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The Courage of Faith and the Courage of Action:Witnessing Christ in Times of War

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Nicholas Samra

Rev. bishop Nicholas Samra: I don’t like the term “diaspora”. I am home, and the people already here are home


– Our Church has struggled with latinization for four centuries. Some have made a distinction between Latin practices that have been “organically” assimilated into our rite and those that should be excluded. Others have sought a “pure” Byzantine rite. What is your Church’s experience with latinization?

 We have internally certainly been latinized, particularly since our communion with Rome, which took place around 1724. Antioch was having great turmoil with bishops and patriarchs and competition between various men, because we were under the Ottoman empire for 400 years and prior to that we were under Muslim control. In Ottoman times our people, our clergy were not very well catechized. Even simple clergy did not have good theological schools for hundreds of years. We basically educated them in monasteries, or the bishops would take a few men to teach them. So the education was poor and in the mid-1600s the Roman church entered into the Middle East, initially to educate Muslims. Bu they saw this could not be done in the Ottoman empire. So they began to work with the Orthodox churches. They were welcomed by the bishops because the clergy of our church were simple men, they were not well educated theologically. So before latinization took place, the Western missionaries had no concept whatsoever of Eastern people. They came in because they were Catholic and they saw us as wanting to be Catholic – some already were – and they began to impose what they thought was Catholic, not realizing that Orthodoxy could be very Catholic in its tradition too.

On the liturgical level, since 1724 we really didn’t have too much infiltration with latinization. One or two minor issues developed in the late 1700s – early 1800s because of the influence of the Latin missionaries. The bishops started the celebration of Corpus Christi and some even wrote liturgical offices for it. That was certainly a fabrication. Sadly, they made it into a first-class feast. That was the only major one. The synod brought it up in the late 1960s again when we began to look back on our tradition [under] Maximos IV Sayegh and his successor Maximos V. When we began to recognize our proper traditions the synod talked about eliminating that because it was a direct latinization. These did not have a cult outside the divine liturgy to the Eucharist. We had no problem with it but we didn’t develop that. However, [eliminating] it was postponed for a while because one or two dioceses had made a very large social event out of it. It became like a festival. They would process around the streets, they would sell and buy, they would have games. However, it was supposed to be a religious event. Because it was a deeply rooted festival, they left it alone. But most dioceses did not celebrate it. Here in the United States, we don’t make a major issue out of it and we don’t maintain it as a first-class feast. If somebody wants to sing the troparion for the feast they can do it. But that’s all. Very rarely in the US do we celebrate the benediction for the blessed sacrament. It doesn’t take long. Even in the Middle East it’s very rare.

Other minor things developed but very little when it came to liturgical practice. The patriarch was strong in following the proper traditions that [our church] was proud of having. Part of the problem between our two churches — the Orthodox and Catholic branches — in the 1700s was … relaxation of the fasting rules. Some people were very upset about that, and so was Rome, and they were forcing the Catholic patriarch not to change anything in the liturgical cycle. Eventually modernization did change the type of fasting. But it was in the towns, in particularly the church of Antioch in Syria and Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. Inland it was very difficult to get food that didn’t have a spine. Fish wasn’t considered fasting by the Greeks, but they could eat shellfish. But in the interior, while we were still Orthodox, the fish developed as a fasting food during the Great Fast. It was not pushed out completely. I don’t think that was a latinization as much as progress and change according to people. Inland they didn’t have refrigeration and they couldn’t get [seafood]. But we didn’t have a major latinization problem.

Educationally, yes – we didn’t have the proper schools, and now with the missionaries really getting involved in the life of our church, particularly after the division in 1724, when there was animosity between bishops and patriarchs and people, we began to see some educational latinization. [There was] development through the missionaries of various customs, the Sacred Heart, and things like that, but it really never developed. So that was a blessing for us.

– The formation of priests to serve in the contemporary conditions of the diaspora requires great discernment and sensitivity to local cultures and global changes. What in your opinion are the best strategy and tactics for the Eastern Catholic Churches in this area?

First of all, I’m a firm believer that our church is planted here and rooted here already. I don’t like the term “diaspora” because historically it had the sense that “we were going to go home.” We’ve been here for a while. I was born and raised in this country and I’m not going home; I am home, and the people already here are home.

