The twentieth meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome from January 22 to 26, 2024, hosted by the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. It was chaired jointly by His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, and by His Grace Bishop Kyrillos, Coptic Orthodox Auxiliary Bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles, California, USA. This meeting marked the twentieth anniversary of the Commission, the first meeting of which was held in Cairo, Egypt, from January 27 to 30, 2004.
Representatives came from the Catholic Church and from the following Oriental Orthodox Churches: the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of All Armenians and Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia), the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. No representative of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church was able to attend.
The two delegations met separately on the morning of January 22, the morning of January 25, and the afternoon of January 26. Oriental Orthodox members had additional separate meetings on January 20, 21 and 22. Plenary sessions were held from January 22 to 26, each day beginning with a brief prayer service based on material prepared for the 2024 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on the theme: “You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself” (cf. Lk 10:27).
To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Commission, a public Academic Act was held on Tuesday January 23 at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. Cardinal Kurt Koch, Bishop Kyrillos, Cardinal Walter Kasper, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian and Rev. Fr. Frans Bouwen, M.Afr., delivered speeches highlighting the achievements and perspectives of the dialogue. On this occasion a commemorative book was also presented entitled The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. 20th Anniversary (2003-2023) published by the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, including all documents and reports of the Commission. At the end of the Academic Act, Cardinal Kurt Koch, on behalf of His Holiness Pope Francis, honored Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Bishop Barnaba El Soryany, and Rev. Fr. Frans Bouwen with a pontifical medal for their contribution to the relations between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
In the evening of Wednesday, January 24, Cardinal Koch hosted a dinner for the members of the Commission in the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican gardens, with the presence of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and of Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches.
On the evening of Thursday, January 25, the members attended the Vespers Service at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle which was presided over by His Holiness Pope Francis to conclude the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
On Friday, 26 January, His Holiness Pope Francis received the members of the Commission in private audience. In his greeting, His Grace Bishop Kyrillos, reflecting on the anniversary of the commission, declared: “We thank God in all the work that He has done in and through our brothers and sisters in this dialogue over many fruitful years.” Observing that “it is approximately at the age of 20 when a person makes the transition from adolescence to adulthood, into a world necessitating maturity and responsibility,” he noted that “After 20 years in pursuit of unity in Christ’s love, we acknowledge the need for a more mature dialogue—one that is deeper in honestly and faithfully tackling the deep divisions before us.” Emphasizing the importance of fraternal encounter alongside theological dialogue, Pope Francis affirmed in his address that “the ‘dialogue of charity’ should be understood not simply as a preparation for the ‘dialogue of truth’, but as itself a ‘theology in action’, capable of opening new horizons on the journey of our Churches.” Concluding, he stated that “The dialogue of charity, the dialogue of truth and the dialogue of life: three inseparable ways to advance on the ecumenical journey that your Commission has encouraged over these past twenty years.”
To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Commission, the annual Study Visit for young priests and monks, organized for the fourth time in Rome, partially coincided this year with the meeting of the Commission. The delegation included fifteen young priests and monks from the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of All Armenians and Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia), the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Besides their program of visits and meetings in Rome from 22 January to 3 February, the participants attended a plenary session of the Commission on Wednesday, January 23, the Academic Act, the dinner at Casina Pio IV, the Vespers in St. Paul’s Basilica, and the Papal Audience.
At the beginning of the opening session of the dialogue Cardinal Koch informed the members about ecumenical developments over the past year, including the visits of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, of His Holiness Baselios Marthoma Mathews III, and of His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II. He also mentioned the exchange of Study Visits for young priests and monks in Rome and in Etchmiadzin, a project promoted by the Joint Commission, which has proved to be very useful to improve relationships and mutual knowledge between younger generations of Catholics and Oriental Orthodox. The Cardinal also highlighted the ecumenical dimension of the XVI General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held on October 2023 on the topic “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission”, with the participation of twelve Fraternal Delegates, among whom were three from the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
The first session then continued with a discussion on the Declaration ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ on the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings _published on 18 December 2023 by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, followed by a _Press release concerning the reception of Fiducia supplicans _published on January 4, 2024. On December 23, 2023 Bishop Kyrillos sent to the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, on behalf of the Oriental Orthodox members of the Commission, a document entitled “Request for Clarification on _Fiducia Supplicans from the Oriental Orthodox Churches.” Having received an unofficial written response from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Oriental Orthodox members found it insufficient and asked further clarification, due to the likelihood that this issue may be discussed by many of their Holy Synods. They also requested that pastoral and moral issues be added to the agenda of the Commission, a request which will be discussed by a next Joint Coordinating Committee.
