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The Holy Father’s homily for opening mass of Synod of Bishops for Middle East
Below we publish the full text of a Vatican Radio translation of the Holy Father’s homily for mass inaugurating the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Churches of the Middle East. Original text and audio in Italian:
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear brothers and sisters!
The Eucharistic celebration, the highest form of giving thanks to God, has extraordinary meaning for us today here at the tomb of St. Peter: the grace of seeing gathered together for the first time in a Synodal Assembly, around the Bishop of Rome and Universal Pastor, the Bishops of the Middle East. This unique event demonstrates the interest of the entire Church for that precious and beloved part of the People of God who live in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.
First of all we raise our thanksgiving to the Lord of history, because he has willed it so despite often difficult and troubled events, from the time of Jesus until today, the Middle East has see the continued presence of Christians. In those lands the one Church of Christ is expressed in the variety of the liturgical spiritual, cultural and disciplinary traditions of the six venerable Oriental Catholic Churches sui iuris, as well as in the Latin tradition. The fraternal greeting, which I address with great affection to the patriarchs of each of them, I would also like to extend to all the faithful entrusted to their pastoral care in their own countries and also in the Diaspora.
On this Sunday, the 28th in Ordinary Time, the Word of God offers a theme for meditation that is significantly relevant to the Synodal event we are inaugurating today. Our continuation in reading from Luke's Gospel brings us to the episode of the healing of the ten lepers, of whom only one, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus. In connection with this text, the first reading from the Second Book of Kings recounts the healing of Naaman, the Aramean army chief, also a leper who is healed by dipping himself seven times in the waters of the River Jordan, as ordered by the prophet Elisha. Naaman also returned to the Prophet and, recognizing him as the mediator of God, professes his faith in the one Lord. So, two people with leprosy, two non-Jews, are healed because they believe in word of God’s messenger. They are healed in body, but they are open to faith, and this heals their soul, it saves them.
The Responsorial Psalm sings of this reality: “Yahweh has made known his saving power,/ revealed his saving justice for the nations to see. /Mindful of his faithful love and his constancy to the House of Israel” (Ps 98:2-3). This then is the theme: salvation is universal, but it passes through a specific historical mediation: the mediation of the people of Israel, which goes on to become that of Jesus Christ and the Church. The door of life is open for everyone, but this is the point, it is a “door”, that is a definite and necessary passage. This is summed up in the Pauline formula we heard in the Second Letter to Timothy: “the salvation that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:10). It is the mystery of the universality of Salvation and at the same time of its necessary link with the historical mediation of Christ Jesus, preceded by that of the people of Israel and continued by that of the Church. God is love and wants all men to be part of His life; to carry out this plan He, who is One and Trine, creates in the world a mystery of a communion that is human and divine, historical and transcendent: He creates it with the “method” - so to speak - of the covenant, tying himself to men with faithful and inexhaustible love, forming a holy people, that becomes a blessing for all the families of the earth (cf Gen 12:13). Thus He reveals Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (cf Ex 3:6), who wants to lead his people to the “land” of freedom and peace. This “land” is not of this world; the whole of the divine plan goes beyond history, but the Lord wants to build it with men, for men and in men, beginning with the coordinates of space and time in which they live and which He Himself gave them.
With its own specificity, that which we call the “Middle East”, makes up part of those coordinates. God sees this region of the world, too, from a different perspective, one might say, “from on high”: it is the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the land of the Exodus and the return from exile; the land of the Temple and of the Prophets, the land in which the Only Begotten Son of Mary was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead; the cradle of the Church, established in order to carry Christ’s Gospel to the ends of the earth. And we too, as believers, look at the Middle East with this view, from the perspective of the history of salvation. It is this internal point of view which guided me during Apostolic visits to Turkey, the Holy Land–Jordan, Israel, Palestine–and Cyprus, where I was able to experience firsthand the joys and concerns of the Christian communities. It was for this reason, too, that I willingly accepted the proposal of the Patriarchs and Bishops to convoke a Synodal Assembly to reflect together, in light of Sacred Scripture and Church traditions, on the present as well as the future of the faithful and populations of the Middle East.
Looking at that part of the world from God’s perspective means recognizing in it the “cradle” of a universal design of salvation in love, a mystery of communion which becomes true in freedom and thus asks man for a response. Abraham, the prophets, and the Virgin Mary are the protagonists of this response which, however, has its completion in Jesus Christ, son of that same land, yet descended from Heaven. From Him, from his Heart and his Spirit was born the Church, which is a pilgrim in this world, yet belongs to Him. The Church was established to be a sign and an instrument of the unique and universal saving project of God among men; She fulfils this mission simply by being herself, that is, “Communion and witness”, as it says in the theme of this Synodal Assembly which opens today, referring to Luke’s famous definition of the first Christian community: “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). Without communion there can be no witness: the life of communion is truly the great witness. Jesus said it clearly: “It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples” (Jn 13:35). This communion is the same life of God which is communicated in the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ. It is thus a gift, not something which we ourselves must build through our own efforts. And it is precisely because of this that it calls upon our freedom and waits for our response: communion always requires conversion, just as a gift is better if it is welcomed and utilized. In Jerusalem the first Christians were few. Nobody could have imagined what was going to take place. And the Church continues to live on that same strength which enabled it to begin and to grow. Pentecost is the original event but also a permanent dynamism, and the Synod of Bishops is a privileged moment in which the grace of Pentecost may be renewed in the Church’s journey, so that the Good News may be announced openly and heard by all peoples.
Therefore, the reason for this synodal assembly is mainly a pastoral one. While not being able to ignore the delicate and at times dramatic social and political situation of some countries, the Pastors of the Middle Eastern Churches wish to concentrate on the aspects of their own mission. As regards this, the Instrumentum laboris, elaborated by a Presynodal Council whose members we thank for their work, underlined these ecclesial finalities of the Assembly, pointing out that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it wishes to re-enliven communion of the Catholic Church in the Middle East. First of all within each Church, between all its members: Patriarch, Bishop, priests, religious persons, persons of consecrated life and the laity. And, thereby, in the relationships with the other Churches. Ecclesial life, corroborated in this way, will see the development of very positive fruits in the ecumenical path with the other Churches and ecclesial Communities present in the Middle East. This occasion is also propitious to constructively continue the dialogue with Jews, to whom we are tied by an indissoluble bond, the lengthy history of the Covenant, as we are with the Muslims. Also, the workings of the Synodal assembly are oriented to the witness of Christians on a personal, family and social level. This requires the reinforcing of their Christian identity through the Word of God and the Sacraments. We all hope that the faithful feel the joy in living in the Holy Land, a land blessed by the presence and by the Paschal Mystery of the Lord Jesus Christ. Over the centuries those Places attracted multitudes of pilgrims and even men and women in religious communities, who have considered it a great privilege to be able to live and bear witness in the land of Jesus. Despite the difficulties, the Christians in the Holy Land are called to enliven their consciousness of being the living stones of the Church in the Middle East, at the holy Places of our salvation. However, living in a dignified manner in one’s own country is above all a fundamental human right: therefore, the conditions of peace and justice, which are necessary for the harmonious development of all those living in the region, should be promoted. Therefore all are called to give their personal contribution: the international community, by supporting a stable path, loyal and constructive, towards peace; those most prevalent religions in the region, in promoting the spiritual and cultural values that unite men and exclude any expression of violence. Christians will continue to contribute not only with the work of social promotion, such as institutes of education and health, but above all with the spirit of the Evangelical Beatitudes, which enliven the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this commitment, they will always have the support of the entire Church, as is solemnly attested by the presence here of the Delegates of the Episcopacies of other continents.