We are happy to post this guest blog from Elias Mallon. S.A., on the occasion of Pope Benedict's visit to Lebanon this weekend. Dr. Mallon, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, is education and interreligious affairs officer at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association:
In ecumenical discussions about the role of the bishop of Rome, the pope, two aspects arise. The first is that the pope is to be the center of unity for the church. The second is a reference to Luke 22:32, where Jesus tells Peter, “you in turn must strengthen your brothers.”
On 14 September, Pope Benedict XVI will visit Lebanon. In what may be the most challenging visit of his pontificate, Benedict’s role as center of unity and strengthener will be crucial. Although the main purpose of the trip is to promulgate the Apostolic Exhortation that resulted from the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which took place 10-23 October 2010, its importance is far greater. While it is customary for the pope to issue an apostolic exhortation after a synod, this particular exhortation is significant in many ways.
The Middle East is not unknown to Benedict. He has already been there four times as pope. However, the region now is very different from the last time the pope was there. In fact, in many ways it is unrecognizable. The regimes of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have all fallen and been replaced. Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war. In all of this the future is unclear for all in the Middle East. For Christians, the future is not only unclear; it is ominous.
The world of the Middle East that existed during the special assembly is no more. Many of the assumptions that were behind the discussions at the assembly need to be revisited and perhaps revised. However, the pope’s apostolic exhortation is far more than merely a report on the assembly. It needs to be a clear exercise of the pope’s role as unifier and strengthener.
At the time of the assembly, the situation of Christians in the Middle East — with the exception of Iraq — was difficult, but not catastrophic. The problem of Christian emigration from the Middle East was one of the topics on the agenda as was strengthening the ties among the different Eastern Catholic churches and ecumenical relations between all Catholics and the Orthodox.
Within weeks of the end of the assembly, the situation of Christians in the entire region took a turn for the worse. Attacks on churches and believers in Iraq intensified and seemed to be far more than random. While Christians in Egypt were part of the demonstrations for democracy, the fall of Mubarak’s regime did not improve their lot. In fact, in the weeks and months after Tahrir Square there seems to have been an increase of attacks on Egyptian Christians. In Syria, all are suffering from the internecine fighting. However, Christians as a religious minority are especially vulnerable. The problem of Christian emigration from the Middle East has gone from being a problem to being a crisis almost overnight.
The pope will be addressing Catholic Christians who are under incredible stress throughout the region. He will not, however, be addressing only Catholics. All Christians in the Middle East — Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant — will be looking for some message of hope. They will be looking for the Successor of Peter to strengthen his brothers and sisters who are suffering.
All Christians in the Middle East are concerned about their future. In this precarious situation denominationalism — that concern with my and only my church — is something that Christians cannot afford. As unifier and strengthener, Benedict has to remind Catholics and all Christians that their fate is a common fate. The crisis is not limited to Catholics, not limited to Orthodox, not limited to Protestants. Christians must stand together to face an unknown and ominous future. A divided Christianity in the Middle East is a weakened Christianity.
The task facing Benedict XVI is a daunting one. Papal trips are often described as “pastoral.” Perhaps this trip is pastoral in a way none has before. The charism of the ministry of the bishop of Rome is one of unifying and strengthening. Christians in the Middle East desperately need unity and strength in order to survive in a rapidly changing world. They hope Benedict XVI can provide this.