What I really believe – and I’ve talked about this as a bishop and even as a priest (I have been a bishop 31 years) – is a common institute of theology for all Eastern Catholics in the US — the only way that we’re going to be able to make our church grow and develop properly in its own tradition. This is still a hope of mine; I talk about it all the time. Not everyone agrees with me but that is fine, we can agree to disagree. Bringing over clergy today from the churches of origin is good. And it has difficulties. Inculturation is very necessary for the clergy. They are coming from different cultures, whether they are from Ukraine or the Balkan areas or from the Middle Eastern churches, there’s a completely different culture there that needs to be recognized as different from the American culture. The American culture is made up of ethnicities from all the different times of the past. Of course immigrants are very important. But now we’re developing something. I believe that most of the clergy, whatever level they should be at, should be properly educated here in this country through a proper theological school that we should eventually erect and develop. We recognize not just the Byzantine tradition in the US. Now, actually, the Syriac tradition seems to be larger because of the Chaldeans that came over during the war. The Chaldeans and the Syriac and the Maronites make up a very large portion of [the Eastern Catholics in] this country. The Byzantines have been here longer, although the Maronites came around the same time. But it seems the numbers are decreasing. I look at the Catholic Directory. We see more deaths and funerals in some of the Byzantine churches than we see baptisms and marriages. Something is wrong in what we have done in the past.  It was normal for us to do it at that time, but now it is time for us to get to the point and say we need to educate our clergy properly. I really believe we can form a theological institute. We have several places [where we] have seminarians. The Ukrainians have a house of studies in Washington, but most of their education is done at the Catholic University of America… The Maronites have the same in Washington. The Pittsburgh has its own seminary. We had one, but one of my predecessors closed it, sad to say. And we were using the Boston Theological Institute, which was involving the Greek Orthodox Seminary — an excellent program of Eastern theology and a variety of other courses in all the theological schools. But today, between the three houses that we have – the one in Pittsburgh and two in Washington – I think we can develop a theological institute. First of all, a major seminary could be housed in Pittsburgh, where we would have our own theological groups of educators, professors. Each one of our churches has very educated men, whether in liturgics or in law or in moral theology or in any of the fields. And if each church had one or two to [present] this new vision of a theological institute, then the [Washington] DC homes could be used for further study, or part of it, or undergraduate study. We would have the larger Catholic view there because Catholic University has numerous Eastern theologians. And the same with Notre Dame. I have a married priest in Notre Dame who is a doctor in theology. He was born Muslim, became Christian, Melkite, went on and had to flee Egypt, where his family would have killed him, came to the US, studied, and God bless him, he’s doing very well. He was in Boston College and Notre Dame took him. I spoke to the Latin bishop of that area to look at establishing undergraduate and graduate courses in Eastern theology. There are enough people there already that know it, and we could establish that from the various traditions. Our seminarians would be raised mixed; if we had a seminary where all the ritual churches existed, one day we could have a Byzantine liturgy, one day a Maronite liturgy, one day a Chaldean liturgy, and we’d learn much more about ourselves that we don’t know. And the development in friendships that would take place with these clergy would be great when they’re out in the field working in the same areas where all our churches work. Some of us are still closed in. The Chaldeans are much more recent in the US because of the wars in Iraq, and they seem to be a little more locked in themselves, and it takes a little time to break in with them and meet with them and talk with them. But I’m a firm believer it can be done. Just put our heads together and our people together and we could establish our own theological institute. A second aspect of that could be to work also with the Orthodox and have several theological schools. Here in Boston they have the Greeks; in Crestwood, NY they have St. Vladimir’s Seminary where Antiocheans and Russians and many other people study, and they have St. Tikhon’s monastery. We could work with them. We could break some barriers to have a proper educational process.

– At the Second Vatican Council Patriarch Maximos IV (Sayegh) called for a renewal of the identities of the Eastern Catholic Churches, for a rebirth of their theology. How do you view the progress of the Melkite Church in this direction? Have there been any major achievements? Has your Church succeeded in realizing its “fulness”?