In keeping with the theme “Aspects of Mariology: the Holy Virgin Mary in the Teaching and the Life of the Church”, started in 2022, the following papers were presented: “Adam’s Sin, Humanity, and Christ’s Salvific Work in the Oriental Orthodox Tradition” by Deacon Antonios the Shenoudian; “The meaning of ‘Dogma’ and the ‘Hierarchy of truths’ in the Catholic Church” by Prof. Dietmar W. Winkler; “Oriental Catholic Liturgical Texts and a Hermeneutic for understanding their Compatibility with the Dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption” by Fr. Petros Berga and Fr. Jijimon Puthuveettilkalam, SJ; “Holy Virgin in the Oriental Orthodox Tradition, Conception, Annunciation, Dormition” by Metropolitan Yuhanon Mar Diascoros and Metropolitan Youhanon Mar Dimetrios; “Immaculate Conception of Mary and Original Sin in the Catholic Tradition” by Bishop Paul Rouhana; and “A Brief Introduction to the History of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in Catholic Tradition” and “The Historical Context of the Definitions of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and Assumption (1950) of the Blessed Virgin Mary” by Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB. While rejoicing that our Churches share a common devotion to the Mother of God and a common liturgical and spiritual heritage related to her veneration, the members of the commission recognized that Mariology lies at the intersection of many controversial issues concerning soteriology, anthropology and ecclesiology that require in-depth common study and discussion, especially concerning the Dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption.
In addition to these discussions on the themes of the agenda, the members of the Commission deliberated on the methodology of the dialogue. The Joint Commission recommended that the 20th anniversary may be an opportunity for an evaluation of its documents and a reflection on its methodology in order to see possible improvements for the next steps of the dialogue. For this purpose, family coordinating committees on both sides will be appointed and prepare draft suggestions, after consultation with their respective authorities. These suggestions will then be discussed by a Joint Coordinating committee.
Representatives of the Oriental Orthodox Churches (in alphabetical order)
Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church: H.E. Archbishop Mor Justinus Boulos Safar, Patriarchal Vicar of Zahleh and Beqaa; H.G. Bishop Mor Polycarpus Aydin (observer); H.E. Kuriakose Mar Theophilose, Metropolitan of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Theological Seminary and President of the Ecumenical Secretariat of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in India, Ernakulam, India (not present).
Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicosate of all Armenians: H.E. Khajag Barsamian, Pontifical Legate for Western Europe and Official Representative of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin to the Vatican; Reverend Father Shahe Ananyan, Director of the Interchurch Relationships Department and Dean of the Kevorkian Theological Seminary Etchmiadzin, Armenia (Co-Secretary).
Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia: H.E. Archbishop Nareg Alemezian, Ecumenical Consultant in Antelias (Lebanon); H.E. Archbishop Anoushavan Tanielian, Prelate of the Eastern Prelacy of the United States.
Coptic Orthodox Church: H.G. Bishop Kyrillos (Co-Chair), Auxiliary Bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles; Deacon Antonios the Shenoudian, Coptic Monastery of Saint Shenouda, Rochester, NY; H.G. Bishop Daniel of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Sydney, Australia (observer); H.G. Bishop Barnaba El Soryany, Rome, Italy (observer).
Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church: H.G. Bishop Abune Sawiros (not present); Deacon Girmay Zeray Asmerom, Vice-General Administrator of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church (not present); H.G. Bishop Abune Paulos (observer, not present).
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church: Rev. Fr. Daniel Seifemichael Feleke of Holy Trinity Theological University College and Director of Broadcasting Service in Addis Ababa.
Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church: H.G. Metropolitan Youhanon Mar Dimetrios, Metropolitan of the Diocese of Delhi, President of the Department for Ecumenical Relations, India; H.G. Yuhanon Mar Diascoros, Metropolitan of the Diocese of Kottayam; H.G. Abraham Mar Stephanos, Metropolitan of the Diocese of UK, Europe and Africa (observer).
Representatives of the Catholic Church
His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity;
Most Reverend Peter Marayati, Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria;
Most Reverend Paul Rouhana, OLM, Bishop of the Patriarchal Maronite Vicariate of Sarba, Jounieh, Lebanon;
Most Reverend Lesanuchristos Matheos Semahun, Bishop of Bahir Dar-Dessie, Ethiopia;
Most Reverend Boghos Levon Zekiyan, Archbishop of Istanbul and Turkey for the Catholic Armenians (guest);
Chorbishop John D. Faris, Saint Anthony Maronite Catholic Church, Glen Allen, Virginia, USA;
Rev. Fr. Ronald G. Roberson, CSP, Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC, USA (not present);
Rev. Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB, Executive Director, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Professor of Theology, Saint John’s Abbey and University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA;
Prof. Dietmar W. Winkler, Consultor of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, Salzburg, Austria;
Bishop Thomas Adly Zaky, Bishop of Gizah for the Coptic Catholic Church;
Rev. Petros Berga Sorballa, Apostolic Visitator of the Ethiopian Catholic Church in Europe;
Prof. Souraya Bechealany, Director of the Center of Research in Religious Studies, St. Joseph University – Beirut, Lebanon;
Rev. Fr. Jijimon Puthuveettilkalam, SJ, Member of the Central Liturgical Committee of the Syro-Malabar Church;
Rev. Fr. Hyacinthe Destivelle, OP, Official of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, Rome (Co-Secretary).