How Good It Is to Dwell in Unity

by Bishop Bawai Soro

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On 11 November 1994, a historic meeting took place at the Vatican between the Roman Pontiff, John Paul II, and the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV. This meeting was the culmination of a series of dialogues in which Catholic theologians and representatives of the Church of the East met to resolve an ancient misunderstanding that had kept the two churches at a distance for more than 1,500 years. The separation grew from a dispute over the proper use of terminology in describing the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, a dispute that began in the Byzantine Empire with the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) and spread to the church in the Persian Empire.

Since the beginning of this dispute, both the Catholic Church and the Church of the East have insisted upon acknowledging the two natures, divine and human, in the person of Jesus Christ. In this they have always been in agreement. However the churches differed in defining the union of those two natures in the one person of Christ. The Western church adopted a modified terminology to describe the incarnation at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), while the Eastern church continued to use terminology of an older period, which in the West was deemed inadequate for the purpose of describing a true metaphysical union of the natures.

The political isolation of the Church of the East, under the dominance of the Persians, Arabs, Mongols and Ottoman Turks, made the resolution of this conflict almost impossible. The separation was not only ecclesial, but geographical, political, cultural and linguistic. The division was greatly exacerbated after the 15th century by the near destruction of the Church in the East and the loss of its educational and monastic institutions that had long supplied it with theologians and scholars. For the past 500 years there has been only limited contact between the leaders of these two ancient churches.

In 1984 the present Catholicos-Patriarch of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, made his first official visit to the Vatican and expressed to Pope John Paul II his desire to resolve the ancient misunderstanding. The Patriarch had long felt that the scandal of separation had to be removed so that the Church of Christ could present a common witness to the modern world and work in a unified way to relieve the sufferings endured by so many people in the Middle East and elsewhere.

With joy and hope the leaders of the two ancient apostolic churches set in motion a process of theological dialogue to bring understanding and clarity to the issue under dispute. The dialogues were conducted in a spirit of mutual charity and with a sincere desire to understand the other’s linguistic and cultural traditions and presuppositions. The process culminated in the setting forth of a “Common Christological Definition,” which removed the ambiguities that had been the source of suspicion and distrust for so long.

At the November meeting, the Christological definition was signed by both leaders and by dignitaries representing the Catholic Church and the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East. In the document they affirm:

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Tags: Unity Eastern Christianity Pope John Paul II Catholic-Orthodox relations