He was a great man, Maximos IV, he took up a great challenge. When he spoke at the Vatican Council, he and his bishops had planned everything well in advance and spoke as one voice — the Melkite synod. And he made a major change in the Western Church, for sure. By insisting first of all on speaking languages that could be understood by everybody (most of them didn’t even know how to speak Latin), but also holding up the rights of the Eastern churches, particularly the patriarchal and major archbishop churches, recognizing that they follow the pope, and not the cardinals. There was a lot of noise at that time but it’s very interesting — I just came back from Rome two months ago where we had the ad limina of the Eastern Catholic bishops in the US and we had a three-hour dialogue with Pope Francis. And it was shocking because he had no prepared speech. And he said, we will talk about whatever you want. And what he did mention to us — and he’s looking into it — he said, the proper theology in the church is that [there is] the pope, and then the patriarch, and then the cardinals. He said the cardinals have no jurisdiction, they’re a creation to help the pope in running the church. And he said there’s no reason — and he’s looking into it — that a patriarch should even be named a cardinal, and secondly, that they should be allowed — and I believe he’s going to do this soon — patriarchs and major archbishops, who are practically equal to patriarchs — to be electors at the conclave for a new pope. And he said they will not be cardinals and they should not be cardinals. And that was a breath of fresh air. We all smiled of course.

The major problem was with the Syro-Malabar church, who was locked up by the Portuguese just in the state of Kerala, India. But their people are spread all over India and they are a native church and they finally started getting dioceses outside the state of Kerala. However, they have over 400,000 of their people now in the Persian Gulf countries and they want a bishop and a diocese. And there has been some noise through the bureaucracy in Rome. And we mentioned this at several of the dicasteries that we visited – the dicastery for bishops, the dicastery for evangelization — but when we sat down with the pope this came up again. And the Syro-Malabar brought it up and the Pope had a big smile on his face. “Bishop, Bishop, it’s all done. I’m creating a diocese and I’ve already got the names for a bishop, and I believe that the Syro-Malabar church should become a patriarchate.” Now this is interesting because I know that the Ukrainians have been asking for this and use the title. He didn’t say much about this only because there is still this strong problem in ecumenism with Russia and Ukraine and a lot of political stuff involved. But it was very interesting that he’s looking at this seriously.

Two days after this meeting the news arrived to me (and it didn’t become public until three days later; I knew ahead of time), [about] one of my priests, Fr. George Gallaro. He’s an Italian by background, Italo-Greek background, who became a Melkite 50 years ago and has been a major part of our church and eventually was elected 5 or 6 years ago to be the Byzantine bishop of Sicily for the Italo-Greek-Albanian church. And they finished the ad limina the next day, and the phone call came from Bishop Gallaro that he had been appointed the Secretary to the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. This is a major breakthrough, because the pope had mentioned that the Congregation for the Eastern Churches should have an Easterner directing it because we know our church. The Latins don’t know it so well, and all of the staff should be Easterners. Now he puts the main role to the Secretary. And he’s looking for a new Prefect because Cardinal Sandri is over the age for retirement already, and probably we’ll see one coming soon and probably another Easterner. Now Bishop Gallaro has automatically been named an archbishop. We see it as a beautiful gesture to the Melkite church because he was a Melkite priest and bishop, and not only for the United States but for the whole Melkite church and certainly my diocese here. And so I’m very proud of him; he will be on the cover of Sophia magazine, which comes out next month. And it shows the growth in the mind of the West, particularly the pope, that the East needs to develop and grow and direct itself. So this is a great sign.

The past was the past. We can criticize it 100 percent. They were ignorant of us in the United States; we had problems and I’m sure the Ukrainians did too. We had several bishops who wouldn’t allow our Melkite priests to chrismate children at baptism, but we had no bishops to fight for us at that time. So we got stuck. But Vatican II made a major change and we see that the Latin church was no longer considered as the top church, that there was equality in the 21 Eastern and Western churches, not in size but in honor and in dignity. Each one has a tradition. We developed through Maximos IV a group of bishops and priests in Cairo and in Syria — we called it the Cairo School. They were looking to go back to the proper tradition and bring it back. Archbishop Tawil, who was our second bishop here in the United States — his first pastoral letter was “The Courage to be Ourselves,” which is still very popular today and is quoted again and again. “We are who we are, and we must love who we are and be who we are.” And he had with him at that time Archbishop Hakim, who became Patriarch Maximos V, and he had Archbishop Edelby from Aleppo, Syria and Fr. Orest Kerame, who was one of the periti advisors to the patriarch and synod at Vatican II. And they made a major breakthrough. And through that in the US, when Archbishop Tawil came, we slowly went back to our proper traditions when it came to baptism and chrismation and the eucharist and not following the Latin custom. And having funerals and weddings without the divine liturgy, which was the custom in our church because the divine liturgy was a community event. You could have two or three weddings on Sunday and if you had liturgies with them it was silly.

