By Archbishop Mark Coleridge
IN Western societies, the word “patriarch” has had a bad press in recent times.
It’s acquired a negative tinge, largely because of the pressure of the different kinds of feminism that have emerged.
But that’s certainly not true for the Christian Churches of the East.
Just recently we’ve had in Brisbane the Patriarch of the Maronite Church Cardinal Bechara Betros Rai and the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Church Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk.
He’s not technically a Patriarch, but he’s the next best thing and is often called Patriarch. Both are accorded the rather fulsome title of “Your Beatitude”, which makes anything in the Latin Church seem a bit pallid.
I might add that Archbishop Shevchuk was elected Major Archbishop at the astonishingly young age of 40 and is now only 44.
Because of his age, he hasn’t yet been named a cardinal, but that will surely come.
Their visits have been an important moment not only for their own people but for all of us in the archdiocese, giving us a deeper and richer sense of what it means to be Catholic.
As Pope John Paul II remarked, the Catholic Church breathes not with one lung but two – the West and the East.
So these visits have helped us see more of what it means for the Church here to breathe with two lungs.
It’s important to realise that the Maronite Church and the Ukrainian Church are not just rites within the universal Church but Churches in their own right.
Both have fascinating histories.
The Maronites trace their origins to the third century Syrian hermit known as St Maron, an Aramaic name which means “little lord”.
When eventually they moved from Antioch into what we know as Lebanon, their first bishop was John Maron, and the current Patriarch is his 77th successor.
The Ukrainians are one of the Churches that emerged after the acceptance of Christianity by Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev in 988, but they assumed their current form only after the Union of Brest in 1595-96.
Within the universal Church, by far the biggest – though not the oldest – Church is the Latin Church into which most of us were born and to which most of us belong.
Historically, the Latin Church, because of its size and power, has tended to impose its ways on the other Churches in communion with the See of Rome.
But since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a greater awareness of the need to let the Churches of the East be themselves, with their own forms of worship and governance, their own language, culture and traditions.
Unity is crucial to the communion of the Church, but it doesn’t mean uniformity.
At the same time, the two Churches acknowledge the pope not only as Bishop of Rome but as the Universal Pastor and the Head of the College of Bishops who has not just a primacy of honour but, as the Successor of Peter, a primacy of jurisdiction within the whole Church.
The Maronite and Ukrainian churches have suffered greatly through history, and that’s why their faith and their sense of themselves are so strong.
Their suffering is not a thing of the past; both Churches are under great pressure right now, given the political and military situation in the Ukraine and the Middle East.
Both Churches are victims of their geography.
For the Ukrainians, it’s never been easy having Russia as a neighbour, it still isn’t.
To make matters worse, the Orthodox Churches of the region regard the Ukrainian Catholic Church as a traitor to the native culture because of its communion with the See of Rome.
Nor has it been easy for the Maronite Church to sit between Syria and Israel in a part of the world where warfare of one kind or another is the norm of everyday life; and the Maronites too are viewed with suspicion by Orthodox Christians because of their loyalty to Rome.
Because of their long history of suffering, both Ukraine and Lebanon have known massive migrations to places like Australia, which is why the two patriarchs have been here.
One of the dangers when Maronite and Ukrainian Catholics come to a place like Australia is a loss of identity, not only because the Latin Church is so dominant here but also because of the influence of secular culture in Australia.
The visit of the heads of the two Churches is a way of counteracting that and bolstering a healthy sense of identity, especially among the young.
It’s a chance for us Latin Catholics to learn more of the Churches of the East who are no less Catholic than we are.
It’s also a chance for us to express our common faith with them – which is why I have celebrated Mass with both the patriarchs – but also to express our solidarity with fellow Catholics who are under a kind of pressure that we struggle to appreciate.
When one part of the Body of Christ is in trouble, the whole Body suffers.
The two parts of the Body of Christ that we call the Maronite and Ukrainian churches are in trouble; and we can’t ignore their pain. It’s our pain too.
But if in the midst of all their hardships, they find hope, then that enriches our hope too. Their witness to Christ strengthens all of us.
So we give thanks for the visits, but we also look for ways in which we can support our brothers and sisters of the Eastern Churches at this time.