The other aspect of the ad extra mission of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is its role in the ecumenical journey towards Christian unity.
Our Church has always been conscious of this role. The history of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch, in full communion for close on three hundred years with the Church of Rome that “presides in love,” has been marked by many vexations. In particular, it has had to live in the catacombs for about one hundred and thirty years. Indeed, we are a Church of martyrs and confessors of the faith, especially in Lebanon and Syria. There are, standing before you, Most Holy Father, descendants of martyrs.
These were martyrs for unity, martyrs of communion with Rome, that communion which was, and still is for us, an historic, existential choice for commitment, that is both effectual and emotional, a definitive and irreversible constituent of glory and humility.
However, that communion with Rome does not separate us from our Orthodox ecclesial reality. We say this with profound humility, a deep ecumenical awareness and a touch of humour: we are an Orthodox Catholic Church.
Nearly nine centuries ago, a Patriarch of Antioch, Peter III, prefigured this role: few are aware of his courageous reaction at the time of the dispute between Patriarch Michael Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert of Silva-Candida, which caused the schism of 1054. His mediatory letter to Patriarch Cerularius closes with a plea, in a very “ecumenical” tone, “With all my strength, I appeal to Your Holiness not to enter upon this business with the spirit of contention. Otherwise, it is to be feared that in wishing to mend the tear you may enlarge it. Think carefully: could not all the current misfortunes, all the troubles which ravage kingdoms, all calamities, plagues and famines that devastate our towns and countryside, all the defeats of our troops, stem from this, I mean this long separation, this misunderstanding of our Church with the Apostolic See? Let the Latins correct their Creed, and I’ll ask for nothing more, even discarding as a matter of indifference the question of unleavened bread.”
That is the role played by our predecessors, Gregorios II Youssef-Sayyour at the First Vatican Council, and Maximos IV Sayegh at Vatican II, with the pleiad of members of our Hierarchy.
That role is very apparent in several documents and decrees of Vatican II, and in the institutions originating in and promoted by that Council: Episcopal Conferences, the Synod of Bishops, liturgical reform, ecumenism…
Patriarch Athenagoras, of blessed memory, thanked my predecessor Maximos IV for having spoken in his name at the Council. And Maximos IV replied: “Every time I spoke at the Council, I thought of you.”
Most Holy Father, the ecumenical role of our Church is founded on this long Antiochian tradition, on our ecclesial experience of communion with the Church of Rome. We feel that it is an imperative duty and an essential part of the reality of our Church that is fully Eastern and in full communion with the See of Peter.
This role is intended to be a contribution to the ecumenical movement, and to be humbly added to ecumenical efforts in the Roman Dicasteries and in the International Joint Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Our role is always to make ever present the great Absent One: Orthodoxy.
We are indeed rather the Eastern “enfant terrible” in communion with the Church of Rome. That was the goal of the initiative of the late Archbishop Elias Zoghby in 1996: to be in full communion with the Church of Rome and with Orthodoxy. That may be a dream, an Utopian vision, but it is also a prophetic vision.
We would like to live, in the very heart of the Catholic Church, a life that could be accepted by Orthodoxy. Let us do so, Most Holy Father. That is the key to all real progress along the ecumenical way. Accept us, Holy Father, as we are: Eastern Orthodox, who want to live our full and complete Eastern Orthodox tradition in full communion with Rome. That is the really big challenge for the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, as has been evident at every stage of the ecumenical dialogue since 1980 and especially at Belgrade and Ravenna.
For all that, Most Holy Father, we need your prayer, your approbation and your blessing.