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Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church

The Patriarchal Cathedral of the Assyrians at Kudshanes, Turkey

Fr John Salter writes:

The Great Schism of 1054 was between Rome and Constantinople and latterly the other Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem and the so-called Patriarchal Churches such as Russia, Romania, Serbia and Georgia, and the autocephalous Churches of Greece, Slovakia, Poland, Finland and Mount Sinai, found themselves out of communion with the Holy See through retaining communion with The Phanar and the Ecumenical Throne. But the first major schism within the Christian family was much earlier than 1054 and dates from shortly after the ecumenical Council of Ephesus of post 431 A.D. which condemned the then Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius.

The heirs to this schism are what today comprise the Assyrian Church of the East, and known in pre-ecumenical days as the Nestorian Church. The loss of these Christians to the so-called Great Church is one of the greatest tragedies to befall Christendom, for they provided the earthly link to Our Lord in the days of His flesh. These ancient peoples still use today, as a living language, the Aramaic tongue, so that when in their Divine Liturgy, the Holy Q`arbana, they consecrate the Holy Gifts they use the words Our Lord used at the Last Supper and when they say the Lord`s Prayer they use the words in which Jesus taught His Apostles to pray and the words used to raise Jairus`s daughter from the dead. An Assyrian priest on a `bus in Baghdad was overheard to say to his young daughter, who was lolling lazily in the heat of the mid-day sun: Talitha kumi, “Get up, little girl” exactly the words used to restore Jairus`s daughter to life again. In His incarnate life God the Son thought in their thought forms and shared their Semitism.

This was brought home to me when I visited Cardinal Patriarch Rafael of Babylon in Baghdad, shortly after the First Gulf War, when one of his priests, who is a lecturer at The Oriental Institute in Rome, urged us Westerners to look again at the Semitic or Hebrew roots of the Gospel; to examine the Aramaic language in which Our Lord taught and preached and conversed and joked. He took a simple example the absurdities which have crept into our western biblical texts, such as the teaching of Jesus that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The word in Aramaic for a camel is very close to that of a thick rope, so surely it makes more sense to speak of a thick rope being forced through the eye of a needle than a large unwieldy, over-burdened dromedary!

The Assyrians and their Chaldean counterparts are living examples of the local Tradition, the Semitic and Hebraic tradition, being still alive and well, and absolutely vital to the bringing of the Gospel to the Islamic and Jewish nations.

Mar Eshai Shimun XXI

The Assyrians or Nestorians left the Great Church after 431 A.D. following the Decision of the Fathers at the Council of Ephesus that the Blessed Virgin Mary should be known as Theotokos- The God Bearer. The East Syrian language had no word to express this truth as the Greeks had. To be God-Bearer seemed to the Christians of the Syriac speaking world to mean Mother of the Godhead itself. However, the cause of the quarrel was not, per se, a falling out with the See of Rome, but with the Emperor`s Church at Constantinople, whose Patriarch, Nestorius, and his adherents were condemned by St. Cyril of Alexandria acting, so to speak, as Papal Legate. Cyril had started the proceedings of the Council before the Bishops of Syria had arrived (just as twenty years later at Chalcedon the Fathers did not wait for the arrival of the Armenians, with further catastrophic consequences for the further unity of the Church, for the Armeninas forty years after Chalcedon adopted monophysitism at the Armenian Council of Vagharchat).

Cardinal Patriarch Rafael and Fr John Salter

Nestorius was packed off to exile to the deserts of Upper Egypt, where he had neither the time nor the opportunity to form a so-called Nestorian Church as such, nevertheless, the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch was split into two rival groups, to be split into yet a third group after the Council of Chalcedon when the Syrian followers of Jacobus Barradeus seemed to have adopted his monophysite teaching. The Patriarchate has never recovered from this blow; and a further group were to cause a new problem when in 1724 the Melkites were united with Rome. These pre-Ephesian Christians made their base in Old Persia, in what would now comprise almost exactly Iran and Iraq. Noticeably like the so-called Monophysites, who were to follow the Nestorians out of the Great Church, they were on the edge of, or beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, so that when the Christian Caesar in Constantinople had a quarrel with his neighbouring non-Christian sovereigns, the subjects of those sovereigns could point out that their Christianity was not the same as that professed by the Emperor, and therefore there was no need to look on them as a fifth column or persecute them.

