Risky trip – Pope to Lebanon

A week from today, on 14 September, Pope Benedict XVI will depart on what is, in some ways, one of the most risky apostolic journeys of his papacy. He will be returning to the Middle East for the fourth time – after Turkey (2006), Jordan, Israel and Palestine (2009) and Cyprus (2010) – and this time the ever-looming spectre of local tensions is very concrete in the form of the civil war raging in next-door Syria. And with Lebanon’s recent history firmly tied up with that of Syria, the papal journey has been in limbo until recently.

Lebanon is the most Christian country in the Middle East, with almost 40% of the population belonging to several Christian churches, with the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch being the largest of these. Other Churches in union with Rome that have a significant presence in Lebanon are the Greek Melkites, the Armenian, the Chaldean, the Syrian and the Roman Catholic Church. All these Churches have their own circumscriptions, which makes for an intricate landscape of dioceses, patriarchates and vicariates. There are 33 active bishops and patriarchs in the country, headed by   the Patriarchs Béchara Pierre Raï (Maronite), Nersès Bédros XIX Tarmouni (Armenian) and Ignace Youssif III Younan (Syrian). Also of note are Lebanon’s only cardinal, Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir (Maronite emeritus) and Ignace Pierre VIII Abdel-Ahad (Syrian emeritus).

The upcoming papal visit will be a three-day affair, with major events careful spaced over the available time. On 14 September, the Holy Father will obviously be welcomed in Beirut, and he will sign the Post-Synodal Exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops (which he himself kicked off during his visit to Cyprus two years ago). On 15 September, Pope Benedict will meet with representatives of the government, diplomats, religious leaders (always interesting in a country with a strong Muslim presence) and the world of culture. He’ll also meet with young people, another staple of papal visits abroad, at the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkerké. The last day, 16 September, will see a public Mass and the presentation of the Post-Synodal Exhortation, as well as the recitation of the Angelus and the departure ceremony.

A fairly short visit, but an important one, as its impact will not be limited to Lebanon. Countries like Syria and Iraq, which also have fairly significant Christian minorities, are no doubt also a focal point of this visit.

In the meantime, let’s pray for safety for the Holy Father during his journey to a place where tensions run high, and for a fruitful apostolic journey, for Christians in Lebanon and abroad.

Papal Soundbytes, part 2

Part two of my collection of interesting snippets from the addresses and homilies  given by Pope Benedict XVI in Cyprus. Again, you may read the full texts here.

On the Cross:

“The Cross is not just a private symbol of devotion, it is not just a badge of membership of a certain group within society, and in its deepest meaning it has nothing to do with the imposition of a creed or a philosophy by force. It speaks of hope, it speaks of love, it speaks of the victory of non-violence over oppression, it speaks of God raising up the lowly, empowering the weak, conquering division, and overcoming hatred with love. A world without the Cross would be a world without hope, a world in which torture and brutality would go unchecked, the weak would be exploited and greed would have the final word. Man’s inhumanity to man would be manifested in ever more horrific ways, and there would be no end to the vicious cycle of violence. Only the Cross puts an end to it. While no earthly power can save us from the consequences of our sins, and no earthly power can defeat injustice at its source, nevertheless the saving intervention of our loving God has transformed the reality of sin and death into its opposite. That is what we celebrate when we glory in the Cross of our Redeemer.” (Holy Mass attended by priests, religious, deacons, catechists and representatives of Cyprian ecclesial movements in Nicosia)

Sheik Nazim Sufi, spiritual leader of the Muslims in the north of Cyprus, came to meet with the pope before Mass at the Church of the Holy Cross. He apologised for not getting up. "I am an old man," he said, to which the pope replied with a simple "I am old too." The two conversed briefly and the pope assured the sheik of his prayers.

On proclaiming Christ:

“When we proclaim Christ crucified we are proclaiming not ourselves, but him. We are not offering our own wisdom to the world, nor are we claiming any merit of our own, but we are acting as channels for his wisdom, his love, his saving merits. We know that we are merely earthenware vessels, and yet, astonishingly, we have been chosen to be heralds of the saving truth that the world needs to hear. Let us never cease to marvel at the extraordinary grace that has been given to us, let us never cease to acknowledge our unworthiness, but at the same time let us always strive to become less unworthy of our noble calling, lest through our faults and failings we weaken the credibility of our witness.” (Idem)

A baby seemingly transfixed by the shiny mitre on the pope's head

On the three meanings of Corpus Christi:

Corpus Christi, the name given to this feast in the West, is used in the Church’s tradition to designate three distinct realities: the physical body of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, his eucharistic body, the bread of heaven which nourishes us in this great sacrament, and his ecclesial body, the Church. By reflecting on these different aspects of the Corpus Christi, we come to a deeper understanding of the mystery of communion which binds together those who belong to the Church. All who feed on the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist are “brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit” (Eucharistic Prayer II) to form God’s one holy people.” (Holy Mass on the occasion of the publication of the Instrumentum laboris of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in Nicosia)

