Small consolations

Like Simpson’s donkey, small consolations can sometimes be seen through the smoke of war. In the midst of the divisions in Iraq and the region, there have been reconciliations in the even more ancient divisions of churches.The Roman Catholic Church has approved a small but notable form of hospitality between the divided churches of the East.

The dominant religion in Iraq is Islam. But among its population are also Christians with a history that stretches behind the rise of Islam.

In the early years of Christianity, Persia was the great kingdom that Rome could never master. Although Christians found their way there very early, the church in Persia grew significantly in the 5th century. Christians from Antioch fled there after being vilified as heretical in a bitter dispute about the nature of Jesus Christ. The history of the Assyrian church is rich and little known in the West: monuments along the trading routes testify to the Christian communities stretching into the heart of China.

In the 16th century, a section of this church was reconciled with the Roman church, and became known as the Chaldaean church. Both it and the Assyrian Church had their own places of worship and ministers, and neither church’s members received the sacraments from the other group.

The recent dispersal around the world of more than half a million Christians of both churches has disrupted this separate existence. In the places where they settle, they are lucky to find a community of either church, let alone churches from both communities. The only way in which many can worship in their own way is by sharing in the liturgy of the other church.

After Vatican II, this step was accepted as normal for Western Catholics and Eastern Christians caught in similar circumstances. But hospitality between the Chaldaean and Assyrian churches raised questions of boundaries for the Roman Catholic church. It had to revisit convictions that had seemed unshakeable.

The difficulty lay in the Eucharistic prayer of Addai and Mari, used from the beginning by the Assyrian church. This prayer does not include the narrative of what Jesus did at the Last Supper. As a result, it omits Jesus’ words, ‘This is my Body and This is my Blood’. According to Western theology, grounded in one of the medieval Councils, it is through these words that Christ becomes present in the Eucharist. So, on the face of it, the Assyrian Eucharist was fatally flawed at its heart.

But hospitality stretches boundaries. On the grounds of the antiquity of the prayer and of the Assyrian church, the Roman church encouraged the isolated Chaldeans to share the sacraments with Assyrian Christians when appropriate.

This seems a small concession. But it is large in its implications. The readiness to see heresy in difference of outlook and practice created the divisions between the Assyrian and other churches. Hospitality led to a better appreciation of the blessings of difference. The principle has broader relevance.                                                                                     

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

 

 

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