"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Steward of the Mysteries of God

One of the myriad reasons I do not think I should make a good bishop is that the burdens of the office seem so crushing as to leave little time for systematic writing. To not be able to write regularly at length is for me to be unable to breathe. Most bishops, forced to run hither and yon with too many responsibilities, seem to be essayists, specializing in ad hoc talks, short columns (often travelogues) for diocesan papers, and after-dinner remarks at parish praznyks or similar events. How far we are from the model--as my friend, the Orthodox priest and pastoral theologian Bill Mills has lamented--from the patristic era when pastors were bishops who were theologians writing numerous, lengthy, learned works we still profit from today. Where today is the equivalent of, say, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nyssa, or John Chrysostom? 

One recent collection of talks and short reflections came into my hand earlier this month: Bishop Nicholas Samra, Steward of The Mysteries (Sophia Press, 2010), 267pp. 

Samra, to those who know him, is an interesting figure among Melkite Catholics, and has already been undertaking some encouraging initiatives in the diocese to which he was recently elected. 

In this book we have a collection of talks and essays on matters Mariological, ecclesiological, liturgical, pastoral, evangelical, and of course ecumenical, focusing on Melkite-Orthodox relations, which have for some time been extremely close, especially--until the recent unpleasantness--in Syria where for obvious reasons Christians have tended (if I may be forgiven for paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin) to hang together rather than risk being hanged separately. 

Of especial interest is his short narration of Melkite history, especially leading up to and since the schism in 1724 in the Patriarchate of Antioch, and of Roman interference and bungling thereafter. He quotes at length the speech of Patriarch Gregory II Yousuf at the First Vatican Council, imploring it not to go down a path that would deepen and harden relations with Orthodoxy. 

In the 1960s, the Melkite Church was led by the famed Patriarch Maximos IV, who not only advanced ecumenical relations and focused on de-Latinizing his church, but was also so influential at Vatican II as to lead the Ecumenical Patriarch to say of Maximos, "You  are our spokesman, the voice of Orthodoxy at the council!"

Samra spends understandable time detailing the history of the so-called Zoghby initiative, whose roots go back to the early 1970s, and were featured in such books of his as Tous Schismatiques? which was published in 1981. The actual "initiative" came out in 1995 and garnered great attention. It would be studied by the Orthodox and Melkite synods the following year as each assumed greater leadership for ecumenical dialogue without being hamstrung by leaders in Rome or Constantinople. This dialogue, as he later notes, lead to such local initiatives as a new church being built in the Damascus suburbs, a church that would belong equally and be used equally by Orthodox and Melkites. 

Zoghby's proposal led to an eight-point plan, "Reunification of the Antiochian Patriarchate" that was taken up for synodal discussion in 1996, basing itself in part on various agreed statements of the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and in part on the 1995 encyclical on Christian unity by Pope John Paul II, treated at length in 
Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity. One part of the reunification plan openly permitted what was a de facto reality anyway: communicatio in sacris. Samra does not speak in any detail of how the Zoghby initiative and subsequent plans were received in wider "official" Catholicism and Orthodoxy, except to allude once and vaguely to a lack of good reception based largely on fear. 

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