Sixteenth Meeting

Rome, January 27 - February 2, 2019


The sixteenth meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome from January 27 to February 2, 2019, hosted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It was chaired jointly by His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and by His Grace Bishop Kyrillos, Coptic Orthodox Auxiliary Bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles, California, USA.

Representatives came from the Catholic Church and from the following Oriental Orthodox Churches: the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of All Armenians and Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia), the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. No representative of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church was able to attend.

The two delegations met separately on the morning of January 28 and again in the morning of January 31.  Plenary sessions were held from January 28 to February 1, each day beginning with a brief prayer service based on material prepared for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The first plenary session began with prayers for His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, who passed into eternal life on October 2, 2018. He had served as a committed and dedicated Oriental Orthodox Co-Chairman of this dialogue since it began in 2004.  The Oriental Orthodox members nominated Bishop Kyrillos as his successor at their family meeting on January 28.

Cardinal Koch informed the members about ecumenical developments over the past year, including the visit of His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II and His Holiness Catholicos Aram I to the Vatican on April 5; the day of prayer and reflection of Pope Francis and heads of churches in the Middle East in Bari, Italy, on July 7; and  the visit of Catholicos Karekin II to Rome on October 24.

Continuing its focus on the sacraments, this session of the dialogue was entirely devoted to the Sacrament of Marriage.    The Oriental Orthodox papers included a major presentation,  “A Great Mystery: Theology of Marriage in the Oriental Orthodox Churches” by Metropolitan Bishoy (+) and Bishop Kyrillos.  In addition the following papers were presented:  “The Practice of Marriage, Inter-Church Marriages, Divorce and Mixed Marriages in the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church” by Metropolitan Youhanon Mar Demetrios; “Conception of Marriage Sacrament in the Antiochian Syriac Orthodox Church” by Metropolitan Theophilus George Saliba; “Sacrament of Marriage: Armenian Apostolic Perspectives” by Rev. Father Shahe Ananyan; “The Sacrament of Matrimony in the Coptic Orthodox Church” by Rev. Father Shenouda Maher Ishak; and “The Practice of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony (The Sacrament of Crowning) in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church” by Rev. Father Daniel Seifemichael Feleke. 

Four papers on marriage were presented by the Catholic members: “The Sacrament of Matrimony in the Latin Tradition of the Catholic Church” by Professor Dietmar Winkler, “Theology and Spirituality of the Sacrament of Marriage” by Bishop Paul Rouhana, “Canonical Aspects of Marriage in the Catholic Church” by Chorbishop John Faris (invited guest), and “Marriages between Catholics and Muslims” by Archbishop Peter Marayati.

The presented papers and discussions made clear that we are in complete agreement that Christian marriage is a sacrament. We accept the same biblical and patristic sources as the grounds for our belief that the Sacrament of Matrimony is a divine institution. The narratives of the Old Testament present marriage and parenthood as a gift from God so that “the two became one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) and respond to God’s commandment “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). The teachings of Jesus and Saint Paul in the New Testament emphasize the indissoluble bond of marriage, rooted in the mutual love of husband and wife that is a sacramental participation in the mystery of Christ and his Church (Matt. 19:6, Mark 10:9, Eph. 5:32). Marriage, by its very nature ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord himself to the dignity of a sacrament.

As the gospel spread in various regions and cultures, Churches in their Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Indian, Syrian and Latin contexts developed different traditions to celebrate the rite of marriage. We regard this inculturation as mutually enriching. While the understanding of the sacramental nature of matrimony is universal, the rites and ceremonies of matrimony have developed distinctive elements and emphases.

The Church is the principal medium of Christ’s grace. Because Christian marriage is an expression of the union of Christ and the Church, marriage begins and finds its life in the heart of the Church. Therefore, a sacramental marriage is possible only between a baptized woman and a baptized man.  In all of our traditions, a sacramental marriage typically requires the free consent of both the man and the woman, the presence of witnesses, and a blessing within the Body of Christ by an ordained representative of the Church. The Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches require the blessing of a priest or bishop, while the Latin church allows even a deacon to confer the blessing.   

Unity and indissolubility are the distinctive aspects of Christian marriage, but the reality of human frailty and sin means that some marriages weaken and fail. All of our Churches have developed various means to help those who have experienced such pain to remain within the ecclesial community. The possibilities of annulment, dissolution, and divorce are handled differently by the Churches, but always with a pastoral emphasis on healing and spiritual accompaniment. The Oriental Orthodox Churches provide for the possibility of divorce and remarriage for those who were sacramentally married, especially in cases of adultery. While the Catholic Church does not admit the possibility of divorce, it recognizes that some marriages have lacked an essential element from the very beginning and therefore can be declared null. All recognize, and generally agree on, the canonical impediments to marriage.

All of our Churches permit the widowed to remarry. The Oriental Orthodox Churches have simplified forms of the rite of matrimony for second or third marriages, whether for the widowed or the divorced, in order to recognize the uniqueness of the first sacramental marriage.

Our Churches have various approaches to marriage between Christians of different Churches. The Catholic Church permits marriage with other baptized persons under certain conditions.   There are different practices among the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Some require that the prospective spouse who is not in communion with their Church formally join it. In certain cases, this requires baptism and/or chrismation. The social and cultural contexts, especially the legal situation of Churches in some countries in which Christians are in the minority, can also affect their view that spouses must belong to the same Church.

