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Jerusalem – A priest belonging to one of the Catholic communities present in the Holy Land can administer the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and the Anointing of the sick even to Christians belonging to Orthodox and Eastern non-Catholic Churches, if they request it spontaneously, on their own initiative, “and are adequately prepared”. This is the most exemplary provision contained in the text of the “Ecumenical Pastoral Directives” for the Catholic Churches, just issued in Arabic by the Assembly of Catholic Ordinary Bishops of the Holy Land.
The document provides guidelines and also binding provisions on crucial issues for the spiritual life of Christians belonging to the many ecclesial communities present in the region. The pastoral directives aim to “illuminate, stimulate and guide the ecumenical relations of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land” by applying the teaching and guidelines followed in sacramental matters by the Catholic Church to the current local ecclesial context.
The directives apply to all Catholic Churches in the Holy Land , involve Latin, Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean, Sire, Armenian and Coptic Catholic communities, and concern in particular the participation in the sacramental life, crucial issue and of great interest for the ordinary life and common witness of the baptized in the lands where Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and rose again. Other issues – such as ecumenical formation in schools and the promotion of charitable initiatives shared between Catholic and non-Catholic ecclesial communities – will be addressed in future pronouncements by the Assembly of Catholic Ordinary Bishops of the Holy Land.
In the first part of the directives, the particular significance assumed by the “ecumenical issue” in the context of the Holy Land, where multiple ecclesial rites and traditions have always coexisted, is outlined in summary. This diversity, in the course of history, instead of being recognized and welcomed as a richness, has often been reduced to a mere instrument of identity differentiation in the divisions of doctrinal, jurisdictional and power oppositions that have torn the communion between Christians.
The orientation document released by the Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land recognizes that now the situation is “completely different”. The ecumenical journey strongly promoted after the Second Vatican Council, gestures such as the pilgrimage of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in 1964 and also the difficult political and social conditions experienced in the Holy Land in recent decades, have contributed to bringing together the Churches, which have also assumed the recent commitment of restorations in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher.
The Christians of the Holy Land, although belonging to different communities – underlines the document with precious and eloquent annotations – live “side by side”, and recognize the common vocation to confess faith in Christ together in the current context of the Holy Land, marked by conflicts, suffering and opposing fundamentalisms. Mixed marriages, between Christian spouses belonging to different confessions, are now a constant feature of the family life of all the baptized in the area, who “sometimes even go so far as to say that they are in full communion, and that the division is only a question that concerns the clergy”.
Daily coexistence leads the baptized not to give too much weight to the confessional boundaries between one ecclesial community and another, also with regard to liturgical life and sacramental practice. The baptized “spontaneously identify themselves as Christians, while priests tend to define themselves according to confessional standards”. This spontaneous process has been confronted in recent years and “in some places”, with a certain “tendency to reaffirm sectarian identity”, marked sometimes also by an attitude of withdrawal and hostility towards other Christian communities. The provisions of the Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land explicitly recall as their sources of inspiration the essential statements of Catholic doctrine in ecumenical matters, referring to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and to the Pastoral Plan issued by the Diocesan Synod of Catholic Churches in the Holy Land in 2000.
All baptized Catholics are called to “faithfully” respect those magisterial texts. With regard to sacramental and liturgical life, it is reiterated that it is necessary to keep in mind the different degrees of “imperfect communion” shared by Catholics with Christians of other Churches and ecclesial communities.
In the third section, criteria and directives are defined in detail that should guide Catholics – clergy and laity – in sharing the sacramental life with baptized persons of other Christian confessions.
First of all, the orientation document encourages believers “to practice their faith and sacramental life in their own churches”, and to avoid any attitude of slovenly indifferentism towards ecclesial discipline regarding liturgical celebrations and the administration of the sacraments. It reaffirms that “every Christian has the right, for reasons of religious conscience, to freely decide on his own ecclesiastical affiliation”. And the “permanent and clear distinction between participation in non-sacramental liturgical worship and the life of the sacraments, in particular of the Eucharist, is reaffirmed”.
Next, the document provides guidelines for sharing the sacramental life with the children of the Eastern Churches or the Eastern Orthodox Churches. It is explicitly reiterated that Catholic priests are authorized to administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick to the faithful of the Eastern Churches, if they request it and are adequately prepared. At the same time, it is clarified that Orthodox Christians and the ancient non-Catholic Eastern Churches are required to respect the discipline and customs with which the sacraments are administered in the Catholic Church. It is clarified that a baptized person belonging to the non-Catholic Orthodox and Eastern Churches can carry out the role of godfather or godmother, together with a Catholic godfather or godmother, in the baptism of a Catholic. Similarly, a Christian belonging to an Eastern Church can witness a marriage in a Catholic Church.
In continuity with the guidelines already defined by the great discipline of the Catholic Church, it is also repeated that, in situations of danger of death, “Catholic priests can administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick to members of other Churches or ecclesial groups”, when they cannot resort to priests or ministers of worship belonging to their own ecclesial community, provided that those who ask for such sacraments do so on their own initiative and in full freedom, expressing their faith in the sacrament they receive.