From Eastern Christian Churches
Relations between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East
by Ronald Roberson, C.S.P.
The Assyrian Church of the East is the modern continuation of the ancient church of the Persian empire which fell out of communion with the rest of the Christian world in the 5th century when, for political as well as theological reasons, it officially adopted Nestorian Christology. Thus it accepts only the first two ecumenical councils. There were only sporadic contacts with Rome until the 13th century. In the 16th century a large section of the Assyrian Church of the East sought union with Rome and eventually formed what is now known as the Chaldean Catholic Church. Today the Assyrians are not in full communion with any other church.
After many centuries of isolation, however, relations with the Catholic Church began to improve dramatically in the 1980s. The present patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV, visited Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1984 and participated in the day of prayer for peace at Assisi in 1986. In 1994 Mar Dinkha and Pope John Paul II signed a common declaration in the Vatican. The text affirms that Catholics and Assyrians are united today in the confession of the same faith in the Son of God and envisages broad pastoral co-operation between the two churches, especially in the areas of catechesis and the formation of future priests. The pope and the patriarch also established a mixed committee for theological dialogue and charged it with overcoming the obstacles that still prevent full communion.
The dialogue has been meeting annually since 1995. The first phase of its work, which concentrated on sacramental theology, concluded with the October 2000 meeting in Arezzo, Italy, and the approval of a text, Common Statement on Sacramental Life. At the same meeting the commission began the dialogues second phase, which was to focus on the constitution of the Church and other ecclesiological questions.
The rapprochement between the two churches has found concrete expression in increased contacts and co-operation between the Assyrian Church of the East and its Catholic counterpart, the Chaldean Catholic Church. Mar Dinkha IV and Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Bidawid met in Detroit in November 1996 and issued a joint patriarchal statement pledging to work for the reunification of their churches by forming a joint commission for unity that was to elaborate a common catechism, oversee the foundation of a seminary in the US for both churches and develop common pastoral programs. On August 15, 1997, the members of the Holy Synods of the two churches signed a Joint Synodal Decree for Promoting Unity which re-stated the areas of pastoral cooperation envisaged in the joint patriarchal decree, recognized that Assyrians and Chaldeans should come to accept their diverse practices as legitimate, formally implemented the establishment of a Assyrian-Chaldean Joint Commission for Unity, and declared that each side recognized the apostolic succession, sacraments and Christian witness of the other. The text also spelled out the central concerns of both sides in the dialogue: while both churches wanted to preserve the Aramaic language and culture, the Assyrians were intent on preserving their freedom and self-governance, while the Chaldeans affirmed that the preservation of full communion with Rome was among its basic principles.
Below is the 1994 Common Christological Declaration and the Guidelines issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Unity in 2001 regarding sacramental sharing between the faithful of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church.