Today I saw the “welcome home” party for the new Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim at his cathedral, which he left two weeks ago as a metropolitan archbishop going to participate in the late patriarch’s funeral and the selection of his successor. (The archdiocese has posted a bunch of information about him here.) Understandably, the cathedral was crowded, and I wouldn’t have gotten a seat had a friend not saved space for me, although in the event I was seated right next to the central aisle, so I had an excellent view of the patriarch-elect (technically, he isn’t patriarch until his enthronement, which I think will be later this month), but stupidly I forgot to bring my camera.
The altar area was flanked not only by the episcopal throne (to the left, as is customary in Middle Eastern churches), but also by seats placed for hierarchs from many other churches who came to congratulate and felicitate the new patriarch-elect. Included were (among others; I didn’t have a program and am now writing from memory): Mor Titus Yeldho (Malankara Archbishop of the US), Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard (OCA Metropolitan of North America), Bp. Nicholas Samra (Greek Melkite Catholic Eparch of Newton), Bp. Gregory John Mansour (Maronite Bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn), Bp. Yousif Habash (Syrian Catholic Eparch of Newark), Bishop David of New York and New England (Coptic), and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian (Armenian Orthodox Primate of North America), as well as representatives of Archbishop Demetrios (Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the USA), of Metropolitan Silouan (Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchal Vicar of All North America), and of the Knanaya Christian community.
Phew. That’s a lot of names and titles. It was certainly interesting to see all these hierarchs, and their various different vestments. In a previous century, they would almost certainly not have been seen on the same platform, and certainly not speaking encouragingly to each other. Even more interesting where the various surprising statements (surprising due to their transgressions of canonical norms, primarily). Pope Francis wrote a letter congratulating Mor Ignatius Ephrem II on being elected “Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East” without any qualification upon that title to indicate it only applied to Syrian Orthodox. (Of course the Syrian Orthodox do not insert “Syrian Orthodox” before “Patriarch,” any more than the Roman Catholic Church uses the adjective “Roman”; both adjectives are qualifiers applied by external interlocutors for the sake of clarify and sanity.) Another of the Catholic bishops said that he was asked why he was here (being Catholic, not Orthodox), and he reported his response was that this church was his home, and that he was here as both an Orthodox bishop and a Catholic bishop. That’s a challenging canonical tangle. He also attempted to kneel to Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II, who prevented him and embraced him.
The Chalcedonians were generally more circumspect in their congratulations, as is to be expected. But even a Chalcedonian metropolitan referred to the late Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas (the predecessor of the newly elected Syrian Orthodox patriarch) as “thrice-blessed,” the language used by the Syrian Orthodox but certainly inappropriate for a “heretic.” Another Chalcedonian metropolitan expressed confidence that the selection of this patriarch was God’s choice, and prayed that the new patriarch would be guided by the Holy Spirit.
The Armenian, Coptic, and Malankara bishops were all unstinting in their praise of the new patriarch, as may be expected from within the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, although good relations between the different branches cannot be taken for granted historically (in the twelfth century the Armenians and Syrians cast mutual anathemas at each other, for example).
All acknowledged the very difficult times facing Middle Eastern Christians both in their home countries and in the diaspora, and the names of the abducted bishops of Aleppo were mentioned frequently. The new patriarch mentioned Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim as a mentor, and specifically asked for everyone’s prayers for the abducted bishops. But perhaps the difficult times are also encouraging multiple Middle Eastern Christian groups to build bridges across ancient divides. This is not a necessary result of difficult times (thinking of the original Islamic conquests, of the Turkic conquests of the eleventh-century Anatolia, and of the plague years and instability in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), so it is interesting to speculate whether the difference today lies in the nature or severity of the difficulties, in the surrounding culture (perhaps Western liberalism or secularism), or in the character of the participating hierarchs themselves.