Emmanuel III with Fr John Salter and Fr Roman Cholij (Ukrainian Catholic)

The Nestorians flourished while Western Christendom floundered in the Dark Ages, and had a bishop in Peking and in Turkestan at Bokhara and Tashkent, and had missionized a great deal of the territories east of Antioch. Marco Polo writes of a church in the city of the Great Khan at Karaorum. The Chinese Tang emperors began to expel foreigners in the 9th century, but a pillar dating from 631 A.D. known as the Xian-Fu monument lists the names of those Nestorian clergy who had served in China from the monk Alopen in 635 A.D. to the time of its inscription in the 8th century, thought at first to be a Jesuit forgery, was discovered in China. One bishop was described as `Bishop and Pope of China`. This Church was headed by a Chinese Patriarch of the East from 1248-1317. A bishop of the Chinese Church visited King Edward I of England, and ecclesiastical romantics liked to claim that the Holy Q`abana or Divine Liturgy of Mar Mari and Addai was once celebrated in Westminster Abbey. However, it is thought that King Edward was in Gascony when he met the Chinese prelate. The bishop went on to meet Pope Nicholas IV in Rome and it is said that he celebrated in St.Peter`s basilica, rather than in the Pope`s cathedral of St.John Lateran, as Nicholas was the first Pope to live in the Vatican. It is said that the Pope gave Nicholas Holy Communion.

Pope John-Paul II with Mar Dinkha

The Mongols` rule helped to spread Nestorian Christianity, but with the conversion in 1295 of the bulk of the Mongols to Islam, the decline of the Nestorian Church began. It was Tamberlaine who gave the Church its coup de grace, so that eventually the remnants of this once great missionary-minded Church, whose membership may at one period have outnumbered the Patriarchate of the West in the Dark Ages, were confined to the wild mountain fastnesses of Kurdistan. Settled now away from the great cities, where they had flourished they were now reduced to a most primitive, almost Stone Age, peasantry. They looked to their by now hereditary spiritual and secular chieftain the Prince-Catholikos Patriarch of the House of Mar Shimun, Catholikos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Patriarch of The East, who ruled them as Patriarch and Prince right down to the last Prince-Patriarch, Mar Eshai Shimun XXI, who was shot and killed by a member of his own Church-Nation in California in the 1970s. With His Holiness`s death the hereditary system of passing the succession from uncle to nephew or brother to brother came to an end.

The aftermath of the murder of Mar Eshai Shimun was not the first time that there had been an attempt to end the hereditary system. In 1551 on the death of their then hereditary Patriarch the tribal elders thought the time had come to abolish the hereditary principle of the the Patriarchate passing from uncle to nephew, brother to brother and cousin to cousin, because it had led to abuses. The immediate predecessor of Mar Eshai Shimun XXI was his uncle Mar Polus Shimun, XX and Mar Polus`s elder brother Mar Benjamin Shimun XIX had been consecrated at the age of eight years, and Mar Eshai was a Prince-patriarch while a schoolboy at King`s School, Canterbury. Just as happened in the period following the assassination of Mar Eshai in our own times, so the sixteenth century tribal elders in their capital Kudshanes chose a Patriarch from outside the Princely Family of Shimun, one Iohan Sulaka.

