Mideast Churches in the International Spotlight

Rector of Pontifical Oriental Institute Reflects on Synod

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, OCT. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- One Holy See institution that took a particularly keen interest in the recent Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops was the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

Situated just a few steps away from the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, the Pontificium Institutum Studiorum Orientalium Ecclesiarum -- to give it its full Latin title -- is the premier center for the study of Eastern Christianity in Rome, founded by Benedict XV in 1917.

Post-graduate students, both religious and lay and from a wide variety of backgrounds, study for licentiates or doctorates in their dogmatic, liturgical, spiritual or canonical traditions. Most of them are members of the Eastern Catholic Churches, but also, in accordance with Benedict XV's ecumenical vision, some are from the Orthodox Churches.

"We strictly deal with the non-Latin rites of the Church, so from Ethiopia to India, the Middle East, the Slavic world, and the Byzantine tradition," explains the new rector of the institute, Chicago-born Jesuit, Father James McCann. "We're a locus for all the Christian Churches of East, and that is our great strength: Our students are quite diverse."

Many of the students are Indian or Ukrainian, but there are also Slovaks, Russians, Palestinians, Europeans, and even some Americans and Canadians. Often they reflect the rich diversity of culture and tradition in the Middle East. Greek Orthodox Palestinian Bishara Ebeid, for example, is a student who speaks Arabic, comes from an Arabic culture, studied at a Hebrew university, was born to a Maronite mother and a Greek Orthodox father, and has many friends who belong to the Greek Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. "It's very strange for others, but to me it's a treasure and a joy," he says.

Each student, regardless of their particular rite, is taught together with students of the other traditions, including the Orthodox. This has become a prized tradition of the institute, mainly because the Eastern Churches have historically struggled to be united among themselves -- a major concern also at the recent synod.

"Becoming accustomed to each other on a daily basis is an assurance that, in the future, they'll conduct themselves in a polite, if not fully compatible, fashion," says Father McCann. "That's a great strength of the place -- no other institute is charged with this focus."

Public relations

One of the priorities of Father McCann, who before taking up his appointment was head of the U.S. bishops' conference Office to Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe, is to try to raise greater awareness of the Eastern Churches. It was a point also made at the synod, as many Catholics in the West remain unaware of the various Eastern rites, with some mistaking them for the Orthodox, or having some association with the "Orient" and the Far East.

"When I was appointed, someone in my family said: 'But you don't know any Chinese.' So we have some work to do to make these churches better known -- even in Rome," says Father McCann. "Some people find it rather mysterious, so we're trying to open it up."

One aspect about the institute that differentiates it from other Pontifical universities in Rome is that, as marriage is permitted for priests in the Eastern Churches, quite a number of the students have wives and families. "Some of them are even under pressure to marry and won't be ordained until they marry," says Father McCann. "Their bishops will sometimes say: 'Find somebody!' -- it's something we're not accustomed to." But he adds that the financial burden is often not considered: "If you have married clergy in your parish, it's going to change your budget rather significantly, but no one seems to think about this."

The Pontifical Oriental Institute, which has almost always been run by the Jesuits, has had a number of illustrious alumni and faculty staff. Perhaps one of its best known alumnus is the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Also associated with "The Orientale," as it's commonly known, have been Cardinal Thomas Spidlik and the former superior general of the Society of Jesus, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

The respected Jesuit scholar of Islam, Father Samir Khalil Samir, has taught there since the early 1970s. For him the Institute is vital in teaching an "academic approach" to tradition, showing that it is something organic and subject to change. He notes that the Orthodox tradition has never changed -- "a strength but partly a defect" -- so the institute plays a role in helping them to develop it. He stresses that tradition "does not mean something perpetual, forever, but gives us a line to follow." This, he says, "opens ourselves up to new trends" and to "renew ourselves."

Father Samir and some of his colleagues played an active role in the synod while students assisted some of the patriarchs or sat in on some of the congregations. A key part of the discussions was how to help reassure the Eastern Churches they could come into closer communion without losing their identity. "It's a bit like the European Union, the fear of loss of identity," says Father McCann.

Emigration crisis

Other important themes, important to the institute's students, were the crisis of Christian emigration from the region, which affects some of the students personally, and what Father McCann says is the "huge contribution" the Eastern Churches can make to building peace in the region. There was also the question of patriarchal jurisdiction over those Eastern Church Catholics who have emigrated -- an issue apparently so complicated it is not even close to being resolved.

The institute's rector welcomes that the synod fathers urged Christian emigrants to retain their property and goods back home, a point mentioned in the final message. "They have never been quite so open about that," he says, adding that it will help the Church carry out a more "organized response" to the emigration crisis.

Overall, Father McCann is pleased with the "very positive" collaborative atmosphere at the synod, and not too concerned about the dispute with Israel, who was disappointed with its tone and some controversial comments. Rather, he is more interested in the attention the synod drew to the dwindling Christian communities in parts of the Middle East, and "how little has been done" about this at the international level.

The synod highlighted this problem, he says, "when Islam tends to be the vast focus," and these groups "tend to be marginalized and forgotten." This was one way, he adds, of "putting them in the international spotlight."

Currently the Pontifical Oriental Institute has close to 400 students, the highest number it has ever had, and the university appears to be flourishing.

Symbolically, a large and healthy looking 90-year-old Lebanon cedar stands in its courtyard, as old as the institution itself.

"The trees of the Lord are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted," says the biblical verse.

As it approaches its centennial, this appears to be true of the institute as well.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org