Editorial: Europe and "The Church in the Middle East"
In the second in our series of European Editorials, senior journalist at Vatican
Radio’s Polish Programme, Jesuit Fr Leszek Gesiak, examines the Pope’s recent Apostolic
Exhortation for the Middle East in terms of the European context.
does the Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente” say
Among other things, Benedict XVI’s apostolic trip to Lebanon
(September 14th -16th) was an opportunity to meet and interact
with different cultures, traditions, faiths and religions. It was also where he handed
over an important document to the local Church: the Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia
in Medio Oriente”. The document attempts to reconcile different elements in the
complex historical and religious reality of the Middle East by looking at it through
something like a magnifying glass and focussing on a series of problems that concern
the entire world, Europe included. All three monotheistic religions were born in the
Middle East and for Christians, in particular, this is the land where Jesus lived
and died. In addressing the Church in the Middle East, it’s clear the Pope is speaking
to people living in Europe as well.
The Exhortation can be read and analyzed
in different ways and in different contexts.
The invitation, or urgent appeal,
that issues most forcefully from it, is the call for dialogue – something that takes
on exceptional urgency in the Middle East. The presence and activities of the three
monotheistic religions in this area intersect one another. It’s there that one hears
especially clearly the prayers of a divided Christianity. It’s there that the different
Oriental Catholic Churches celebrate their liturgies according to various rites, yet
all united to the Successor of Peter and all maintaining their ancient traditions.
There are many places and possibilities for dialogue. The problem is getting it started
and keeping it going. The effects of a lack of dialogue are extremely serious, as
the painful and bloody history of this area has shown. We witness these effects in
our own day in the divisions within Islam, in the political exploitation of religious
fundamentalism, in terrorism, the drug trade, and in the political and economic interests
of various governments around the world.
Referring to the theme of interreligious
dialogue in the document, the Pope stresses how, in the context of the Middle East,
it is not dictated by pragmatic, political or social considerations, but rather on
the theological foundations of Faith. It is Faith that comforts humanity by confirming
the existence of God and His love for us. All Faith, regardless of its religious confessional
nature, reveals that which is good and true. Anyone can possess goodness and truth,
even if they believe in a different way.
We use the word “dialogue” a lot
in Europe. We also talk a lot about “freedom”, in every sense. That’s because dialogue
is always linked to freedom. Maybe the Apostolic Exhortation can stimulate people
in Europe to think again about what they mean by the words “dialogue” and “freedom”.
There’s been no peace and stability in the Middle East for a long time now and Christians
often lack even the basics to survive. Yet they manage to communicate a strong identity,
despite the fact they are a minority and often face persecution and discrimination.
Again, it’s Faith that not only provides the basis for theological debate, but that
gives them the strength to live a creative existence in a multicultural community.
It also gives particular poignancy to their call for dialogue and freedom.
is in this context that the Pope makes his appeal to respect religious freedom, to
put an end to violence, discrimination and hatred. Recalling the teaching of the Second
Vatican Council, he writes that religious freedom is the most important of all liberties.
It is a sacred and inalienable right to be respected on both the personal and community
level. Religious freedom means being free to respond to the voice of our conscience,
to choose the religion we consider true, and to express that belief publicly. It means
being able to freely confess what we believe and to display the symbols of our faith,
without risking our lives and personal liberty.
Perhaps this is one of the
messages Benedict XVI is trying to convey to Europe. Paradoxically, in the name of
freedom, modernity and political correctness, Europe continues to promote antichristian
attitudes and ideals. In so doing, it continues to move further away from the religious
roots that gave it birth. Maybe Europe thinks we can build lasting dialogue, peace
and affluence without Faith, or without any religious basis for that matter. Try to
imagine the Old Continent with its churches turned into art galleries or gymnasiums,
with crucifixes banned in public, its society stripped of all old-fashioned values
that defend marriage and the family – and with a tiny handful of Christians hiding
away in some modern catacomb. Will this still be the Europe where humanity is called
to grow to fullness and maturity?