include visiting the Holy Places, reading the Gospel in the sanctuaries to which the text refers, the Eucharistic celebration in those places: these paths would make catechism much less boring and could help reconnect our faithful with the roots of their faith.
The Custody of the Holy Land is always walking along two tracks: one is the local track and the other is the universal one. The Custody is not simply a diocese: it has been rooted here for eight centuries, there are friars whose mother tongue is Arabic, but at the same time there are religious of 60 different nationalities who have to help the local Christians both rediscover their own roots, and remain open to the Universal Church because identity must not be conceived as a reality that closes, but as a reality that opens up, that builds bridges.
The Apostolic Exhortation of Benedict XVI also focuses on pilgrimages: the Middle East is a privileged place of pilgrimage for many Christians who can consolidate their faith and have a profoundly spiritual experience here.
The aspect of pilgrimages and the connection with the Holy Places is a central topic, which perhaps needs greater attention. The Church in the Middle East has to remember that it is the Church where Christianity was born. The connection between the Holy Places and the Oriental Churches is given by the fact that the Holy Places are all here, concentrated in a place that is anything but “small”: in addition to the better known ones in Palestine and Israel, if we follow the Scriptures, we should also add those in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Antioch (today in Turkey) and Cyprus.
We always have to bear in mind the vital connection between the word of God, the Gospel and the place where it came to life, because “the geographical dimension of the faith” – as it was called by Pope Paul VI, “is what helps us avoid the temptation of Gnosticism, a heresy that intellectualizes faith. The Holy Places, on the other hand, bring us back with our feet firmly on the ground: they remind us that Jesus was conceived in Nazareth, he was born in Bethlehem, he crossed Egypt with his family, he was often in Jerusalem, he suffered the heat of the desert of Samaria, he was also able to enjoy the beauty of the green meadows of Galilee… so his humanity is closely connected with the physical nature of this Holy Land.
The importance of the Holy Places must not be forgotten because every time we forget the importance of the geography of salvation, we tend to become the “intellectuals of religion,” incapable of acting concretely and offering the evangelical message with practical, factual and not only abstract categories.