On the murder of Bishop Luigi Padovese:

“Before I begin, it is only fitting that I recall the late Bishop Luigi Padovese who, as President of the Turkish Catholic Bishops, contributed to the preparation of the Instrumentum Laboris that I am consigning to you today. News of his unforeseen and tragic death on Thursday surprised and shocked all of us. I entrust his soul to the mercy of almighty God, mindful of how committed he was, especially as a bishop, to interreligious and cultural understanding, and to dialogue between the Churches. His death is a sobering reminder of the vocation that all Christians share, to be courageous witnesses in every circumstance to what is good, noble and just.” (Consignment of the Instrumentum laboris of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in Nicosia)

On the hope of Mary that caused her to say ‘yes’ to God:

“Some thirty years later, as Mary stood weeping at the foot of the cross, it must have been hard to keep that hope alive. The forces of darkness seemed to have gained the upper hand. And yet, deep down, she would have remembered the angel’s words. Even amid the desolation of Holy Saturday the certitude of hope carried her forward into the joy of Easter morning. And so we, her children, live in the same confident hope that the Word made flesh in Mary’s womb will never abandon us. He, the Son of God and Son of Mary, strengthens the communion that binds us together, so that we can bear witness to him and to the power of his healing and reconciling love.” (Angelus in Nicosia)

On ecumenism with the Orthodox Church:

“I hope that my visit here will be seen as another step along the path that was opened up before us by the embrace in Jerusalem of the late Patriarch Athenagoras and my venerable predecessor Pope Paul the Sixth. Their first prophetic steps together show us the road that we too must tread. We have a divine call to be brothers, walking side by side in the faith, humble before almighty God, and with unbreakable bonds of affection for one another.” (Farewell ceremony at Larnaca International Airport)

Italian undersecretary Gianna Letta welcomes Pope Benedict XVI upon his return to Rome

A preview of the pope’s trip to Cyprus

Tomorrow morning the pope departs for a three-day visit to Cyprus. What’s he going to do there and why is that important?

Before the trip to Portugal, John L. Allen already noted that this year’s papal visits seem to be “laid out in ascending order of difficulty”. Malta was a home game (although it included an unscheduled meeting with victims of sexual abuse), and Portugal was deemed a general success, nationally and internationally (although the Portuguese government did choose to allow same-sex marriage not even a week after the pope had spoken against it). Cyprus, though, seems of a different order of difficulty. Here, the Catholic Church is very much a minority. The 25,000 faithful in the island nation make up 3.15% of the entire population.

Archbishop Chrysostomos and the pope pictured at a meeting in 2007

It is the Orthodox Church which dictates the Christian landscape here. And there is protest in their ranks against the visit of Pope Benedict XVI: At least five of the eighteen members of the Holy Synod are opposed, causing Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus to issue a warning to these bishops that they place themselves outside the Church by not welcoming the pope as a visitor to Cyprus.

There is tension aplenty which dates back, in some respects, to the Great Schism of 1054. And while there has been rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches since the pontificates of Blessed John XXIII and Paul V (and a possible meeting between the pope and Moscow Patriarch Kirill I seemingly just over the horizon), the disagreements go deep, centering on the authority of the bishop of Rome and certain theological teachings, for example about the Trinity.

The visit to Cyprus will obviously have a very strong ecumenical nature, and the things discussed here will, at least on the short term, be quite important for the ongoing relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. For Pope Benedict, the Orthodox Christians, who are closest to us in faith, are natural partners in many matters facing the western world today. Ecumenism with them is therefore of prime importance.

Back to my first question: what’s the pope going to do in Cyprus? Well, there will obviously be the official receptions and meetings with heads of state and Church, as well as meetings with the Catholic community. The liturgical celebrations planned in Paphos and Nicosia are all described as ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Eucharistic Celebrations’ – not Masses: a sign that representatives from the Orthodox Church will be involved, perhaps?

On Saturday, the pope will visit and have a luncheon with Archbishop Chrysostomos II and on Sunday morning the Instrumentum laboris of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, planned for this autumn, will be published. The fact that that publication will happen in the presence of the pope and in Cyprus, and island that in ecclesiastic history has always had close ties with the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East, is an indication of the importance that Pope Benedict XVI attaches to this special assembly. The Instrumentum laboris (meaning ‘working instrument’), is basically an outline of the topics, with notes and addenda, to be discussed at the assembly).

The two ‘legs’ – ecumenism with the Orthodox and the future of the Church in the Middle East – will both have important repercussions for the near future. This weekend’s papal visit will be one to watch.