Latin Franciscan travellers from the Holy land persuaded Patriarch Iohan Sulaka to seek consecration from the hands of Pope Julius III (1550-1555). This Sulaka did, but was murdered by the Turkish Ottoman authorities on his journey home. For a hundred years, despite Su;laka`s murder, the Nestorians were united with Rome. Then a curious thing happened. The nephew of the hereditary Patriarch who had reigned before Sulaka, Mar Dinka Shimun, continued the the ancient Nestorian hierarchy and in the 17th century this, too, became Uniate in the city of Mosul, apparently without consulting the the Uniate Sulaka hierarchy living up in the well-nigh inaccessible craggy mountains to the north of Mosul, so there were two entirely separate branches of the Nestorian Church both in communion with Rome! In the 18th century both fell out of communion with the Holy See. In 1826 a Patriarch of the Nestorian Mosul-based hierarchy became Uniate under the Pontificate of Pope Leo XII, and from that union is derived the present Patriarch of Babylon, His Beatitude Emmanuel III Delly and the Chaldean Catholic Church, whilst the former and earliest Uniate succession is represented by Patriarch Mar Dinka IV, the first of the non-hereditary Patriarchs of the present day, the successor of Mar Eshai Shimun Mar Dinka IV visited the late Pope John Paul II in Rome and from that meeting discussions were inaugurated with the Catholic Church and meetings were also held between Mar Dinka IV and the late Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, Cardinal Rafael. Relations between the two Patriarchs were very good, as was the relationship between the old Princely-Patriarchal Family of Mar Eshai Shimun, now resident in California, and the late Cardinal Rafael.

The Chaldean Catholic Church, alone of the Uniate Churches outnumbers its opposite number the Assyrian Church (so named because the Nestorians occupied a corner of the ancient Assyrian Empire). The Assyrian Church is tragically split over the hereditary principle and the Calendar and the crying need for a political homeland. The break-away group calls itself the Ancient Assyrian Church of The East, but when I met their Archbishop in Baghdad and Mosul in the early 1990s he was in his dress the most Latinized prelate there, whereas Bishop Emmanuel Delly as he then was, dressed in the traditional garb of an Assyrian, although in union with Rome. The Chaldean Catholics number 180,000 and the Assyrians of both jurisdictions put together,110,000, both the Chaldean and Assyrian Christians are possibly more numerous in Ealing and West London than they are in Baghdad or Mosul, where their numbers tragically dwindle daily.

Although there are now no nuns in the Assyrian Church, women have often played a very important role in the life of the Church-Nation. Most prominent amongst these was the old Princess, known as the Lady Surma d`bait Mar Shimun (i.e. of the House of Mar Shimun), aunt of the last hereditary Patriarch Mar Eshai, who for many years in the 1950s until her departure for Santa Monica, California, in the early sixties, held a small court at the house in Sutherland Road, West Ealing. She was very well educated and highly intelligent and had been largely educated at the Anglican Mission School in her homeland run by the Anglican Sisters of Bethany. Lady Surma represented our smallest ally of the Great War, the Assyrian Nation at the Versailles Peace Conference, but failed to achieve a homeland for her people, who having fought for the British, were badly let down by the Imperial government after the Great War was over. The last Patriarch`s niece-in-law, Mme Lucrece de Matran takes a full part in the life of the Assyrian Church and was on amicable terms with Cardinal Rafael. She married the nephew of Mar Eshai Shimun, who hade done some training at the Anglican theological college, run by Anglican monks at Kelham in Nottinghamshire, and although de Matran was ordained a deacon in the Assyrian Church he did not feel he wished to succeed his uncle and married, otherwise the hereditary succession might have continued for a further generation, but the system had run its course.

The Assyrians and the Chaldeans have shown a certain independence of spirit, none more so than the then Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Joseph Audo, who made strong representation at the time of the first Vatican Council to Pope Pius IX against the dogma of Papal Infallibility being pronounced. These ancient Christians, descendants of the stock of Nebuchadnezzar, are in God`s plan, and God is always creative, indispensable in the search for Christian Unity and for bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Islamic and Jewish peoples, particularly the Semitic peoples.

In Baghdad I heard a Syrian Jacobite Metropolitan, of the same stock as the Assyrians, but not of the same Church, arguing for the Holy Trinity with Moslems, using Islamic terms over dinner in Baghdad. No Western Christian could have equalled him in his argument, nor could any Westerner Latin or Greek, have thought in his thought forms.

The Chaldean clergy in Baghdad and in Rome are very keen that the ancient traditions of the east are preserved or revived, not least because they represent the earthiness, so to speak, of the Incarnate Lord, the humanity of the Saviour whose language they speak.
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