Pope Benedict XVI signed on September 14 a document that draws together the conclusions from the 2010 synod of Catholic bishops on the Middle East,. It also brings together his own reflections and exhortations for the region. Entitled 'Ecclesia in Medio Oriente' - The Church of the Middle East - the document is a summary document drawn up following a meeting of bishops called a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. The current document is 86 pages long and picks up the theme from the 2010 synod, focusing on "communion and witness."
The pontiff divided the reflection into three parts, with an introduction and conclusion. The various sections are titled as follows:
Part 1: “We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers” (1 Th 1:2)
-- The context
-- The Christian and ecumenical life
-- Interreligious dialogue
-- Two new realities [secularization and a violent fundamentalism claiming to be based on religion]
Part 2: "The company of those who believed were of one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32)
-- Priests, deacons and seminarians
-- The consecrated life
-- The laity
-- The family
-- Young people and children
Part 3: “We proclaim ... a crucified Christ ... the power and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24)
-- The word of God, soul and source of communion and witness
-- The liturgy and sacramental life
-- Prayer and pilgrimages
-- Evangelization and charity: the Church’s mission
-- Catechesis and Christian formation
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Regarding ecumenism in the region, marked by a significant variety of Churches and rites, the Holy Father made a strong appeal, encouraging both spiritual ecumenism and ecumenism of service. He also noted: "For a renewed ecumenical pastoral outreach in view of common witness, it is helpful to have a clear understanding of the Council’s openness to a certain 'communicatio in sacris' for the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick; this is not only possible but even to be commended in some situations, in accordance with specific norms and with the approval of the ecclesiastical authorities."
Reflecting on interreligious dialogue, the Pontiff reiterated a point he has often defended, regarding the deep bond between Judaism and Christianity.
In this case, he mentioned the two religions' common contribution to culture.
Despite the "tragic situations" of conflict and persecution between Jews and Christians, the Pontiff writes, "the interplay between both communities over the centuries proved so fruitful that it contributed to the birth and expansion of the civilization and culture commonly known as Judeo-Christian. It is as if these two worlds, claiming to be different or opposed for various reasons, had decided to unite in offering humanity a noble alloy. This relationship, which both unites and separates Jews and Christians, ought to open both groups to a new sense of responsibility for and with one another. For both peoples have received the same blessing and the eternal promises which enable them to advance trustingly towards fraternity."
Regarding secularization and violent fundamentalism that claims to be based on religion, the Bishop of Rome offered an outline for a true separation of Church and state, religion and politics.
"Some Middle Eastern political and religious leaders, whatever their community, tend to look with suspicion upon secularity (laïcité) as something intrinsically atheistic or immoral," he writes. "It is true that secularity sometimes reduces religion to a purely private concern, seeing personal or family worship as unrelated to daily life, ethics or one’s relationships with others. In its extreme and ideological form, secularity becomes a secularism which denies citizens the right openly to express their religion and claims that only the State can legislate on the public form which religion may take. These theories are not new. Nor are they confined to the West or to be confused with Christianity."
But taking up the now familiar call for a "healthy secularity," the Pontiff says that this attitude "frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres. No society can develop in a healthy way without embodying a spirit of mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds. The basis of a constructive relationship between politics and religion is, first and foremost, human nature – a sound understanding of man – and full respect for inalienable human rights. A sense of this correct relationship should lead to the realization that relations between the spiritual (religious) and the temporal (political) spheres should be marked by a kind of unity in distinction, inasmuch as both are called, while remaining distinct, to cooperate harmoniously in the service of the common good. This kind of healthy secularity ensures that political activity does not manipulate religion, while the practice of religion remains free from a politics of self-interest which at times is barely compatible with, if not downright contrary to, religious belief. For this reason, a healthy secularity, embodying unity in distinction, is necessary and even vital for both spheres."
As expected, Benedict XVI addresses one of the main concerns for Christian communities in the Middle East: the mass emigration of Christians in search of a safer, more stable and promising future.
While acknowledging the difficulties faced by Middle Eastern Christians, the Pope expresses his hope that the situation of the region can become favorable for them, defusing the pressure to flee their native land.
"A Middle East without Christians, or with only a few Christians," he warns, "would no longer be the Middle East, since Christians, together with other believers, are part of the distinctive identity of the region."
Women and children
The Pope also takes up the issue of women's rights in the Middle East.
"I want to assure all women that the Catholic Church, in fidelity to God’s plan, works to advance women’s personal dignity and equality with men in response to the wide variety of forms of discrimination which they experience simply because they are women," he writes. "Such practices seriously harm the life of communion and witness. They gravely offend not only women but, above all, God the Creator. In recognition of their innate inclination to love and protect human life, and paying tribute to their specific contribution to education, healthcare, humanitarian work and the apostolic life, I believe that women should play, and be allowed to play, a greater part in public and ecclesial life.In this way they will be able to make their specific contribution to building a more fraternal society and a Church whose beauty is ever more evident in the genuine communion existing among the baptized."
The apostolic exhortation also has a special message for children and youth.
"Do not be afraid or ashamed to be a Christian," the Pope tells them. "Your relationship with Jesus will help you to cooperate generously with your fellow citizens, whatever their religious affiliation, so as to build the future of your countries on human dignity, which is the source and foundation of freedom, and on equality and on peace in justice."
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