Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Church Meet at Vatican

The 12th meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome from January 24 to 31, 2015.

Meeting at the Vatican, delegates from the Roman Catholic Church met with representatives of the Armenian, Antiochian Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian Tewahdo, and Malankara Syrian churches—the latter group comprising the “Oriental Orthodox” family of churches who share deep, apostolic roots in antiquity as well as theological understandings from the earliest history of the Christian movement.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), was part of the delegation representing the Armenian Church. Also representing the Catholicate of the All Armenians was Bishop Hovakim Manukyan, Ecumenical Officer of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin; and the Rev. Fr. Shahe Ananyan, Etchmiadzin’s director of publishing. Delegates from the Catholicate of Cilicia were Archbishop Nareg Alemezian and Bishop Magar Ashkarian.

Also, Titular-Archbishop Boghos Levon Zekiyan, of the Armenian Catholic Mkhitarist order, and Armenian Catholic Archbishop Peter Marayati of Aleppo, were members of the Roman Catholic delegation.

The 12th meeting of the joint Commission was hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and its president, Cardinal Kurt Koch, jointly chaired the meeting with Metropolitan Anba Bishoy of the Coptic Church.

The major achievement of the meeting was the final approval of a document titled, “The Exercise of Communion in the Life of the Early Church, and its Implications for our Search for Communion Today.” As the second “common document” to be produced by the Joint Commission, it examines the relations that anciently existed among the member churches, showing they were in full communion throughout the early Christian period, until the divergences along theological lines in the 5th century.

The next phase of the ongoing dialogue, on sacraments of initiation, will go forward on the foundation laid by the latest common document, and several papers on this next phase were read during the January meeting, including one by Fr. Shahe Ananyan, titled “Sacraments of Initiation in the Armenian Church Tradition: An Overview of Historical and Theological Development.”

During their time in Rome, Archbishop Barsamian and Bishop Manukyan met separately with Cardinal Koch; Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches; and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

In the course of those meetings, they discussed the April 12 mass that Pope Francis will conduct at St. Peter’s Basilica, in memory of victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

They also continued discussions begun last year by His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, regarding the possibility of a papal visit to Armenia during the current centennial year of the Genocide.

Meeting the Pope

His Holiness Pope Francis personally received the Joint Commission participants on the afternoon of Friday, January 30, at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

In remarks prepared for the occasion, Pope Francis praised the progress of the Joint Commission in its dozen years of work, and called on all participants to continue their journey in a spirit of brotherhood. “I express my hope that this work will bear rich fruit for our common theological research and help us to experience ever more fully our fraternal friendship,” he said.

Pope Francis went on to note with “dismay and deep sadness” the ongoing crises in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. “I join you in praying for a negotiated solution and in imploring God’s goodness and mercy upon all those affected by this immense tragedy,” he said.

Pope Francis continued: “All Christians are called to work together, in mutual acceptance and trust, in order to serve the cause of peace and justice. May the intercession and example of the many martyrs and saints who have borne courageous witness to Christ in all our Churches sustain and strengthen you and your Christian communities.”

Pope Francis concluded his remarks by thanking the participants for their visit, invoking the Lord’s blessings, and asking in turn for their continued prayers for him.

The Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue began in January 2003 as a joint initiative of the ecclesiastical authorities of the Oriental Orthodox family of churches and the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. In the last decade the commission has discussed the pursuit of communion among the member churches, by considering historical studies on the status of communion that existed among the geographically dispersed churches in the earliest centuries of the Christian movement. The next meeting of the Joint Commission will take place in early 2016 in Cairo, Egypt, hosted by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

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