Thursday 4 July 2024

The ecclesiology of Communion from the Eastern Perspective

The ecclesiology of Communion from the Eastern Perspective

Dr Martin Thomas Antony


ܥܲܠ ܫܲܝܢܵܐ ܘܐܵܘܝܘܼܬܼܵܐ ܘܩܘܼܝܵܡܵܐ ܕܟܼܠܹܗ ܥܵܠܡܵܐ ܘܲܕܟܼܠܗܹܝ̈ܢ ܥܹܕܵܬܼܵܐܼ̈: ܒܵܥܹܿܝܢܲܢ ܡܸܢܵܟ.

(Al shaina u awyusa u khuyama d kolle alma w’d kolheyn edasa bayenan


For the peace, unity and stability of the whole world and all the churches, we

pray to you. This prayer from the karozutha in the Holy Qurbana of the Syro

Malabar church is an example of the sense of communion of Churches from the

Eastern perspective.

Communion is a gift of God, the Ruha D Khudhsa himself. Through the

sacrament of initiation, with the seal of the Ruha D Khudsha, we all are

becoming children of God. This is a communion with God, a relationship with

God. In the same way, through the same communion, we are in a new

relationship with our fellow brothers and sisters who are also children of God.

Thus, communion is the new life in the Ruha D Khudhsa common to all

disciples of the M’shiha 1 .

Through baptism, we are formed in the likeness of the M’shiha. Through

partaking in the body of the Lord, in the Eucharist, all the Christians are taken

up into communion with the M’shiha and with one another 2 . ‘Because the bread

is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake the one bread’. (1

Cor 10:17)

Lumen Gentium views the Church as people made one with the unity of the

Father, the Son and the Holy Ruha 3 . (LG4)

Different streams of Christianity

Christianity evolved in three streams- Syriac Orient, Greek East and the Latin

West. Aramaic was the language and culture of Isho M’shiha and his disciples.

It was the language in which Gawriel Malaka spoke to Marth Maryam and Mar

Yawseph. It was in the same language the words broke out from heaven at river

Yordanan at the time of Mamodeesa of our Lord Isho M’shiha. Palestinian

Aramaic was the language of the common people at the time of Isho M’shiha in

Jerusalem and Palestine. The Church that was founded on the Apostles (sleehe)

developed in Aramaic language and culture. This Palestinian Aramaic or

Christian Aramaic evolved as Syriac language in Edessa. Ashoka’s bilingual

edicts containing Aramaic from 260 BC found at Kandahar show that Aramaic

was the lingua franca from Edessa to Persia and Parthia during that period.

Thus, the Syriac stream of Christianity evolved around the Syriac schools in

Edessa and Nisbis, spreading to the east in Persia, Parthia and India.

Soon after Pentecost, the Church spread out to Greek cities like Antioch where

gentiles also became followers of M’shiha where they were called Christians for

the first time. Thus, the Greek Stream of Christianity evolved. At the time of

Isho M’shiha, Greek was the Imperial language, the universal language and the

language of the elite as the English language today. All the books of the New

Testament were written in Greek.

Later, Christianity developed in Rome in Latin language and culture and spread

out to the western lands.

Catholic Church- Communion of all particular Churches-Fullness of revelations

Isho M’shiha founded his church on the Sleehe(Apostles). The Church was born

on Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Ruha over the Sleehe(Apostles) and

the disciples. The Apostles and disciples became brave and started proclaiming

the Gospel thus the Church was born. The disciples were sent to different

nations to proclaim the gospel. They founded Churches in nations with various

languages and cultures existed. These churches and communities received the

gospel and interpreted the divine revelations in their languages, cultures and


These different streams of Christianity represent the interpretation of the divine

revelation from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and perspectives.

The fullness of revelation constitutes all these interpretations and related

doctrines and theologies.

These different churches and congregations existed all over the Roman Empire

and in the East in Persia, Parthia and up to India.

