AFTER HUNDREDS OF YEARS, A RECOGNIZED ASSYRIAN THEOLOGIAN EMERGES FROM WITHIN THE CHURCH OF THE EAST
Amid a crowd of ecclesiastics and scholars, in a room adorned with prelates gowned in cardinal red and episcopal purple, His Excellency Mar Bawai Soro, Bishop of the Diocese of Western California of the Assyrian Church of the East, defended his doctoral thesis with the title, “The Church of the East: Historic Grounds for Apostolic Origins and Theological Premises for Orthodoxy of Faith”, on Wednesday, January 23, 2002 at 4:00 p.m. at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome.
The defense was significant in that it was the first time in the history of the university (the Angelicum) that a bishop was defending. The defense was attended by His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East – who was in Rome for the Assisi Prayer for World Peace – and His Beatitude Mar Raphael I Bidawid, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Also present were Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, former President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Bishop Pierre Duprey, former Secretary of the same – both former dialogue partners of Bishop Soro. To add to the ecumenical ambiance of the defense, His Excellency Mor Gregorius Yuhannan Ibrahim, Syrian Orthodox bishop of Aleppo and His Excellency Mons. Claudio Gugerotti, newly appointed Papal Nuncio to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan were also present. Family members, friends and well-wishers from California, Lebanon and Australia were there in a gesture of support as well.
The defense began with a prayer from Bishop Soro, taken from the eucharistic prayer of Mar Theodore of Mopsuestia. The bishop then gave his half hour presentation before the examining board and the attendees. The crux of the thesis was to present and prove, using the historico-critical method, that the Assyrian Church of the East is apostolic in its inception and orthodox in its faith. Bishop Soro refuted the age-old theory that the Assyrian Church derives its apostolic origins from the see of Antioch, and that her faith is heterodox; “This thesis attempts to find suitable historical and theological grounds to answer those controversial accusations and critical questions raised over the centuries concerning the Church of the East and her Fathers,” the bishop said in his presentation.
The thesis dealt with the apostolic origins of the Church of the East tracing the ‘missing link’ between the Holy City of Jerusalem and Northern Mesopotamia – namely the City of Arbil in the former Assyrian Region of Adiabene. The thesis also defended the orthodoxy of faith of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius of Constantinople who are revered by the Assyrian Church as teachers of the true faith. The bishop noted that “the time has come for us to take our place among the venerable churches of our age” during his presentation. Bishop Soro also called for a rehabilitation of the Fathers of the Church of the East, advancing the understanding of Theodore and Nestorius within the context of their own thought, and the affirmation of the apostolicity and orthodoxy of the Assyrian Church.
The examination began with questioning Bishop Soro by the director of the dissertation the Franciscan Professor Rev. James Puglisi, S.A., noted ecumenist and ecclesiologist. Professor Puglisi noted the good qualities of the thesis, namely a deep consideration of the sociological and cultural factors with regard to the spread of the Gospel in the region of Adiabene and within the former Persian Empire. The second reader, world-famous Jesuit scholar Professor Rev. Robert F. Taft, S.J., noted both the ecumenical and the historical importance of the thesis.
Professor Taft remarked, “This dissertation is the first serious, modern, scholarly, historico-critical presentation of its own tradition by the ancient, apostolic Orthodox Sister Church, the Assyrian Church of the East.” Stressing the ecumenical factor, Professor Taft said during the examination, “this dissertation is an attempt at self-presentation – the first ever – to others by the Church of the East itself since the period following the split at the Council of Ephesus in 431…” Professor Taft continued, again noting the dissertation “…is also of seminal importance for the Ecumenical Dialogue with the Catholic and other Orthodox Churches.” The third reader, and vice-rector of the university Rev. Professor Charles Morerod, O.P., examined the bishop on the philosophical import of his thesis.
After the strenuous examination the examining board deliberated on their decision for about half an hour before announcing the successful outcome of the defense and the conference of the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology on Bishop Soro. The decision was greeted by loud cheers, applause, and a standing ovation. The bishop gave his thanksgiving discourse immediately after the announcement, and Patriarch Mar Dinkha closed the event with words of praise and joy.
