The Christian Presence in the Middle East - Witness and Mission

Collegial Pastoral letter of the Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East
to their Faithful in their different countries of Residence

Stephanos II Ghattas, Patriarch of Alexandria of the Catholic Copts; Maximos V Hakim, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem; Mar Ignace Antoine II Hayek, Antiochian Patriarch of the Syrian Catholics; Mar Nasrallah-Pierre Sfeir,Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East; Mar Raphail 1st Bidawid, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans; Jean-Pierre XVIII Kasparian, Patriarch of the Armenian Catholics; Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

Religious Education

23. Religious education continues to be an essential requirement if the believer is to become aware of his Christian identity, his ecclesial belonging and his mission in society, and develop the seeds of faith sown in him by God by the grace of baptism. It is no exaggeration to say that, in one way or another, the authentic face of the believer and the vitality of the community of believers depend on the quality of religious education received in the Church. For the believer this education is both a right and a duty.The Church must therefore provide favourable conditions, effective instruments and continuity for this education, enabling it to recover its importance in the life of the Church in our countries. Whether at home, at school or in the parish, it is within this educational triad that the believer will find the growth and maturity for all areas of his Christian life. It is vital for religious education to continue to be one of the essential tasks of our Churches and institutions. Only thus will faith become " living explicit and active (Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, n.14) in the life of believers and of the Christian community. It is only right that we should publicly express our esteem and affection for all those who dedicate themselves to this noble task: priests, religious men and women, and laity. Our Churches value highly your efforts and invite you to continue to respond to the demands of such an elevated mission by pursuing your preparation at the dogmatic, pedagogical and spiritual levels.

Presence and prayer

24. The man of the East is a man of prayer. In good days and bad, he stands before God in a continuous dialogue which glorifies God, purifies the heart and renews one's existence. There can be no doubt that the spiritual, liturgical and eucharistic life is one of the most obvious features of the history of our beloved East. The East, in the words of Pope Pius XI speaking of Islam, is " The East which prays". It is well known that in our Churches liturgical prayer has always been the living setting within which succeeding generations have transmitted the deposit of faith. It is here that our Churches have formed and developed the faith in the hearts of the faithful. On the other hand, prayer in its different forms is the preeminent aspect of Christian presence. If it is associated with social commitment, nourishing it and being nourished by it, it expresses the true image of the believer, who is spiritually charged in the presence of his Lord, and finds the energy needed for action and commitment in the different areas of life. Our land is the land of the historical dialogue between God and mankind. This dialogue is continued and renewed through every community in dialogue with its Lord. From the clear waters of this dialogue it draws its strength and spiritual identity. At this point, we cannot overlook the wave of prayer spreading throughout the Church. This revival has deep roots within our ancient spiritual patrimony, and we are called upon to give them greater life, make them more active. The phenomenon to which we have referred has given birth to many prayer groups within our Churches. We wish to encourage them to draw on our own spiritual heritage, and actively to participate in the life of the Church and her spiritual renewal.

Anchoretism and penance

25. The feature that corresponds to the presence of prayer in our Eastern patrimony is the presence of anchoretism, expressed in the different forms of monastic life, and in the asceticism practised by the ordinary faithful. This type of Christian life, moreover, flourished and developed in the East. It continues to be an outstanding witness to the vitality of the Christian faith in our lands and throughout the world. In Arab history, the monasteries have constituted a specific reference point for the recognition of Christianity, as witnessed to by the ancient Arab literature. At present, the trials which beset our peoples from all sides recall that life is a spiritual combat which elevates the soul, purifying it by giving the courage to meet all difficulties. Asceticism enables the believer to contemplate creation and history with a spirit freed from all passion. It helps him to make his presence in the world of today positive and effective. Hence, we are called on to encourage the anchorite life in our Churches, as the vanguard of the Christian presence and of the Gospel witness in our countries. It likewise demands from us that we adopt the basic Gospel values represented by the anchorite life, livingin accordance with these values, which support us in our earthly progress and make our presence a living sign of the Kingdom .

