by Father Joseph D. Wallace
Pope Francis recently met with representatives from the Chaldean Church encouraging them to be vehicles to peace and unity in their region. Addressing the Synod of the Chaldeans which took place in Rome Oct. 4-8, Pope Francis said, “I exhort you to work tirelessly as builders of unity.”
The Chaldean Church is headed by Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, Archbishop of Baghdad, also known as the Patriarch of Babylon. It was an important gathering given the difficult plight of Christians in the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular.
The Chaldean Catholic Church is in full union with the Bishop of Rome. These Christians known as Chaldean entered into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Chaldean Catholic Church originated from ancient Assyrian communities living in the north of Iraq (Mesopotamia) which was known as Assyria from the 25th century BC until the seventh century AD. The Roman Catholic Church began calling them Chaldean Catholics in order to differentiate them from the followers of the mother church, the Nestorians and another branch of Christians known as the Jacobites.
Nestorians came about from Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, in the fifth century. Nestorius basically viewed the human and divine natures of Jesus as separate. He was declared a heretic by the church at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus. Jacobites refers to any of other Christians in the area which comprise the Syriac Orthodox Church, Indian (Malankara) Orthodox Church, Malabar Independent Syrian Church or the Syrian Jacobites. Jacobites are non-Chalcedonians, which means they split from the rest of the church at the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon). They also do not recognize the Third Ecumenical Council.
Before the Gulf War, Chaldean Catholics numbered approximately 400,000 of the 800,000-1,000,000 Assyrian Christians. Since the war, hundreds of thousands of these Assyrian Christians of all denominations have fled Iraq due to persecution. The Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq now numbers less than 250,000.
In the midst of all this turmoil and insecurity, Pope Francis has called on remaining Chaldean Catholics to continue to work to promote unity at all levels of society. In his talk, Pope Francis said, “This is an occasion for me to send my greetings to the sorely tested faithful of the beloved Iraqi nation and to share the hope that stems from the resumption of life and activity in regions and cities that were subjected to painful and violent oppression.” He said that even though this horrific and terrible chapter of history for Christians in Iraq is ending, there is much for Christians to do in healing the nation.
In his remarks, he reflected upon the historical significance of the region as a land of ancient evangelization, of civilization, encounter and dialogue, as he encouraged the bishops of the Chaldean Church to never give up hope in the face of all the bad that has happened to their flock as he encouraged them to reach out fostering unity among Christians and in promoting respectful relationships and interreligious dialogue with non-Christians in the area.
Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue must be rooted in Catholic unity and communion, he said, adding, “the Congregation for Oriental Churches will support you in this.”
Pope Francis also called on the bishops to encourage new vocations to the priesthood. He said that the formation of prospective priests must be integral and “capable of including various aspects of life responding in a harmonious way to the four human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual dimensions.”
“Everything possible must be done in order to bring the aims of the Second Vatican Council into effect, facilitating pastoral care in those regions where Oriental communities are well established and promoting communion and fraternity with Latin Rite communities in order to provide the faithful with good witness and avoid protracting divisions and contrast,” he added.
Pope Francis concluded his talk with the hope of all Christians for our beleaguered brothers and sisters in Iraq, praying that the synod and rebuilding task, would be “a fruitful moment of fraternal dialogue and reflection for the good of the beloved Chaldean Church.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.