So going back to these proper traditions of our church – of course in modern society – we didn’t get frozen into the fourteenth century – there are some developments that did take place. And the monastic office of course got adapted in parish life. We didn’t have to follow the rigidity of the monks who prayed in the monastery and had the time. Parish life was slowly evolving again to having a parochial or cathedral office, as it was called up until the eighth or ninth century when it fell into disuse as the monastic tradition took over. But in parishes, we still encourage through this time after Vatican II, that vespers be celebrated at least on Saturday night and on great feasts, and that the morning office or orthros also be partially celebrated. The new law that came out of the study of the canons that Rome promulgated focused on participation in either vespers or the orthros or the divine liturgy, which fulfills the involvement in prayer life. So this was very major…


Archbishop Zogby was also a member [of this group] and he became the great ecumenical man who wanted to break the pride of both sides, to say “hey, we’re brothers,” and it’s still in progress because historically in the  1600s and 1700s we had intercommunion. The Orthodox bishops welcomed the Latin priests to hear confessions and to educate some of our clergy because they were poorly educated, and there was intercommunion, and of course that came to a certain point where it had to be stopped. But there was that in the past. So can we have that today? That is still being talked about a lot. And the great man behind that is Archbishop Zogby of blessed memory, and we still bring up that whole issue. I think the Ukrainians looked into it very strongly and studied the whole idea. We are brothers and we have to talk to each other.

– What theological issues do you think Eastern Catholics are called to study together, and in what forms can this happen?

I think we have to study everything together. Our canon law needs some adaptations. […] Law doesn’t become the only thing. Liturgy is the lived experience of our church. So I think we need to come together, and try, at least in the Byzantine traditions, to celebrate a common liturgy and each of us making minor adaptations… Here in this country we’re all together and more and more, the language of this country is being used, and we should try to do this together. This was a proposal I also spoke about with Rome and they brought it up too: that all who each have the same Byzantine liturgy, should have a common translation. When I celebrate in the Ukrainian church, as I did two months ago for a funeral, I was tripping over the text, because my text was a little different – a word different here, a word different there. You don’t need this: it’s the same liturgy. That’s one of the hardest things to do. My thing is, find one liturgist from each [church], lock them in a room and tell them, don’t come out until you agree, because everyone likes a different word. But we can do it. We can do it today. And also that means in minor rubrics — some rubrics that developed into our church came from social custom, and were liturgical, for instance, the blessing of pascha food among the Slavic people. And what they’re doing, they’re blessing it on Holy Saturday singing “Khrystos voskres,” when it should not even take place yet! That’s a social custom that developed. So these things need to be adapted, and I think we should study all these things together.

The moral theology of our churches is all the same, and we could study it all together based on liturgical life. Our catechetical life is based on our liturgical life. We’ve always said our liturgy is catechesis. But how do we apply it? We became rubricists – “make sure you follow, turning to the right, turning to the left, swing the censer 16 times” or whatever it may be — but we never adapted it into catechesis with the people. I have a document that we made about liturgical catechesis — that liturgical life is catechesis, and we’re developing that now through my office of evangelization and catechesis directed by Fr. Hesechias Carnazzo. And we’re becoming successful. It’s a slow process. Now during this Coronavirus we were forced to do many home issues, more than coming to the church schools, and that in my mind is one of the major things we need to do together: educating our adults. We always say the first catechetical place is the home. But we didn’t develop that. We developed children’s education, Sunday schools and things like that, but we never taught the parents how to be the catechists. So we need to do that much, much more.

You served as president of the association of Eastern Catholics in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. What were its successes? Does it remain successful now?