The defense was celebrated in the evening with an elegant dinner at the Centro Pro Unione, a center that fosters ecumenical studies and rapport. The festive meal was attended by the two patriarchs, a number of cardinals, bishops and professors, student-priests, family and friends alike. The joyous and ecumenical atmosphere was studded with words of felicitation and congratulations by close friends. To close the evening, Bishop Soro thanked all those in attendance, especially the two patriarchs – Assyrian and Chaldean – who displayed a bright portrait of long-desired brotherly love and closeness. The whole evening not only gave witness to the inestimable importance of the dissertation for the past identity and future aspirations of the Assyrian Church of the East, but it realized that importance, especially with regard to restoring that full-communion which existed among the Apostles themselves and their followers!
ASSYRIAN PATRIARCH ATTENDS ASSISI DAY OF PRAYER FOR WORLD PEACE
In a positive and ecumenical response to an official invitation from the Vatican, His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, attended the Assisi Day of Prayer for World Peace organized by the Secretariat of State of Vatican City, held on January 24, 2002 in the serene and peaceful city of St. Francis.
The patriarch arrived at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport (Fiumicino), on Monday, January 22 at 2:10 p.m. There to receive the patriarch was Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity with his Under-secretary Mons. Johann Bonny. Also in attendance was His Grace Mar Bawai Soro, Bishop of the Diocese of Western California for the Assyrian Church of the East. The patriarch was escorted to his temporary residence at the Domus Sanctae Mariae, in the Vatican. In the evening, the patriarch met with the 5 student-priests of the Assyrian Church, presently in Rome for their post-graduate studies.
On the following morning, Tuesday January 23, the patriarch met with the Cardinal-President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and the Secretariat of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoring of Migrants and Itinerants. At both these Vatican decastries, the patriarch pleaded on behalf of the Assyrians presently suffering hardships as refugees and itinerants in the Middle East and parts of Europe. In the afternoon, the patriarch met with the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is officially responsible for dialoging with the Assyrian Church of the East. On Wednesday, January 23, 2002 the patriarch also met with the Secretariat of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. Accompanying the patriarch in these various meetings was His Grace Mar Bawai Soro.
Another important event coinciding with the patriarch’s visit, was the defense of the doctoral thesis of His Grace, Bishop Mar Bawai Soro. The defense took place at the aula magna of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) at 4:00 p.m. In attendance were Patriarch Mar Dinkha along with His Beatitude Mar Raphael I, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Also present were Cardinal Edward Cassidy, former President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, numerous bishops, countless priests and professors and well-wishers. Before a rigorous examining board, Bishop Soro defended his thesis entitled, “The Church of the East: Historic Grounds for Apostolic Origins and Theological Premises for Orthodoxy of Faith”. The implications of this scholarly work for the identity and future of the Assyrian Church of the East are both theological and ecumenical. In the words of the second reader of the thesis, world-renown liturgiologist Robert F. Taft, S.J., this thesis “will be of inestimable value in the life of the Church of the East by assisting it in its own self-understanding, and in communicating to its own faithful the riches of its age-old tradition….” The successful completion of the defense, with high honors, was celebrated in the evening by a gallant dinner graced by the presence of the two patriarchs, bishops, professors and family and friends of Bishop Soro.
The highlight of the patriarch’s visit was attending the Assisi prayer, marked by an inter-religious gathering. The delegates from the various Christian Churches and denominations, as well as from the world’s religions mounted the papal train at 8:00 a.m., last used in 1962, along with Pope John Paul II. The delegates arrived at the Piazza Inferiore of the Basilica of St. Francis at 11:00 a.m. A number of delegates gave discourses, the crown of which were the words of John Paul II,
The pope and delegates then had lunch together, hosted by the Franciscan friars. After lunch, the pope and the Christian delegates gathered for prayer in the Basilica of St. Francis. There, Patriarch Mar Dinkha prayed during his turn,
The inter-religious prayer was concluded in the late afternoon with prayers, an exchange of peace, a lamp-lighting ceremony and final remarks from the pontiff.
To close the Assisi Prayer events, Patriarch Mar Dinkha was granted a private audience with the pope, accompanied by His Grace Mar Bawai Soro. Along with the other delegates, the patriarch had lunch with the pope at the Apostolic Palace that afternoon.
The patriarch left Rome for London on Saturday, January 26, 2002 at 1:40 in the afternoon, escorted by the Secretariat of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.