III. An Incarnate presence Christ Incarnate

26. The Incarnation is at the heart of our Christian faith: He came down from heaven and by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man (Symbol of Faith). John expresses this divine fact in his Gospel when he says, " In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (Jn 1:1;14). The Letter to the Hebrews echoes this sentiment: Now since the children share in the blood and flesh he likewise shared in them... therefore, he had to become like his brothers in every way (Heb 2:14-17). The human nature which our God and Lord assumed in the Incarnation is not an imaginary nature. It is a true nature with all its density and components (except for sin), with everything that pertains to it as individual, social and cultural characteristics. As a result, the mystery of the Incarnation is the basis and model for the Christian community in its earthly pilgrimage. It must therefore influence pastoral activity at all levels and in all areas.

The Incarnate Church

27. The incarnation of the Church is one aspect of the mystery of the incarnate Christ. The Church is a divine and human reality, living in time and space, with all that this implies as regards historical, geographical, social and cultural conditioning. The Church is rooted in this tangible human reality to which she owes her visible features and particular character. It has obvious repercussions for the way in which she lives her voca- tion and mission, hic et nunc (here and now). The mediation of this incarnation is ensured by the particular Churches, for the "Church" toto orbe diffusa' ( spread to the whole world) would become a mere abstraction unless it assumed body and life in the individual Churches" (Paul Vl. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, n.62). It is in the particular Churches that the one holy catholic and apostle in Church of Christ is truly present and active (Decree on the Pastoral Mission of Bishops, n.ll). The Church is presence, and this presence is accomplished by means of the particular Churches when they are incarnate in the world of the real man, a man speaking this or that language. Each will have its own cultural heritage its own outlook on the world its own historical memories, its own human foundations (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n.62). Evangelization will lose much of its power and efficacy if it does not take into consideration the people to whom it is addressed, if it does not make use of their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not offer an answer to the questions which are relevant to them if in a word it does not reach and influence their way of life (ibid., n.63). All this, of course, on condition that the proclamation is not emptied of content or altered. This kind of incarnation is one of the requirements for the universality of the Church. It can only truly bear fruit if the particular Churches maintain a deep and living communion of faith with the universal Church (cf Ibid., n.64).

The heritage of the East

28. Here one should take note of the fact that our Churches in the East have throughout history shown a remarkable ability for this kind of adaptation, which has given birth to many different civilizations and heritages, enriching the common patrimony of the Church and of human culture. This heritage was mentioned by the Vatican Council ll, which praised its richness, and declared it to be a treasure for the whole Church (cf. Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, n. 1;5; etc.). Cultural variety such as this remains alive in the Eastern Churches. They are illuminated by it and communicate its light. In it they find inspiration to face up to the contemporary challenges of cultures and civilizations. In this respect, we can only encourage those initiatives dedicated to renewing this heritage, translating it, studying it and purifying it, and making it accessible to all, so that it nourishes the Christian memory of our lands, and can meet the challenges of the present and the calls of the future. May our common heritage be made more available to the faithful of our different Churches, giving us pride in it and instructing us in it. It is one of the vital sources of our faith and of our Christian life.

Incarnation in the Arabic Language

29.The interaction of our Churches with different civilizations has never ceased, but has rather maintained an ever-renewed vitality throughout the succeeding generations and periods of history in our region. Mention must be made of the cultural vitality that has been a characteristic of our Churches since the Arab conquest. The different Eastern Churches have not been onlookers or prisoners of bygone days. They have made the effort to express themselves in accordance with the new cultural conditions. The Arabic language has gradually entered the different areas of liturgical, intellectual and daily life. In this way our Churches have successfully crossed this historic threshold, in spite of all the difficulties. They have received their letters of credence and become inseparable partners in the development of civilization in this part of the world. The commonplace that claims that " The Arabic language has refused to be christianized and Christianity has refused to be Arabized" is, in the light of all the evidence, historically false.

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