Seventeenth Meeting

Atchaneh, Lebanon, January 26 - February 1, 2020


The seventeenth meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Atchaneh, Lebanon, from January 26 to February 1, 2020.  It was hosted by the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church in the patriarchal residence.  The meeting 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, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Representatives of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church were not present.

The two delegations met separately on the morning of January 27 and again in the evening of January 29.  Plenary sessions were held from January 27 to January 31, each day beginning with a brief prayer service based on material prepared for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

At the beginning of the first plenary session, Cardinal Koch remembered prayerfully an original member of the dialogue, Most Reverend Paul-Werner Scheele, Bishop Emeritus of Würzburg, Germany, who had passed into eternal life on May 10, 2019. The Cardinal also announced that a new Catholic member had been appointed: Maronite Chorbishop John D. Faris of Glen Allen, Virginia, USA.  Cardinal Koch also acknowledged the retirement of Most Reverend Woldetensae Ghebreghiorghis, Apostolic Vicar Emeritus of Harar, Ethiopia. He has been replaced by Most Reverend Lesanuchristos Matheos Semahun, Bishop of Bahir Dar-Dessie, Ethiopia.

In the afternoon of January 27, the members were received in audience by His Holiness Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syrian Orthodox Church.  He greeted the members warmly and said that this dialogue is very important for his church.  He also spoke about the situation of his church in India which is particularly sensitive at the present time. The Patriarch hosted the members for dinner that evening.

On January 28, His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan hosted a dinner for the members at the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate in Beirut.  A number of local church leaders were in attendance including the Apostolic Nuncio in Lebanon, Archbishop Joseph Spiteri.

In the morning of January 30, Cardinal Koch and Bishop Kyrillos along with a small delegation of three were received by His Excellency Michel Aoun, President of the Lebanese Republic, in Baabda.   In the afternoon of the same day, all the members were received by the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rai, OMM in his residence in Bkerke. The Patriarch spoke about the general situation in Lebanon and the Middle East.  The members then visited the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa.

In keeping with the program of the dialogue, this session was devoted to fundamental aspects of sacramental theology.  The members heard five Oriental Orthodox papers by Bishop Kyrillos, Metropolitan Theophilose Kuriakose, Reverend Shahe Ananyan, Reverend Daniel Seifemichael Feleke, and Metropolitan Theophilos George Saliba.   Four Catholic papers were presented by Reverend Frans Bouwen, M. Afr., Reverend Columba Stewart, O.S.B., Professor Dietmar W. Winkler, and Chorbishop John D. Faris.  

The members affirmed together that the mystery of God’s design of salvation is revealed in history by audible words and tangible signs and actions that refer and give access to a higher reality.  History thus becomes a history of salvation that reaches its culmination in Jesus Christ, who by his words and actions, in particular by his death and resurrection, is the full revelation and self-communication of God’s mystery. Christ is the mystery in person.

The fruits of the revelation and the redemptive work of Christ are dispensed to the believers in the Church, through visible signs and actions that signify and communicate an invisible grace that allows them to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Within this economy of salvation, the Church has privileged some specific acts and celebrations that are essential for the sanctification or deification of the believer and the building up of the Body of Christ, and thus are called sacraments or mysteries in a specific sense of the word.

In both the Oriental and Western traditions, mystery is a visible or tangible object or event that points to a higher reality. The Greek word mysterion was translated as sacramentum in the early Latin translations of the Bible, parallel to the transliteration of the Greek term as mysterium. The Syriac term rozo, the Armenian khorhourd, the Ethiopian mestir, just as the Coptic and Greek mysterion, also designate the mysteries of the Triune God, the Incarnation and Redemption as well as the liturgical acts through which God’s salvific blessings are dispensed in the Church.

Over the centuries, the Fathers of the Church and theologians of all our Churches became more aware of the theological meaning of the mystery of God’s efficacy within the sacred rites of the Church. The terms mysterion/ sacramentum/rozo/khorhourd/mestir, as defined and used in the patristic period as a visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us, did not make it possible to limit sacraments to a specific number. Thus, all our Churches have been recognizing various numbers of sacred and liturgical rites and blessings as having a sacramental nature. At a later stage, the Western tradition identified seven sacred and liturgical rites as sacraments, while the other blessings were called sacramentals. As was the case in the Catholic Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches likewise articulated a list of seven sacraments. In all of our traditions the seven sacraments (Baptism, Chrismation/ Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Holy Orders, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick) are believed to be instituted by Christ, established by the Apostles, preserved and handed down by the Holy Fathers and faithfully celebrated in the Church. Among these seven, the Eucharist is understood as the Sacrament of Sacraments.

The intention of the number seven is to not to limit but to describe the fullness of God’s Grace and the perfection of God’s saving work. The holy figure seven is one of the most significant in the Bible and also identified as the union of God with his creation, with three signifying the Holy Trinity and four the whole creation. The core of this definition is that sacramental life is a participation in the mystery of God’s salvific work through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The members discussed various aspects of sacramental discipline, including the question of who ministers the sacrament, who can receive a sacrament, and other canonical issues related to matrimony. While all of the baptized faithful participate in the celebration of the sacraments, some by ordination to the ministerial priesthood administer the sacraments to the faithful. The members noted that only in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church can deacons administer baptisms and officiate at marriages. A further difference is that in the Roman Catholic understanding, in marriage the couple are the ministers of the sacrament rather than an officiating bishop or priest, whereas in the Oriental Catholic Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches the minister of sacraments must be a priest or bishop.

The Churches reaffirmed that only the baptized faithful can receive a sacrament. While the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges the validity of marriages between the baptized and non-baptized, these are not considered to be sacramental marriages. Because matrimony in particular presents numerous canonical and pastoral questions, the members discussed the approaches of their Churches to these issues.

The next meeting will take place in Rome, hosted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Arrivals on January 24 and departures on January 30, 2021.


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 (not present);

Armenian Apostolic Church: Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia: H.E. Bishop Magar Ashkarian, Antelias, 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 (not present); 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 (not present); H.E. Metropolitan Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios (co-secretary), Metropolitan of the Diocese of Delhi, India (not present).


Representatives of the Catholic Church

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

Most Reverend Youhanna Golta, Patriarchal Auxiliary Bishop of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate, Cairo, Egypt (not present);

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 Lesanuchristos Matheos Semahun, Bishop of Bahir Dar-Dessie, Ethiopia;

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

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

Chorbishop John D. Faris, J.C.O,D., Saint Anthony Maronite Catholic Church, Glen Allen, Virginia, USA;

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).