Healing the Church of Antioch: The Greek-Melkite Initiative

by Bishop Nicholas J. Samra

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In July 1996, the Synod of the Greek-Melkite Catholic Church issued “Reunification of the Antiochene Patriarchate,” a document boldly announcing the synod’s desire to heal the rupture between Catholics and Orthodox of the Church of Antioch. Although somewhat unique, this gesture has, historically, had a basis in the life and activity of the Antiochene Church.

Unity in diversity has always existed in the Church of Antioch. During apostolic days when “in Antioch…the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), a variety of traditions and peoples had lived side by side in this cosmopolitan city, now an archaeological site in Turkey.

The Church of Antioch spread throughout the Middle East and was not limited to the city of Antioch, but to the greater area influenced by Antioch: what is now modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, even Armenia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan and the New World.

The Church of Antioch, which was founded by the apostle Peter, embraced a diverse yet united community. Antiochene Jews and Gentiles lived together; many from both communities accepted the Christian faith. Some Christians fully observed the Mosaic law, while others retained but a few Jewish observances. There were some who rejected all Jewish observances. Yet they all lived and worked together despite these differences.

During the patristic era, Antioch was the home of saints as well as heretics. And from Antioch various traditions were born: as a Greek-speaking city of the Byzantine Empire, its customs and traditions influenced the capital, Constantinople, and there helped shape the Byzantine Church.

Antioch’s native Syrians developed two church traditions: the Eastern and Western Syriac. The Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic churches follow the Eastern Syriac tradition. The Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Maronite churches grew from the Western Syriac tradition. Both traditions spread to India, forming the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches.

Antioch influenced the formation of the Armenian Church and for some time Antioch had authority over the Church of Georgia.

The Byzantine Church of Antioch continued to use a secondary nomenclature – Melkite – meaning “royalist,” or “those attached to the Byzantine emperor.” This name was given to all who followed the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451) by the opponents of this same council.

In 1054 A.D., when representatives of the churches of Rome and Constantinople cast excommunications at each other, the Patriarch of Antioch, Peter III, tried to reconcile them, choosing no side in the dispute. Certainly, there was no definitive break between Rome and Antioch as there was with Constantinople and Rome.

The Muslim domination of the Middle East, succeeded by the region’s Crusader dominions, slowly divided the two. Antioch gradually followed Constantinople and the other Eastern patriarchs. Yet, throughout the years that followed, we find Antiochene patriarchs open-minded and friendly to both Rome and Constantinople – these tended to be the indigenous Syriac- and Arabic-speaking patriarchs. Ethnic Greeks tended to be more pro-Constantinople.

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Tags: Middle East Orthodox Church Melkite Greek Catholic Church Church of Antioch