Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Big East" Weekend, Church Edition

In a confluence of events apparently without precedent, this coming weekend will see the two largest Eastern Catholic churches formally install new heads.

Chosen a week ago, tomorrow brings the enthronement of Lebanon's newly-elected Maronite patriarch of Antioch, 71 year-old Beshara Peter Rai (above), whose worldwide fold includes some 4 million members.

Given its concentration at home, the Maronite church is the largest Catholic body in the Middle East.

A surprise choice for the Antioch chair -- its roots deriving from St Peter's brief time there prior to the First Apostle's settlement in Rome -- Rai's elevation is said to cast a more moderate direction for the Maronite leadership from his predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who led the church for a quarter-century prior to his retirement at 91 late last month.

Hailed as a "pioneer of unity," the 77th patriarch of Antioch and the Whole Levant -- who, in keeping with the tradition of his predecessors, has added "Peter" to his name -- has chosen "Communion and Charity" as the leitmotif of his ministry at the church's helm.

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On Sunday in Ukraine, meanwhile, the 6 million-member Ukrainian Greek Catholic church will inaugurate the successor to Cardinal Lubomyr Husar with a liturgy in its still-rising new cathedral (below) in the historic cradle of Russian Christianity, Kiev.

Lacking the patriarchal designation -- at least, formally -- while the next major-archbishop of the UGCC was reportedly elected earlier today, the choice's identity won't be revealed until his ascent has been confirmed by the Holy See.

Notably, the 40 bishops of the Ukrainian Synod took all four days of their gathering -- the total time allotted under the UGCC's particular law -- to select the church's new head. According to a brief from the Kiev-based curia after Day Three closed without a winner, on the final day of balloting the required threshold for election switches from a two-thirds margin to a simple majority between the two leading candidates from the previous vote, the scenario indicating that no contender could garner overly broad support from the other eparchs.

Either way, the next Ukrainian chief is likely to mark a generational shift and more from the 77 year-old Husar, who's led the worldwide fold since 2001 until retiring last month amid years of poor health.

With the church persecuted severely on its home-turf, as the last three generations of UGCC hierarchs have either governed from exile or spent at least part of their ministry underground, Husar's potential successors have been able to function openly in a free Ukraine -- not one without its challenges, of course, but a markedly different landscape from the experience of their predecessors. As the de facto patriarch himself said on his retirement, "a new situation is approaching and new strengths are needed."

Husar likewise voiced his wish for the election of a considerably younger successor. "My peers are retirees," he said. "To hand down the office to someone of my age would not be serious.... I hope and I am sure that during our electoral Synod the bishops will seek a man who will have [a] vision for the future."

For all the divergences of custom and challenges between their two churches, one thing both Rai and the next UGCC head both inherit is the reality of complex, high-stakes political situations.

In a religiously-divided Lebanon -- where, by law, the president must be a Maronite -- the patriarch plays a significant role in the national discourse, a prerogative Sfeir prominently exercised often. Accordingly, the country's political establishment flocked to the patriarchal seat at Bkirki in the wake of Rai's election, representatives from Hezbollah included. (Rai is shown above with the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, on the latter's congratulatory visit hours after the patriarch's election.)

Among other significant gestures at the outset of his tenure, the new Maronite chief has indicated his wish to visit the church's membership in Syria -- a sizable tone-shift from his predecessor, who rapped Damascus' "interference" in Lebanese politics during his reign. During his 25 year patriarchate, Sfeir never journeyed to see his Syrian fold.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, Husar's successor will have the daunting task of following the cleric deemed the nation's "most respected moral voice," alongside stepping into the leadership of a flock that's repeatedly clashed with the local Russian Orthodox church, which has received an increasing amount of support from the state over the UGCC's protests. What's more, depending on his leanings, the Synod's choice could either further pave the way toward Pope Benedict's much-cherished ambition of an unprecedented meeting with the patriarch of Moscow, or galvanize the Russian church's hard-liners, whose suspicion of Rome has made progress toward a summit between B16 and Patriarch Kirill I a plodding, often-halting path.

Beyond their respective situations at home, the Maronite patriarch and the Ukrainian major-archbishop share a significant distinction on the church's universal stage: for the last half-century, theirs are the only two Eastern seats whose occupants have consistently been elevated to the college of cardinals as papal electors.

As patriarchates are lifetime posts, most Oriental chiefs who are given the red hat receive it following their 80th birthdays. Before the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, Antonios Naguib, was inducted into the college at last November's consistory at age 75 -- and that only after an outcry from the delegates to last year's Synod of Bishops for the Middle East -- the last resident Eastern leader become a Roman elector was Husar, hours after his 2001 election as head of the Ukrainian church.

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Lastly, in a salient development on the Russian front, in a high-profile speech in Germany over recent days, the Moscow church's lead point-man on external relations, Metropolitan Hilarion -- who succeeded Kirill in the ecumenical post -- gave a significantly beefed-up voice to "an old idea" of his: namely, "a strategic alliance with the Catholics."

"I... am asking us to act as allies," Hilarion said, "without being a single Church, without having a single administrative system or common liturgy, and while maintaining the differences on the points in which we differ.

"This is especially important in light of the common challenges that face both Orthodox and Catholic Christians," the Russian hierarch added.

"These are first and foremost the challenges of a godless world, which is equally hostile today to Orthodox believers and Catholics, the challenge of the aggressive Islamic movement, the challenge of moral corruption, family decay, the abandonment by many people in traditionally Christian countries of the traditional family structure, liberalism in theology and morals, which is eroding the Christian community from within.

"We can respond to these, and a number of other challenges, together."

PHOTOS: Getty(1); Reuters(3)