Pope Benedict XVI has signed his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in the Middle East, “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente,” during the first day of his visit to Lebanon.
“The Exhortation as a whole is meant to help each of the Lord’s disciples to live fully and to pass on faithfully to others what he or she has become by Baptism: a child of light, sharing in God’s own light, a lamp newly lit amid the troubled darkness of this world, so that the light may shine in the darkness,” he said.
Pope Benedict made his remarks during the official signing ceremony at the Melkite Greek Catholic Basilica of St. Paul in the coastal town of Harissa, Sept. 14.
“The document seeks to help purify the faith from all that disfigures it, from everything that can obscure the splendor of Christ’s light,” he noted.
“For communion is true fidelity to Christ, and Christian witness is the radiance of the paschal mystery which gives full meaning to the cross, exalted and glorious.”
The exhortation is the Pope’s response to the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops of the Middle East held at the Vatican in October 2010. The topic for discussion then was “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness.”
The Pope, who is in the country from Sept. 14 -16, noted the providence of signing the document on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which has its origins in 4th century Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine.
He also reminded those present that next month is the 1700th anniversary of the appearance to Constantine of the Chi-Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek. It appeared to the emperor as a “radiant in the symbolic night of his unbelief and accompanied by the words: 'In this sign you will conquer!'” prior to victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge near Rome, thus paving the way for the acceptance of Christianity within the Roman Empire.
Reading the exhortation with these historic events in mind “leads to renewed appreciation of the identity of each baptized person and of the Church, and is at the same time a summons to witness in and through communion,” said the Pope.
“For Christians, to exalt the cross means to be united to the totality of God’s unconditional love for mankind. It means making an act of faith!” he said.
“To exalt the cross, against the backdrop of the resurrection, means to desire to experience and to show the totality of this love. It means making an act of love!”
“To exalt the cross means to be a committed herald of fraternal and ecclesial communion, the source of authentic Christian witness. It means making an act of hope!”
Listening to Pope Benedict was a packed congregation consisting of leaders of Lebanon’s 40 percent Christian community – mainly Catholic and Orthodox – along with leaders of other religions including the region’s dominant faith, Islam.
The Pope thanked God that it was the people of the Middle East “were the first to welcome his incarnate Son” but also recognized that following Jesus Christ in the region today often requires much “courage and faith.”
This was why, he said, the Synod Fathers were keen to reflect upon the “joys and struggles, the fears and hopes of Christ’s disciples in these lands.”
“In this way, the entire Church was able to hear the troubled cry and see the desperate faces of many men and women who experience grave human and material difficulties, who live amid powerful tensions in fear and uncertainty.”
Such is the way of the exultation of the cross, said the Pope, that it often requires following Christ “even in difficult and sometimes painful situations.”
“It is here and now that we are called to celebrate the victory of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, service over domination, humility over pride, and unity over division.”
Middle Eastern Christians, therefore, should not fear the future but, instead, should “stand firm in truth and in purity of faith” that results from the “the cross, exalted and glorious.”
“Churches of the Middle East, fear not, for the Lord is truly with you, to the close of the age!” urged Pope Benedict, “Fear not, because the universal Church walks at your side and is humanly and spiritually close to you!”