[laughs] That’s very interesting. First of all — technically, it was not a part of the USCCB. It was an association of Eastern Catholic bishops that developed a number of years ago before my time and basically it was an annual dinner — going to one bishop’s chancery, we travelled there, had dinner there, and he set a little agenda. And it was a nice social. So I got involved, and became a bishop 31 years ago. And I said, I can eat dinner at my house, let’s do something more, let’s make an agenda, let’s talk. And it was necessary at that time to establish what we called the ECA – Eastern Catholic Associates – we didn’t name it a bishops’ conference, we named it that because of a variety of things that happened with it. The development of the religious education programs started about 50 years ago now, which has produced the “God with Us” series and many resources. It was started by a couple of priests (I was a seminarian the first year and became a priest later). And we started getting together, realizing that we needed our own catechetical material. So once it started we needed an umbrella that could give us tax exemptions and things like that. So the bishops were forced, in a way, to establish the ECA, which was the umbrella organization. And one of the arms of the ECA or committees was the education committee. And that’s how the ECA got started. And then when I became president  — because I made a lot of noise at the meetings – I wound up [president for] 6 years – I started a little agenda-making and we got together and we talked a little bit more… It took a long time to get together. In those days the Eastern bishops were very minimal in the States. We didn’t get ours until 1966, and then the Maronites, and little by little, Vatican II opened the door to all of them. So they didn’t have the recognition that we have today.

I remember [when] I was a priest in Chicago and Bishop Tawil, who ordained me (by the way as deacon, priest, and bishop — the patriarch couldn’t come during the Lebanese war to ordain me a bishop, so he delegated Archbishop Tawil) — he came to the conference of bishops that was at Chicago that week. And I picked him up one day and he was very agitated. I said, “What’s the matter?” We were going to dinner. He said he was new in the country and his English was good, but he needed [to understand it] better, so he wanted to always go up to the front at the conference of bishops and listen closely in the front seats. He was met by one of the Eastern bishops, who said, “No, no, we sit in the back. Because the Eastern Church is like the black people in the United States.” I wanted to cry for the poor man. That was the silly mentality then.

Now it’s changed. Through the ECA we developed a lot more vocalness at the bishops’ conference. And nine or ten years ago we asked the bishops’ conference to make a region for the Eastern Catholic Bishops – Region Fifteen. Each one of us was then falling into the region where we lived – one Eastern bishop with 15 Latin bishops. It didn’t make any sense. So the first ad limina we made to Rome was in 2011, because it was in 2010 or 2009 we made that region. We now still have an annual meeting of the Eastern Catholic bishops, usually at the Maronite chancery office, and there we have progressed in developing the educational programs. We were able as Eastern Catholic bishops to run encounters of the Eastern Catholic Churches and we’re looking forward to another one in two years. In 2000 we had the first encounter. I was asked by Rome to chair it and it was in Boston. They set the agenda and it was the bishops and one or two priests only and it went very, very well. And that was North and South America and Australia. But they set the pace. In 2006 we had the second encounter, that again I chaired for the Eastern bishops and we did it in Chicago and we had over 130 people – bishops, educators, laity, and priests and nuns, and we studied common things and it was for the United States and Canada, the English-speaking, and Australia was invited. And in 2010, 2011 or 2012 we had the third set of encounters, and there we broke it into not one in the whole country but four: East, West, Midwest and South. And we had over a thousand people and we opened it up to the laity. And they were crying, “We want more, we want more.” We were learning our traditions and we were learning each other. And now – this came up at the bishops’ conference several years ago and they decided they didn’t want it, but now we’re talking again and we’re going to do it: I’m in charge of setting it up a committee of some clergy, deacons and priests, to set up a plan for four or possibly five gatherings of Eastern Catholic bishops – not Eastern Catholic bishops only, but the laity also. Clergy and laity, for growth of our Eastern Catholic churches in the United States. This was very important and developed from the ECA.

– To what extent are the laity of the Melkite Church involved in solving church problems, not only in the USA, but also in other countries? What lay organizations are active?

