Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Melkite Catholic Patriarch Yusuf al-Absi on the Zoghby Initiative and Orthodox-Catholic Relations

Arabic original here. My translation is, of course, unofficial, but I think is necessary because of the importance of this speech as a response to Patriarch John X's speech at Balamand last October and for Patriarch Absi's very clear statement that from his perspective "in dogma and canon law, we are Catholics, and in liturgy and sacramental life we are Byzantines", quite different from the vision of "Orthodox in communion with Rome" sometimes promoted among followers of the late Metropolitan Elias Zoghby.

The Speech of His Beatitude Yusuf in Honor of Metropolitan Yusuf al-Klas

Sunday, April 7, 2024

al-Liqa' Centre, Rabwa, Lebanon

My speech today at this gathering in honor of His Eminence, the beloved brother and father Yusuf al-Klas, former metropolitan of Beirut, Jbeil and the dependencies for the Melkite Catholics, centers on the book that he has worked for months to prepare together with the Rev Basilian Fr Nicholas Bustros under the supervision of the Rev Fr Gabi Hachem, which was published about a week ago with the title The Effort for Fraternal Reconiciliation in Antioch: History and an Analysis of the Initiative of the Melkite Greek Catholic Synod, 1996-1997. The book and my speech are thus both abut the initiative that was born in the mind and heart of His Eminence Metropolitan Elias Zoghby, of thrice-blessed memory, which was adopted by our church's synod and proposed to the Synod of the Byzantine Antiochian Orthodox Church.

The initiative that we are discussing is, in short, for the Melkite Catholics to belong at the same time to the Catholic Church and to the Byzantine Antiochian Orthodox Church, for them to have a double affiliation, such that the desired unity between them and the Greek Orthodox takes place while they remain in communion with the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, they did not precisely or finally define how this affiliation would be in practice and how it would be arranged, remaining content to make some observations.

The initiative was launched with a declaration of faith agreed upon by Metropolitan Elias Zoghby and Metropolitan Georges Khodr, according to what Metropolitan Cyril Bustros says (p. 7). The declaration, on the part of the Greek Catholics says: "First, I believe in everything that the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches. And second, I am in communion with the Bishop of Rome, within the limits confessed by the holy fathers of the East as first among bishops during the first millennium and before the schism" (i.e., in 1054).

Discussion of this initiative as it was formulated above, what happened after its announcement, its progress and its conclusion would be very lengthy. The time allotted now and the circumstance do not permit it and it can be found in the book. I will content myself with making a few observations from within the initiative and a few from outside it.

1. Observations from outside the Initiative

1.1 Those who elected Cyril Tanas most likely did not intend or have in mind that they were splitting from the Antiochian Church and establishing a parallel or substitute church. Instead, they thought they were doing what had been done after the death of a patriarch, that they were electing a new patriarch and consequently that the Patriarchate of Antioch would continue as usual, even if they were inclined toward unity with the Apostolic See of Rome. They also were not thinking that Constantinople would appoint another patriarch. Likewise, Constantinople, when it appointed Sylvester as patriarch for Antioch, most likely did not think that the new patriarch, Cyril Tanas, would persist and that other patriarchs would succeed him. Thus, it did not think that a new church would emerge in parallel to the existing Antiochian Orthodox Church, since there was more than one precedent for there being two patriarchs in the history of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

1.2 Our church continued in this manner, as an apostolic church-- that is, its head going back to the Apostles Peter and Paul, founders of the Church of Antioch-- and over the past three centuries it has done much good and great things. It has had an ecclesiastical, civil, social, cultural, literary, scientific and spiritual presence on various levels, inasmuch as it has had and continued to have illustrious members, prominent people nationally and globally in every field. What has distinguished our church, and continues to do so, over the course of its history is that it is an open church that transcends everything that seeks to limit it, hold it back, or cause it to isolate itself, shrink back, or reject the other. It is a church whose children belong to it without being chauvinistic about it, a church of dialogue and encounter that builds bridges and does not erect walls, a "universal" church, as we describe the Church in general in our Creed.

1.3 We wonder whether Patriarch Tanas and the movement for union that was with him, when they requested that the See of Rome recognize them-- and recognition means communion-- were clearly aware as to whether this communion was with Peter or under Peter. Did they believe that the Patriarchate of Antioch would remain as it had been with the See of Rome, that is, as between equals? The position of Patriarch Gregorius Yusuf at the First Vatican Council gives the impression that the answer is yes, that communion in their view was, until that council, between equals. But it seems that in the end Patriarch Gregorius Yusuf affirmed the acts of the council and it has become clear that communion in the view of the Roman See is between a leader and those led.