For all our churches marriage between Christians and non-Christians cannot in any case be sacramental, as the sacramental nature of marriage requires that both parties be baptized. Such a marriage is seen as problematic by the Catholic Church and unacceptable by the Oriental Orthodox Churches. However, the Catholic Church will offer prayers as a pastoral provision of ecclesial and spiritual support to the Christian spouse, while the Oriental Orthodox Churches consider the celebration of such marriages to be outside of the ministry of the Church.

In the evening of Monday January 28, Cardinal Koch hosted a dinner for the dialogue members in the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican gardens.  On the evening of Wednesday, January 30, the members attended Vespers at the Benedictine Collegio di Sant'Anselmo at the kind invitation of the Right Revered Gregory Polan, O.S.B., Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, and shared supper with the community.

At 11:00 on Friday morning February 1, His Holiness Pope Francis received the members of the Commission in private audience. In his greetings to the Pope, His Grace Bishop Kyrillos thanked His Holiness for his hospitality, and then reported on the work of the Joint Commission, reflecting in particular that “Marriage was one of the most challenging and important subjects we have discussed. Challenging because of its interdisciplinary nature that touches on the understanding of Holy Scripture, theology, sacramental theology, liturgical history, canon law, and pastoral care. …We deeply appreciate Your Holiness’s efforts to preserve and revive the Christian family in the midst of many attacks and divisions today”.

In his response, Pope Francis stated: “I am certain that your work, carried out in an atmosphere of great harmony, will be to the benefit of the family of God’s children, the Spouse of Christ, who we desire to present to the Lord “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph 5:27), without wounds and without divisions, but in the beauty of full communion”. His Holiness offered participants a copy of his Post–Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia on the theme of love in the family.

The next meeting will take place in Atchaneh, Lebanon, hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. Arrivals on January 26 and departures on February 1, 2020. The main focus of the meeting will be fundamental aspects of sacramental theology. 


The members of the Commission are:


Representatives of the Oriental Orthodox Churches (in alphabetical order)

Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church: H.E. Mar Theophilus George Saliba, Archbishop of Mount Lebanon, Beirut, Lebanon; H.E. Kuriakose Mar Theophilose, Metropolitan of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Theological Seminary and President of the Ecumenical Secretariat of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in India, Ernakulam, India; H.G. Bishop Mor Polycarpus Aydin (observer);

Armenian Apostolic Church: Catholicosate of all Armenians: H.E. Khajag Barsamian, Pontifical Legate for Western Europe and Official Representative of the Armenian Church to the Vatican; Reverend Father Shahe Ananyan, Director of the Interchurch Relationships Department, Etchmiadzin, Armenia;

Armenian Apostolic Church: Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia: H.E. Bishop Magar Ashkarian, Anatelias, Lebanon; Reverend Father Boghos Tinkjian, Dean of the Armenian Theological Seminary, Antelias, Lebanon;

Coptic Orthodox Church: H.G. Bishop Kyrillos (Co-Chair), Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Rev. Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak, West Henrietta, New York, USA; H.G. Bishop Daniel of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Sydney, Australia (Observer); H.G. Bishop Barnaba El Soryany, Rome, Italy (Observer);

Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church: no representative was able to attend;

Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church: Archbishop Gabriel of Sidamo (unable to attend); Rev. Fr, Daniel Seifemichael Feleke of Holy Trinity Theological University College and Director of Broadcasting Service in Addis Ababa;

Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church: H.E. Metropolitan Zachariah Mar Nicholovos, Northeast Diocese of America; H.E. Metropolitan Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios (co-secretary), Metropolitan of the Diocese of Delhi, India.


Representatives of the Catholic Church

His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (co-chair);

Most Reverend Woldetensae Ghebreghiorghis, Apostolic Vicar Emeritus of Harar, Ethiopia, President of the Ecumenical Commission of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia;

Most Reverend Youhanna Golta, Patriarchal Auxiliary Bishop of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate, Cairo, Egypt (unable to attend);

Most Reverend Peter Marayati, Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria;

Most Reverend Paul Rouhana, OLM, Bishop of the Patriarchal Maronite Vicariate of Sarba, Jounieh, Lebanon;

Most Reverend Paul-Werner Scheele, Bishop Emeritus of Würzburg, Germany (unable to attend);

Most Reverend Boghos Levon Zekiyan, Archbishop of Istanbul and Turkey for the Catholic Armenians;

Rev. Fr. Frans Bouwen, M.Afr., Sainte-Anne, Jerusalem;

Rev. Fr. Habib Mrad, Patriarchal Secretary and Chancellor, Syriac Catholic Patriarchate, Beirut;

Rev. Fr. Ronald G. Roberson, CSP, Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC, USA;

Rev. Fr. Mark Sheridan, OSB, Collegio di S. Anselmo, Rome;

Rev. Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB, Executive Director, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Professor of Theology, Saint John's Abbey and University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA;

Rev. Malpan Fr. Mathew Vellanickal, Spirituality Center, Manganam, Kottayam, India;

Prof. Dietmar W. Winkler, Consultant to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Salzburg, Austria.

Rev. Hyacinthe Destivelle, OP, Official of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Rome (co-secretary).