I know in the Middle East they have what they call the [indistinct] Great Council or diocesan council (eparchial council) working with the bishop. But that developed so differently [in] the Ottoman times, when it was very important for the laity, who got involved in choosing their bishops, that they chose a bishop who could play the political game well. Because under the Ottomans, the church was civil [authority](other than in cases of murder; anything else, the church had). The bishops and the patriarchs ran their church under the Ottomans. That was the way the Ottomans divided it for the Christians, for the ritual churches. They were afraid that if they got an ultra-spiritual bishop, that he did not know how to deal with the civil empire. After the Ottomans were gone, after World War One, it still played a role in the Middle East. The church still gets somewhat involved in politics — which is not very healthy. And we’re recognizing that as a big problem we face now.

When they came to this country they had the same mentality: that church councils run the church. That created major problems for all of us. When Archbishop Tawil came in 1970 he established eparchial, diocesan councils, parish councils. But we were supposed to have proper training in how they should be run. And the role of the laity was very important in the church. Not all of them work well. Particularly when you have immigrant families who have this concept that a council is a council of control.  Finally, with the new canon law we are breaking away from pastoral councils that deal with everything. And we’ve developed in the Melkite Church in the US three councils: the parish pastoral advisory council deals only with pastoral issues — make your parish alive, elderly people, young people, whatever it may be, senior citizens, hospital visitations, what does it take to make an active liturgical parish; a finance committee – separate – advisory to the priest, with people educated in finance; and a building and property maintenance council that takes care of that. So you don’t have everything in one council where everybody wants to talk about money. It’s a slower process that’s starting to develop. In several parishes, I have canceled parish councils where they were fighting with the clergy. And we made commitments, which is basically the same, but the committees are working. So it’s a redevelopment taking place.

But I’m a firm believer that we didn’t spend enough time in evangelization. It was normal when we first came to this country, we were ethnic groups of people, our people stuck together. The Slavs liked to make pierogi, the Arabs liked to make some of their Arabic foods, tabouleh, kibbeh, whatever, and it was normal for those people to be together. By the second generation and the third, “I can buy all that food in stores. Yes, it’s still better from Mama, but I can still buy it.” And we’re now overseeing ourselves as just an ethnic church; we’re here to evangelize the world.  The Scripture tells us, “there’s no Greek, there’s no Syrian,” there’s no Ukrainian, it’s all the one body of Christ. And everyone should be welcome to join this community, and we have something special to give to the West. But our laity became the cooks in the church and the cleaners – when you had a party they set it up and they broke it down and they cleaned the floors and the ladies cooked the food. There’s more to spiritual gifts than just cleaning and cooking. And we need to re-focus very strongly on the education or the catechization, the evangelization of our people. I hate to say this, but I really believe, 80 or maybe 90% of our faithful are not evangelized. They know “one God, three Persons, Jesus Christ, Mary, Mother of God,” but they don’t know how to put all of that into action and live it. Ask a Catholic, East or West, to get up and give a witness about what Christ means to them. My God, they’re afraid! They’re afraid to say something. So we need to really focus on evangelizing our people. We’ve lost a lot of time, but it’s not impossible.  Thank God we have a lot of good ones and we can use them. Christ started with twelve; we can start with twelve too, and work it out. 

 – Your Church’s presence in the US dates from roughly the same period as ours. But whereas many of our faithful have felt strongly that the Ukrainian vernacular liturgy (though not the traditional Church Slavonic) should be preserved, as opposed to English, your Church adopted English early on. In recent decades, both our Churches have experienced a new influx of immigrants. How has your Church experienced the issue of language?

For the first generation of course it was very necessary, especially because the Middle Easterners came here even illiterate in their own language. My grandparents on both sides couldn’t read or write their own language. They could speak of course their own dialect. And Arabic is two languages. There’s classical and there’s dialect. Much like Ukrainian and Old Slavonic. When these languages were known in their home country they understood it all. But as the church grew, the children didn’t learn the languages so much. Among the Ukrainians, they tried to preserve it. Among the Greeks, they tried. But we’re beginning to see that those numbers are much less than what people think. And the East always had that concept. We never had a sacred language only for the liturgy. Old Slavonic, when it was known by those countries, was normally understood. But as the people lost that knowledge, the [new] languages should come in — Ukrainian.