2. Observations from within the Initiative

2.1 The initiative taken by the Melkite Greek Catholics was, in short, that we Melkite Greek Catholics be in communion with the Antiochian Greek Orthodox and the See of Rome at the same time. We reconcile, in our opinion, our eastern, Antiochian Byzantine identity and our communion with the Church of Rome. In my opinion, this initiative was incorrect from its very beginning because the solution is not in our hands alone, but also in the hands of the Orthodox and the Catholics. It is a trilateral solution that requres the agreement of the three sides. Those who called it an emotional initiative, fated not to succeed, were correct. The proof is that the Orthodox set their conditions and we were led toward them on the one hand. Fr Gabi Hachem says, "The striking new thing in Metropolitan Zoghby's discourse is his adoption of the Orthodox position" (p. 105). The proof is also that on the other hand the See of Rome is the one that imposed its opinion and we submitted to it. Fr Gabi Hachem says, "[This See] stressed that the Greek Catholic Church is in full communion with the Catholic Church and that the plan for dual communion is incompatible with it" (p. 103). Thus we found ourselves between two options: either the Greek Orthodox or Rome. We preferred to retreat, since perhaps we had not realized that and were not yet capable of declaring where we wanted to position ourselves, since perhaps we were struggling between two identities. Did Metropolitan Zoghby and so also our church's synod not know this and realize that their initiative to put a foot on one side and a foot on the other would lead to a dead end? The Rev Fr Gabi Hachem says, "Metropolitan Zoghby was not versed in the details of theological matters" and "Metropolitan Zoghby's declaration of faith in a dual communion was a personal declaration not based on theological data" (pp. 102-103). Metropolitan Georges Khodr expressed the theological impediment when he stated in general, "We cannot enter into communion with a church that has completely Catholic dogma" (p. 58).

2.2 The failure of the initiative was expressed in strong terms by Metropolitan Klas: "the termination of Metropolitan Zoghby's initiative" and also "the collapse of the initiative" because both the opposing sides in dialogue with us held fast to their position in a way that caused some to describe the solution as impossible and which caused Metropolitan Cyril Bustros to conclude that "Our step was perhaps hasty, but it showed us that the great distance that separates us from our Antiochian Greek Orthodox brothers remains great" (p. 86). He adds, "Therefore I propose to turn our efforts toward meetings between the Catholic churches and the Orthodox churches in the east and to leave the issue of reuniting the Patriarchate of Antioch until after a comprehensive union is announced between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches" (p. 86). This is also the position of the Orthodox Church, as explained by Metropolitan Georges Khodr when he said, "The Church of Antioch cannot unilaterally reconcile with the Catholics in isolation from the Orthodox of the world. The reconciliation of the Orthodox Church requires the reconciliation of all the world's Orthodox" (p. 52). Moreover, Metropolitan Khodr adds that the reconciliation of the Greek Catholics cannot take place individually, without the reconciliation of all the Eastern Catholic churches, because these churches have a single faith and a single canon law, placing them all on the same side of the scale.

2.3 In its failure, this initiative once again raised the issue of our church's identity. In fact, the initiative for "fraternal reconciliation in Antioch" was nothing other than an attempt to define a new identity and role for us as Greek Catholics, perhaps because we still feel that we are not at ease in our situation, even after three hundred years. But the attempt failed because the identity that we dreamed of was greater than the reality. For this reason, the other characterized our initiative as being ambiguous. Metropolitan Georges Khodr says, "What is required of the Greek Catholics is to move past the fog and explain Orthodox dogma to their people," revealing that "the fusion of the two churches is a serious matter requiring a great deal of care. Unity cannot take place arbitrarily. There are differences that must be resolved" (p. 56). I believe that the issue of our position was settled from the time that we restored union with the Church of Rome, but perhaps we do not want to say it explicitly: in dogma and canon law, we are Catholics, and in liturgy and sacramental life we are Byzantines. We wanted, in all sincerity, to be a bridge, but in reality from the very beginning we planted our feet on the Western side. This is what the Orthodox Church believes, as indicated by His Beatitude Patriarch John X in his speech at the international academic conference held at Balamand on October 16, 2023, when he said, "Fraternally, I leave it to those who departed from us and joined the West, in accordance with an agreement that allowed them to preserve their rituals and maintain their patriarchal system, to evaluate the results of their choice."

2.4 The unity of the Byzantine Antiochian Church is the demand and desire of both sides and effort toward it is being made by both sides. Both sides welcomed the initiative to realize it. Our Orthodox brothers continue to desire it and work towards it. As His Beatitude Patriarch Yazigi stated at the closing of his speech mentioned above, "It is our hope that this conference will add to the foundations we have put in place in order to restore unity and harmony between our church and the Rum Catholic Church." We have failed, but the failure will not put an end to the hope that unity will occur, whether at the level of the Patriarchate of Antioch or at the level of the international committee for dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

3. Conclusion

3.1 "An Effort for Fraternal Reconciliation in Antioch". This is what Metropolitan Yusuf al-Klas wanted to title his book. Indeed, our church has worked and made initiatives along the lines that Patriarch Maximus IV al-Sayegh, of blessed memory, spoke about around sixty years ago when he said from the Vatican, "For many of the world's bishops, the union of the churches might be an important and lively dilemma, but they only feel it theoretically. As for us, the wound of separation is something that we feel acutely and constantly...The issue of unity is our greatest concern, the first of our tasks, and the deepest desire of our heart. It is the goal we aim for with every fiber of our soul... It seems to us that the effort for the unity of the churches is the cause of our existence and the primary mission that divine providence has placed upon us, collectively and individually" (al-Masarra 1967, p. 744). 

