Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Pontifical Oriental Institute: A First First Centenary Reflection

It was not until the mid-1990s (my mid-40s) when, encouraged by my old PP, Cardinal Winning, I started looking into the life of our convert Scottish cardinal, the nowadays virtually unheard of William Theodore Cardinal Heard, and read of his various appointments upon his elevation to the Sacred College of Cardinals in December 1959, that I first read of “the Oriental Churches in communion with Rome”, of “the Congregation for the Oriental Churches”, of the “Oriental Canon Law” and of the “Pontifical Oriental Institute” (POI).

And then one Sunday morning the late Fr Clarence Gallagher SJ (pictured below with Pope St John Paul II, for whom he was a trusted advisor) home from whatever his work was in Rome, said the 10 o’clock Sunday morning Mass at which I was reading. Now although I had not met Fr Clarence since moving to Holy Family, Mossend, my mother’s home parish, I had known about him from my childhood: but not from her. In his childhood, Fr Clarence and his brothers, John and Gerald, and his sister, Mary, used to be taken of a Saturday morning by their aunt to visit my granny McLoughlin (née Creaney, which is the connection) in Motherwell.

So after Mass I took the opportunity to ask him if he could properly translate for me something I had read, but I did not tell him it was about Cardinal Heard. His Eminence had been described by Good Pope John as “l’ottima giurista della sancta Chiesa” (I apologise if my Italian is incorrect; this is from memory as I cannot now find my contemporaneous notes). “Oh,” said Fr Clarence immediately “you’ve been reading about Cardinal Heard.”

Now, on that Sunday morning, I learned what Fr Clarence was actually doing in Rome: he was the Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute!

When Fr Clarence died on May 5, 2013, I noted in his obituary (in The [Glasgow] Herald) that in 1975 he was widely regarded as the favourite to succeed Gordon Joseph Cardinal Gray as Archbishop and Metropolitan of St Andrews and Edinburgh. No sooner had Fr Keith Patrick O’Brien been surprisingly appointed to succeed Cardinal Gray than Fr Pater Hans Kolvenbach, Father General of the Jesuits, called Fr Clarence back to Rome from Garnethill, Glasgow, where he was (unusually) both Rector of St Aloysius College and PP of St Aloysius parish, and appointed him, firstly, lecturer, then professor and finally Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Canon Law at the POI. It was Pope St John Paul II who, in 1990, appointed him Rector.

It is, perhaps, worth recording here that when Fr Kolvenbach was belatedly elected Fr General of the Jesuits in 1983, after the interregnum when Pope St John Paul II had, in a very unsaintly manner, imposed Fr Paolo, later Cardinal, Dezza as his “special Papal Delegate for the Society of Jesus”, one of his first tasks was to mend fences with the Vatican in general and the papal household in particular and to restore papal confidence in the Society. Fr Clarence was to come to contribute greatly to this process. Soon after his appointment as Rector, he became a close, personal and highly valued papal adviser on matters concerning the Oriental Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. Indeed, so much was he personally regarded by Pope St John Paul II that he was always greeted by him with a papal hug, a beaming smile and a hearty “rettore magnifico”.


You will hardly be surprised to learn that, on that Sunday morning, in ten minutes or so I learned more about the Oriental Churches than I had learned in weeks ensconced in the Mitchell Library (and that is by no means meant to be a criticism of that fine institution). In subsequent conversations, I learned a lot more; and, it is an interest I have maintained. Fr Clarence further deepened my understanding when on the occasion of my 50th birthday in April 2002 he presented me with a signed copy of his then newly published book, “Church Law and Church Discipline in Rome and Byzantium: A Comparative Study”.

If you are quick at mental arithmetic, you will have immediately realised that next year I will be 65. Fr Clarence’s beloved Pontifical Oriental Institute will celebrate an even more important anniversary: it will be 100. It is my earnest hope that I may be able to visit Rome in 2017 to celebrate both landmarks. The POI’s website notes:

“Pope Benedict XV founded the Institute in 1917 to be a centre dedicated to advanced studies on Eastern Christianity. The mission of the Oriental Institute is to study, explain, and make better known the life and tradition of these churches.

