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The Host’s Imperative: Pastoral Care to Eastern Christians in Western Countries

27.08.2014, 14:28

The last year has been a tumultuous one for Christians in the Eastern world. When Ukrainian protests against the Kremlin puppet-government began in November of 2013, the world’s attention stayed fixed on developments in Kyiv for some time after. Indeed, Putin’s imperial designs have determined that the situation in Ukraine has remained so volatile, the eyes and ears of the media have hardly had a chance to stray. From the invasion of the Crimea to the subversive war being waged on the Eastern side of the country, the world has been exposed to aspects of Ukrainian life it has never before seen or known. This includes the Ukrainian Church. Central to the story of Euromaidan was the work of heroic priests and religious praying, counselling, hearing confessions, and tending to the injured and dying. Then in Crimea, Archbishop Klyment standing before the gates of a Ukrainian military base in defiance against the invaders drew people’s attention. Finally, these last months have witnessed the surreal accusations of the Patriarch of Moscow that ‘Uniates’ are intent on eradicating Orthodoxy from Ukraine, amidst physical attacks on those who are not Russian Orthodox, and so given those who had previously known nothing of Christianity in the land of St Wolodymyr the impression of a Church in turmoil.

Since June, of course, even these momentous events have been largely overshadowed by the coverage given to the so-called Islamic State (IS) and the unspeakable atrocities that have been unfolding across Syria and Iraq in the wake of its rise. In this case, even the press, usually disinterested in matters of faith, cannot help but to have noticed that the victims have largely (though not exclusively) been Christians, representing a number of ancient communities across the Middle East including the Chaldeans, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholics, Antiochian Greek Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholics, Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholics, and the Assyrian and Ancient Churches of the East.

Together, then,and for the most tragic of possible reasons, this means that almost the entire spectrum of Eastern Christianity is on display to Christians in the West; and if Western Christians are to live up to their responsibilities,it also means that, whether they like it or not, they have an obligationto respond. The question is: how?

It is reasonable to expect that, as the Eastern brethren flee the Middle East, we in countries like the UK, Canada, the USA, Germany, and any number of other Western states, will end up hosting many thousands of them as they attempt to build new lives. In light of this, it seems to me that it is incumbent on those of us fortunate enough to live in these countries already, to do whatever we can to understand where these people have come from: both culturally and spiritually. This would be a first step in responding.

The Second Vatican Council’s decree concerning the Eastern Churches, EcclesiarumOrientalium(EO), makes it clear that the Western Church (by which is meant specifically the Roman Catholic Church, but to which we might append all communities derived from the Roman Catholic Church) is not complete in herself if she fails to account for the Eastern Churches. Importantly, the document goes on to say that, ‘All members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life…’, which only emphasises just how boldly Eastern Christians should go about their practice of the Faith wherever circumstances take them. Yet as it bears on the responsibility of the West, EOalso states that ‘Those who, by reason of their office or apostolic ministries, are in frequent communication with the Eastern Churches or their faithful should be instructed according as their office demands in the knowledge and veneration of the rites, discipline, doctrine, history and character of the members of the Eastern rites.’ In other words, the Second Vatican Council envisages nothing less than that Christians in the West should be well-versed in the life of the Eastern Churches.

The seventh century saw comparable movement of Christians from East to West, as the rise of Islam saw formerly Christian regions, such as Mesopotamia and Syria, become almost entirely overrun with the new religion, and refugees seek out safe places in which to live, such as Constantinople and Rome. In fact, the Italian peninsula at that time was home to Latin, Greek, and Syrian monasteries alike. That this is so illustrates what is possible with respect to Western accommodation. Greek, Syrian, and other Christians need not – and indeed, should not – be assimilated. On the contrary, they should be encouraged in their faith and traditions, and looked to as fonts of a different wisdom: an ancient, apostolic wisdom that the West often forgets. For ultimately, this is precisely the model we see in the Church until the tragic, and in some respects at least, complete, parting of the ways between East and West after the eighth century.

 EO goes a long way towards addressing the rift between the apostolic Churches, but contemporary events are crying out in way they have not since that document was written, for the Latin West to put it into practice. In the UK, the USA, Canada, and every other country of the Western world where Latin traditions hold sway, bishops, priests, deacons, lay people, those in ministry of any kind at all, have both an opportunity and an obligation to serve as good hosts to the incoming Easterners, whatever their Rite or Church. I suggest in the strongest possible terms that they can do this best by understanding who it is that is entering into their midst, what these people bring with them and what they can offer, and then by doing everything possible to make sure that, although tragedy may have seen them leave their homes, they can begin again with their faith intact. Anything less would be inhospitable, and do violence to peoples who have already suffered enough.

Fr. James Siemens