3.2 The initiative did not succeed, but hope remains. Reconciliation shall remain our goal until it happens. Our church's initiative was doomed, but there is another option available today, as it seems from reading the book that both sides have come to hope will bear fruit and outside of which neither side shows any effort toward reconciliation, at least at the present time and in response to the initiative. This is the global theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches. This option, for us Melkite Greek Catholics, means a reorientation. Until today, we counted ourselves as interlocutors between the Catholic and Orthodox sides and we said of this dialogue that we were the bridge that connects them. But the failure of the initiative in the way that it happened blocked the path and posed questions for us that we should not be afraid to put a finger on now: Does this failure threaten our mission? Do we remain suspended over the bridge that we have built? Has the time not come for us to plant our feet on this or that side of the river?

3.3 In the effort to regain our unity, the effort for reconciliation, we can blaze more than one trail. Thus there was the proposal of the Catholic theological commission that met in Jerusalem on October 1, 1996, advising effort and progress at the moment along a local, pastoral path "which concerns the easterners in their daily life ... to engage in ecumenical activity, to turn theological understandings (as in the Balamand Declaration, for example) to practical applications that appear on the ground. Therefore, the dialogue of life and pastoral care must progress to the greatest degree possible and in a bold and realistic manner. Realizing these practical applications, if they take place between the two churches, will be a strong factor for advancing the ecumenical movement on the global level" (p. 73). We add that it is perhaps also possible for us to have joint activities such as studies about Antiochian identity and its distinctive features.

3.4 After what became of our church's initiative, Metropolitan Yusuf al-Klas states that Metropolitan Elias Zoghby, the author of the initiative, took the opportunity to say at the the meeting of our church's synod in July 1996, "In any case, Christian history will preserve about the Church of Antioch, which was always a byword for reconciliation, cooperation and peacemaking, that it refused for the second millennium of Chrisitian history to come to a close while the burden of the schism between the Christian East and West weighed down upon the entire Church, and that it once worked to solve the dilemma by removing it, inasmuch as it made an initiative to restore unity to the Antiochian Church" (p. 88).

4. Postscript

In closing, it remains for me to thank the brother and father, Metropolitan Yusuf and the Rev Frs Gabi Hachem and Nicholas Bustros for publishing this valuable book since the "initiative" that the book is about is covered from every aspect, from the cradle to the grave, from its opening to its closing, not leaving any room for anyone who wants to add to it, which makes the book a precious resource for researchers, who do not need any other resource for everything pertaining to this initiative, not only with regard to the presentation of its history, but also with regard to commenting on it, explaining it, and expressing opinions about it.

I will permit myself at this celebration that we are holding for His Eminence Metropolitan Yusuf to wound his humility and single him out with warm thanks on behalf of myself and of our entire church for what he has offered to our church and for his spotless priestly and episcopal career. He has offered a great many works in various fields that many of us know about. In particular, he has offered us a model of how to be a priest in the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostle Paul. Innocence, purity, zeal, humility, impartiality, effort, precision, conscience, determination, love, listening, silence, hiddenness... Abouna Yusuf is a school where many have learned and grown up, and I have had the grace myself to be among them. Thanks be to God who has given him to the Church. May the like of him multiply. 

Abouna Yusuf, thank you. May God give you perfect health and prolong your life.


William Tighe said...

Reading this brought to my mind a vague recollection from the 1990s. Wasn't there another similar "initiative" to bring about some sort of quasi-union between the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the Syriac (miaphysite) Patriarchate of Antioch involving some sort of "sacramental hospitality" that fell short of "full communion," and that this was shot down by the EP?

I've searched this afternoon online for anything about this matter, and have found nothing, so perhaps I'm hallucinating.

Samn! said...

You're probably thinking of this:

I don't recall Constantinople having any official comments about it, but it doesn't seem to have ever been implemented except maybe in some rare situations in Syria wrt godparents and sharing church facilities.

Tudor Precup said...

Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church,
which is His Body.
One head cannot have more than one body,
The Chruch is there
where the ALL THE TRUTH (dogmatical and canonical) is preserved.
The truth is fixed by the 9 Holy Ecumenical Synods through the Holy Fathers.
Outside of the truth, everything is heresy and heretics. Be aware, there can be heretics in
the church, until they are condemned by a synod. We are not allowed to pray with them.