“Christianity was born in the Holy Land. From the first centuries of Christianity on, the churches developed in distinctive Eastern and Western forms. In the Eastern half of the Roman Empire and beyond its Eastern borders, there appeared successively: 1) the Assyrian Church of the East; 2) the Oriental Orthodox (Pre-Chalcedonian) Churches; 3) the Eastern (Byzantine) Orthodox Churches, and finally; 4) the Eastern Catholic Churches. All these churches grew — and are still present in — the Near East, Eastern Europe, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and southern India. From those historic homelands, Eastern churches have spread throughout the world. The Pontifical Oriental Institute studies all these churches.”

Twenty-three of these Churches are now wholly reconciled with Rome. Leaving aside ethnic, social, geographic, cultural and political differences, the most important differences in how these Churches, and their orthodox counterparts, developed are related to liturgy and discipline. Doctrinal differences are, of course, important but they were relatively minor as far as the now Eastern Rite Catholic Churches were concerned and still, largely, are as far as the Orthodox Churches are presently concerned.

Bearing in mind that the Catholic Church in Scotland is a mere infant compared to the now so murderously persecuted Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, as also their sister Orthodox churches, in the Near and Middle East, and most especially in Syria where the name “Christian” was first used hundreds of years before St Patrick ever came to Ireland, it seems to me that Fr Clarence was both right and prophetic when he closed his book by concluding in his very last sentence: “However, as we look forward to the third millennium and ask how Christians can come back into full communion with each other, it cannot but be helpful to look carefully at how Christians lived and how authority was in fact exercised in the first (his emphasis) thousand years of the Church’s history and see just how far it was possible to have diversity in unity.”

Take celibacy. Of those 23 Eastern Rite Churches in full communion with Rome, most admit married men to ordination as priests — the exceptions are the Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar Catholic Churches of India and the Coptic Catholic Church — but not if they are monks or members of religious orders (Jesuits, Franciscans etc). However, once ordained a priest cannot later marry. Bishops are chosen only from the celibate clergy and are therefore usually selected from the ranks of the monks. But not always. The recently mentioned Josyf Cardinal Slipyj, Major Archbishop of Lviv (Ukrainian) was a celibate secular priest. (Coincidentally, April 17, my birthday, will mark the 25th anniversary of His Eminence being posthumously rehabilitated by the Ukrainian government.)

Celibacy is not now and never has been a matter of doctrine. Some might like it to be but it isn’t. It is a question of discipline. Ah, but what about the Council of Elvira of the first decade of the fourth century (possibly 302AD)? Surely that ruled out for the future any question of a married priesthood? Well, no actually. This was not a Council of the same status, as, say, the First Council of Nicaea 325AD. It was more like the Synod of the Patriarchate of Venice convened in 1958 by Angelo Giuseppe Cardinal Roncalli; or, the one he later convened as Bishop of Rome; or, like the eagerly awaited Synod of the Diocese of Paisley convened by Bishop John Keenan. In fact you will see Elvira referred to both Council and Synod.

To put matters into perspective, to Nicaea were invited all the bishops of the Christian world. However, the actual number of bishops attending is unclear: Eusebius of Caesarea estimated 250; Athanasius of Alexandria, 318, and; Eustathius of Antioch estimated “about 270”. We know of a certainty that three bishops attended from Britain. The bishops had permission to bring two priests and three deacons with them and it is estimated that in total about 1,000 came from the East and about 800 from the West. Eusebius speaks of an almost innumerable host of accompanying priests, deacons and acolytes. The Emperor Constantine was paying their way!

Elvira? 19 bishops, 26 priests, some deacons and a handful of laymen attended, all hailing from what is modern day Andalucía. The canons promulgated, and those added at later dates, and no one is absolutely sure which are which, concern order, discipline and conduct among the Christian community of that specific area and never had any influence, for they were never heard of at that time, elsewhere. Indeed, in the event they had little influence at home.

Insignificant though this council/synod was and remains, it does provide evidence that for the first three centuries of the Church not only were there married priests and deacons, there were also married bishops! Canon 33, which it must be emphasised had no status, no effect outside the Province concerned, reads: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.”

In other words, sexual continence was sought to be enforced not celibacy. Even for bishops! 

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