Who are the Christians of the East?
The following article was written by His Grace Archbishop Joseph Tawil, late eparch of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church in the United States from 1970-1989. The text was edited and compiled by His Grace Bishop Nicholas Samra, friend of St. Joseph Parish and the current head of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton.
Since the second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965, the Christian West has become more aware of the Eastern Churches. Vatican II’s Decree on the Eastern Churches began:
“The Catholic Church holds high in esteem the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and Christian life of the Eastern Churches, for in them, distinguished as they are for their venerable antiquity, there remains conspicuous the tradition that had been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers and that forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church.”
It is interesting to see that the Council properly identifies the Eastern Churches as “churches” and not “rites.” To use the term “rite” is like designating fruit by the color of its skin or an individual by his clothes. The word “church” indicates a totality: faith theology, liturgy, spirituality, and, above all, apostolic succession. The plurality of the churches goes back to the origins of Christianity itself. There are many churches because there were many apostles who departed from the East to proclaim the evangelical message to the whole world. Eastern Christianity was born directly and historically from the apostles. Western Christianity came forth from the preaching of Peter and Paul, and thus it is also eastern in its origins, but possesses a history of its own and proceeds from Rome alone.
Diversity in Unity
Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism states:
“The heritage handed down by the Apostles was received in different forms and ways, so that from the very beginnings of the Church it has had a varied development here and there, owing also to diverse mentalities and conditions of life… the Council urges all, but especially those who commit themselves to the work for restoration of the full communion that is desired between Eastern Churches and the Catholic Church, to give due consideration to this special feature of the origin and growth of the Churches of the East.”
Vatican II also stated: “By an utterly free and mysterious decree of His own wisdom and goodness, the eternal Father created the whole world. His plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life.” The council thereby emphasized a tradition dear to the East The Church is, above all, a communion. This is what makes up its very essence: communion with the Trinitarian Life.
St Gregory the Theologian said: “The Church is an imitation of the Trinity: just as in God three persons communicate the same divine nature in a perfect distinction, so the multitude of human persons is invited to communicate from the same mystery of divine life in the distinction of persons.” The means of this communion arc found in the Mysteries of the Church instituted by Christ Himself. Baptism incorporates us into the Body of Christ and makes us sharers in divine life. The Eucharist intimately unites us with the deifying humanity of the risen Savior and with one another. Beyond this union there is the beatific vision, the seed of which has been planted in us through the Mystery of Baptism.
Hence, true catholicity is totally contained in every local church possessing the Mysteries and united around its bishop. Looked at from this viewpoint, all churches are equal and are in communion with one another and not absorbed. This is the mysterious communion with Trinitarian life, which is distinct from hierarchical and canonical communion.
True catholicity is full and entire in each particular Church, whatever may be its geographical extent. This is the renewal and consecration of the tradition of the Eastern Churches, and it is the great contribution of Vatican II. The Church is a communion with divine life. The particular Churches (which all are) are in communion with each other. To want to Latinize small groups of Easterners produces no result or gain, since they make up a small minority with relationship to the Christians of the West. But one forgets Orthodoxy with which Rome is carrying on a brotherly dialogue. This dialogue can be seriously compromised if one supports the idea that, in order to be fully Catholic, one must necessarily be Latin. This is a denial of one’s particular heritage and the acceptance of another, and includes the sin of schism: “The temptation to uniformity, monolithism, concordism is anti-ecclesial precisely because it transforms communion into monism. It thus breaks the harmony between the mystery of God, the communion of one Trinity and that of God’s Church.”
When Catholics of the West speak about the Church or the general discipline of the Church, according to (Melkite) Patriarch Maximos IV,
“they limit their vision to the Latin discipline and Church, as if the Eastern discipline and Church were exceptions. On the other hand they must remember that the Latin Church is one Church within the Catholic Church and that Latin law is the particular law of the Latin Church. It is a fact that the Catholic Church was unfortunately reduced for centuries to the West, and westerners assumed the habit of considering their Latin Church as being synonymous with the universal Catholic Church. This is a perspective which has to be corrected today, not only in terminology, but also in the behavior of the Church.”
Unity must not destroy diversity, nor must diversity harm unity. Understanding and harmony in the Church depend on this double condition. History shows a very clear fact: every time that unity did not reckon with diversity, there were schisms or separations, and every time that diversity was affirmed to the detriment of unity, there were disorders of every kind.