One of my intensive courses this semester is “The History of Aramaic Christianity”, taught by Mar Bawai Soro, a bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church whose name is probably familiar to anyone who has been involved in ecumenism the last few years. He was also our guest for dinner at the Lay Centre this evening. (And though he did not share this, he was the person who, during the Jubilee Year 2000, recieved from Pope John Paul II the cross carried at the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum. The pope carried it to the first two stations, handed off to Bishop Bawai for the second two, who then handed it off again.)
In most church history classes I have taken or taught, the focus is usually on the history of the Church within the Roman empire, and subsequently the nations were in direct succession from that Empire. Sometimes it gets even more eclipsed if the focus is purely on the Latin Church, the churches directly associated with the ritual and patriarchal patrimony of the church of Rome itself (ie, the Roman Catholic Church). It is sometimes news enough for people to realize there were four other apostolic sees within the Roman empire besides Rome! But we have often forgotten entirely the church in Asia, beyond the borders of the ancient Roman Empire.
The focus of our studies for this course have been on that Church of the East – not the Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Churches, but further east, in Mesopotamia and what was part of the Persian Empire at the time of Constantine. This church never enjoyed the status of being an official religion of the empire, as did the church in the empire of Rome and Constantinople. In fact, persecution only increased after Christianity became associated with the enemy to the west. To this day, being Christian in this area makes you suspect of collaboration with the “West” – whether that is Emperor Constantine or President Bush, and whether the dominant religion is Persian Zoroastrianism or Shi’a Islam.
This was the church of refuge for the Nestorians and the theological School of Antioch, driven across the border in the aftermath of the Council of Ephesus in 431, and a place where the theological battle between Monophysites and Nestorians was waged for centuries. The first stopping point for the missionary activity of the Apostle Thomas, the Mesopotamian church was the mother church of the earliest Christians in India, still known as Mar Thoma (St. Thomas) Christians. Missionaries of this church had reached Mongolia and China by the sixth century, and some scholars have suggested communities as far as Japan.
The current heirs to this tradition include:
- The Assyrian Church of the East, with about 250,000 members, traditionally centered in Iraq
- The Chaldean Catholic Church, with about 750,000 members, centered in Iraq
- The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, with about 4 million members centered in the state of Kerala, India
Much of the Church of the East’s history has been marked by political and ecclesial isolation – first by being the Christians outside the Roman empire, then ecclesially, and throughout by being more or less constantly a persecuted minority in Zoroastrian Persia, or Muslim Arab and Mongol rule. Several times in the last six centuries dioceses and other groups of the faithful would resume full communion with Rome. The first, in 1445 was the archbishop of Cyprus and his diocese, who after a couple generations were unfortunately Latinized and assimilated into the Latin (Roman) Catholic Church. A couple others only lasted for a century or so, eventually leaving communion again. Finally, the Patriarch (one of two rivals, anyway) and his cohort came in to full communion in 1830, giving us the current Chaldean Catholic Church. The rival patriarchal line and those in communion with it remain today as the Assyrian Church of the East, though they were the line which had been in Catholic communion for a century or so during the 16th and 17th centuries.
For 20 years, Bishop Bawai served this church as a bishop and as their top theologian and ecumenical officer (a sort of Ratzinger-Kasper combo, if you will), and participated in the Assyrian-Catholic dialogue from its inception, through the Common Christological Declaration of 1994 and the preparation of the Common Sacramental Declaration that was to follow.
For those who wonder about the products of ecumenism, it only took 8 years of dialogue to resolve the Christological issue that split the church 1500 years ago, and confess together that :
Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with us in all things but sin. His divinity and his humanity are united in one person, without confusion or change, without division or separation. In him has been preserved the difference of the natures of divinity and humanity, with all their properties, faculties and operations. But far from constituting “one and another”, the divinity and humanity are united in the person of the same and unique Son of God and Lord Jesus Christ, who is the object of a single adoration.
This is why there is always hope!
Of course, that hope is always needed. The reality of the impending full communion with the Catholic Church provoked some nervousness. Understandably, I suppose: Comparatively, we are beyond huge (4400 Catholics for every one Assyrian Christian), and the prospect of the Patriarch becoming a mere cardinal, as some bloggers have put it, was uninviting. Their decision was to suspend the dialogue, and to suspend the bishop.
After finding no appeal, Mar Bawai and about 5000 faithful, including 30 deacons and a half dozen priests, came into full communion with the Chaldean Catholic Church in 2008.