Now when they come to this country they have to start adapting. I believe the basis of our liturgical life is English. You use an ethnic language where needed. If someone doesn’t understand it I’m not              them saying, you can’t use it. Of course. In sacramental life they have to understand. But they adapt. It’s amazing, they adapt in going to the bank, in going to the supermarket, in buying cars, in going to work, in learning the language. Therefore they have to adapt and learn the liturgical language of the country. I’m not forcing the language out, but we have problems in our churches now. Again, when these people focus just on an ethnic language, they’re focusing really on ethnicity. And not just the language. You can’t be forever and ever, five generations later, Middle Eastern Syrians and Lebanese. You can’t do it. I am one of four children. My younger brother, my younger sister, if they know any Arabic it’s a few words for food. Their children don’t know anything. It’s just a common thing. Archbishop Tawil was very strong about that – bringing in anyone who wants to be a Melkite. And the language is not that necessary.

We’re facing a new problem with the new immigration right now. I have several new churches. Allentown, Pennsylvania is all new immigrants coming from Syria, the Valley of the Christians. And the main language right now is Arabic. But I have forced upon them half English. And their children are smiling because they may talk broken Arabic to their parents, but they don’t know classical Arabic. I was so happy when I learned to read classical Arabic. I went home from the seminary that year and I’m reading to my grandparents – I couldn’t speak to them – I had learned a little bit of Arabic but that was it – and they didn’t speak English. So I took a children’s book with me, Pinocchio, reading to them the story of Pinocchio in Arabic, and they [said], “What are you saying?” They didn’t understand it. It was classical. And then dialects differ from city to city in the Middle East, and from country to country. If you call somebody “aziz,” which means “the sanctifier” in Syria, you mean a priest. If you say that in Lebanon you’re talking about a Protestant minister. So you get dialects that differ. […]

And there are ways to get around that. The Latins are doing that now in their churches with the Spanish. When you go to a Latin church (I sometimes help out with confirmation for them) and the epistle if it’s going to be in Spanish that Sunday, it has an English translation in the bulletin. And the next Sunday it’s in English and there’s a Spanish translation. We have to get around it. The new community that has started in Jacksonville, Florida, again, is heavily Arabic, but the priest I’m sending there, whom I’ll be ordaining in July, and opening the community, is Lebanese-born but came to the United States at eighteen, a married man. He’s fluent in both, and he knows that they require English. And they know. I was there to visit them for five days. And language came up. And they were the ones who said to me, “Bishop (they called me Sayeed-mem, meaning “a master,” “vladyko”), we need English. Our children don’t understand classical Arabic.” So thank God there’s some. You’re going to get here and there a few who won’t come to church because [there is] no Arabic. Well, God bless them [inaudible], they can find it in a Latin church, which I doubt. So these are some of the things that we identify with. I think it’s a slow process.        

– In your experience, what concrete forms of cooperation with your Orthodox counterparts have you found effective?

On this last question, cooperation with the Orthodox, I’ve been a member of the Orthodox-Catholic bishops’ dialogue thirty-one years. We meet annually. There’s two branches of it: the theologians meet and the bishops meet separately. Two bishops are with the theologians. And we’ve made great strides. The theologians have worked over many common things together. Instead of looking at what divides us, we look at what unites us. And we’re finding that we’re only an ounce away from each other. We even got to the point where we can say, the filioque issue is silly. After all these years… At least when the bishops’ dialogue, we don’t take what people call the “division aspects” strongly. We talk about our pastoral life together. What happens when you have an Orthodox and a Catholic marriage? How do you handle this? What do we do? What about the children? So we have a great dialogue there. This year we’re missing the meeting because of the Coronavirus. But there’s been a breakdown. Not with everybody, but there’s been a breakdown.

We had a great dialogue going with the Greeks when we were using their theological school here in Brookline, Holy Cross, for our education. And I was rector of the seminary one year, and when I went to the meetings, the bishop (who became the archbishop), Demetrius, said, “Our best students are the Melkites.” As the Greeks just came because they had to. It was very interesting. The dialogue continues. It’s going to take a long time. Tonight I’m going to be on a Zoom with my deacon candidates (our program for June had to be postponed and we don’t know when yet, it’ll probably be another year) and they just want to get together and talk. And one of the things they are going to bring up is, why can’t we celebrate Pascha together? Sad, very sad. We attempted in the Middle East to try that, but we need unanimity with all the Easterners. And it didn’t work. You’re going to have one do it, another not do it; it’s a real problem.

Interviewer: Andrew Sorokowski