Vatican City (AsiaNews) – This is an extraordinary plenary assembly of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, on the occasion of the centenary of its founding (May 1, 1917). The celebrations join with those of the Pontifical Oriental Institute (PIO), set up in turn on October 15, 1917. The official initiatives to remember these dates will culminate tomorrow morning, October 12, when Pope Francis will go to visit the Institute , along with patriarchs and metropolitans of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Pontiff will end the encounter with a solemn liturgy in the adjacent basilica of Saint Mary Major, where in 867 the saints Cyril and Methodius, patrons of Europe, delivered liturgical books created in their new Slavic language to Pope Niccolò I.
It was then that Europe acquired its most eastern soul, thanks to the “Catholic” breath of the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, which for the occasion gave an extraordinary testimony of unity. In spite of divergences already widely expressed, the Slavic mission was able to make up the differences not only in language and ethnicity, but also of the Latin and Byzantine rite and of the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Church’s “two lungs”.
In this extraordinary coincidence of anniversaries, the current pontiff seems to re-open the experience of mutual reception and communion among peoples and cultures, which represents the very essence of Christianity and the Catholic mission. The Church has had to bridge many other divisions in the second Christian millennium, beginning with the schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, only formally overcome during the Second Vatican Council: in 1964, Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus of Constantinople abolished the ancient excommunications. But unity is still far from being fully restored. The Christian East remains an open question for Catholics.
The great treasure of the Eastern Churches
The foundation of the Congregation for Oriental Churches is one of the great responses to the “Eastern Question”, after many attempts at reconciliation proved fruitless. It cares for the numerous Churches born precisely as a result of those attempts, often called “uniate” in reference to the “Unio”, that is, the Union proclaimed by the Council of Florence in 1439. Then all the Churches adhered to the re-constitution of universal unity of the Orthodox Churches of Byzantine tradition, and also the Armenian Church, signing its decrees. Unfortunately, the unity remained on paper, swept away by the tragic events that brought almost the entire orthodox world to the long night of submission to the Ottoman Empire, with the exception of the Russians.
Today, the about twenty Catholic Churches su iuris refer to Congregation, organized according to the criteria of the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (CCEO, approved in 1990 by John Paul II thanks to the work of the canonists of the PIO). The most important and churches of Byzantine tradition in terms of numbers include the Ukrainian, Slovak, Hungarian and other Balkan Churches, the Melchicus Church of the Middle East, up to Italo-Albanians in Calabria and Sicily. There are also many other Churches, such as the Armenian “Mechitarist” and many Syriac Churches, such as the Maronites (the only Eastern Church formed only by Catholics without Orthodox members), the Chaldeans of Iraq and the Malabars of India the most numerous, along with the Ukrainians), the Cypriots of Alexandrian origin and others. It is a universe rich in liturgical, theological, artistic and spiritual treasures, often unknown to the Latin Church in the rest of the world. The ancient and recent diasporas have led many faithful of these Churches to live alongside the Latins in many countries, often with integration problems, but also with great potential for mutual enrichment and testimony.
The East: peripheries or center?
A few months after the founding of the Congregation, and a few days before the October Revolution in Russia, the PIO was opened to provide the tools to gain knowledge of many Eastern Christian traditions. Initially entrusted to the Benedictines (the first rector was Abbot Ildefonso Schuster, later Archbishop of Milan), since 1920 the Institute has been under the care of the Jesuits along with the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, but it also receives the contribution of other religious congregations, diocesan priests and lay specialists from every part of the world. His mission remains current even today, precisely in light of the many events that continue to upset the ancient Churches of the Middle East and many other parts of the world.
Oriental and Orthodox Catholics, clerics and lay people are study at the PIO, united by the wish to preserve and renew the memory of so many different traditions. The presence of Pope Francis gives new impetus to this mission: today the East is often considered “periphery” of the universal Church, although it is actually its “center” of origin, and in its lands there are conflicts and revolutions that are largely at the origin of migratory crises (the endless war in Syria). The Eastern Christians have for centuries been immersed in the universe of Islamic majority peoples, suffered intolerance and persecution, but have also often produced extraordinary models of mutual coexistence and understanding, from which we should all be able to draw.