Any gathering of the world’s bishops is bound to produce a number of interesting sidebar conversations and proposals. And the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East that is going on now at the Vatican is no exception.
Among the more interesting proposals has been one to establish a corp of “priests without frontiers” to serve in the Middle East.
Bishop Giorgio Bertin of Djibouti, Africa made the proposal during the third session of the special assembly of the world’s bishops called by Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the Church’s future in the Middle East. The gathering, which began Oct. 10 will run until Oct. 24.
The flight of Christians from the region -- caused by religious extremism and social instability -- has emerged as a key concern. In the face of severe clergy shortages and what he described as “emergency situations,” Bishop Bertin proposed developing a “bank of available priests” willing to serve in the region for periods of up to 9 months.
“They could offer their services, taking a sabbatical or as an offering made generously,” for Christians in the region, he explained. This, he said, "would be a concrete way of living the 'communion' between our Churches."
Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, one of 10 North American delegates to the synod, expressed support for the plan.
However, he said that realistically, priests would have to commit to longer tours of duty. “To be effective, it seems to me that a priest needs at least a minimum of a kind of cultural formation,” he said in a press conference Oct. 12.
He added that religious orders and societies of apostolic life, such as the Franciscans and the Vincentians, are “the much more natural vehicle ... for the 'sons' of my diocese to be able to make a contribution to the churches in the Near East and the Middle East."
Improving the “communion” between the universal Church and the various ethnic and national Eastern Catholic churches has been another issue of deep concern at the synod.
One source of tension, it would appear, is the presumed precedence of the Roman or Latin rite Church over Eastern rite Catholic Churches.
Eastern Catholic churches historically are associated with a particular ethnic group or nation in the Middle East and the Near East. They are in full communion with the Pope, however they retain their own distinctive liturgical traditions and disciplines.
The problem, according to some Eastern church leaders, is Rome’s presumption to have jurisdiction over the activities of Eastern Catholic communities outside of the Middle East. This is an important issue because the majority of Eastern Catholics now in fact do live outside the Middle East.
For instance, while the Eastern patriarchs appoint bishops in dioceses within their own territories, the Pope reserves the rite to appoint bishops for Eastern Church communities in other countries.
This became a topic of spirited discussion in the Synod sessions of Oct. 12.
In his address to the Synod Oct. 12, Bishop Vartan Waldir Boghossian of San Gregoriao de Narek said the spiritual authority of the Patriarchs as “fathers and leaders of their churches” must be affirmed and "must not be limited to a territory.”
Bishop Bohossian, who oversees Armenian Catholics in Latin America and Mexico, said the spiritual authority of the Patriarchs as “fathers and leaders of their churches” must be affirmed and "must not be limited to a territory.”
He said that it is not easy to understand why the authority and jurisdiction of 22 Eastern Churches are confined to their territories while the "Latin Church" is not subject to the same limitations, the bishop said.
As a result, Eastern Catholic churches “struggle to maintain their identity and growth, especially in the West,” despite their historic and ongoing importance in the life of the universal Church.
“Limiting it to its faithful is perfectly logical, but not limiting them to a territory, especially if there are no longer members of the Church in that territory," he asserted.
Patriarchs having "full jurisdiction” over their faithful “in all the continents would be ... a concrete anticipation of a state of full communion," he said.
He said also that Church law should be changed so that Eastern Patriarchs take "precedence" over cardinals in the Church’s hierarchy and should be automatically entitled to vote in papal elections without the need for the title of "cardinal."
In an interview with CNA on Oct. 14, Msgr. Maurizio Malvestiti, subsecretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches, said Bishop Boghossian’s proposal is a sign of the desire of Eastern Catholics to “to make the communion of these churches more intense with the Pope.”
He pointed out that Pope Benedict XVI has publicly shown his esteem for the Eastern patriarchs. He noted that during his first Mass as Pontiff, on April 24, 2005, the Pope had the six eastern patriarchs beside him. "It was as if to say, ‘We are the Christian origins, living signs of the origins, Peter with the six Eastern patriarchs',” Msgr. Malvestiti said.
As to the specifics of Bishop Boghossian’s proposals, Msgr. Malvestiti said the issues must be looked at from “an ecclesiological point of view” as well as from a historical perspective.