St Ignatius of Rome, a disciple of Mar Yohannan Sleeha in his Epistles to

Smyrneans, wrote in AD 110 that the Church is Catholic because it is the

communion of all the local churches with their Bishops 4 . Another document of

the Church of Smyrna on the occasion of the martyrdom of St Polycarp in AD

69-115 narrates that the Catholic church is the aggregation of all the local

churches and congregations 5 . Saint Cyril of Jerusalem of the fourth century

wrote that the Church is Catholic not just because it has spread all over the

world, but because it teaches all the doctrines fully without any defects 6 . Thus,

the Church Fathers who are the early witnesses of Isho M’shiha and the

disciples described the Church of Christ as Catholic in terms of communion of

all the local particular churches and congregations which represents the fullness

of revelations and teaches all these revelations as doctrines fully and without

any defect. There were several councils in the primitive church represented by

these different Churches and congregations to discuss disputes and

disagreements about faith matters. They were in communion.

Communion -Eastern Churches' perspective

For eastern Churches, especially the Syriac Orient, the Church was the liturgical

assembly and nothing more 7 . For Greek East and the Latin West, both represent

the political division of the Roman Empire as East and West, the Church was an

ecclesial organisation with a systematic hierarchical structure, discipline and

governance. Primacy and subjugation were important factors for communion for

the Western church. Therefore, the communion of churches became part of

juridical governance. But for the Syriac Orient, communion was taking part and

sharing in the same mysteries of salvation. For Syriac Fathers like Severus of

Antioch, John of Ephesus and John of Beth Aphtonia, communion was

participation in the same eucharist 8 . Confession of the true faith, general

agreement of Bishops and the faithful and the teaching of the fathers constitute

true communion, thus heretics were outside the communion. Communion was

always within the church.

Communion -East Syriac perspective

A sense of belonging to the Universal Church is a prominent theme, especially

in the East Syriac liturgical sources 9 .

Primacy of the Bishop was not a criterion for communion among the Syriac

churches but the East Syriacs always considered the Bishop of Rome as primus.

Even though the east Syriac church was separated from the Greco Roman

churches due to political strifes between the Persian and Roman empires and

thereby they could not attend the Council of Ephesus or Council of Chalcedon

or other councils, they always considered the Bishop of Rome as primus. This

can be seen in different historical events.

Narsai considered Rome as the head of faith. Because Peter, the prince of the

twelve as in the head fixed the eyes of faith in Rome 10 . The Nicean canons

(Arabic canons) were accepted by the Church of the East from the time of Mar

Isaac in AD 410 which narrates the primacy of Rome 11 .

In about AD 470, Mana, the east Syriac Bishop of Riwardashir translated the

works of Diodore and Theodore of Mopseustia from Greek into Syriac and sent

them to India and China as narrated in Chronicles of Seert suggesting the

communion with the western Greco Roman Churches 12 .

Even though many historians considered the church of the East as an anti-

Ephesian synod and out of Catholic communion, Babai the Great (551-628AD)

who is considered the author of the authentic Christology of the East Syriac

church in his hymn Breek hannana dawthyboose used in the liturgy of hours and

also in his work Book of Union, proclaims the Chalcedonian Christology in par

with the Greco Roman Churches.

Later, East Syriac Patriarch Isho Yahb II (628-643AD) visited Antioch to

reconcile with the Greco Roman Churches (Antioch was part of the Roman

Church then) with the appellation of faith ‘our belief in a Christ who, as Perfect

Man, was consubstantial with us; – and who, as Perfect God, was

consubstantial with the Father, in one “Personalitas” 13 .

Primacy of Rome- East Syriac Perspective.

Isho Yahb III of Adiabene

Patriarch Isho Yahb III of Adiabene (AD 650-660) affirms that ‘He that of Rome

shall be head according to the order of the Apostles which they have established

in their ecumenical canons. To the great Rome was given the primacy and

headship of the Patriarchate’ 14 .

Timothy I the Great

East Syriac Patriarch Timothy I the Great (778-823 AD) in a letter addressed to

the chief of the faithful in India preserved in the works of Ben Attibus of

Baghdad, a canonist of the East Syriac Church wrote ‘…and thus the obedience

is to be exhibited by all towards the Roman Patriarch, for he holds the place of

Simon Kepa…..’ acknowledging the primacy of Petrine See of Rome 15 .

Metropolitan Elias Damasceneus, a canonist of the East Syriac Church in his

canons narrates ‘….and let him be the superior who is Rome as the Apostles

ordered’….. ‘The first patriarch is the Patriarch of Rome, who has so much

honour and eminence over all other patriarchs…’ 16

Elias of Anabara

Elias of Anabara-(AD 920), East Syrian Bishop of Anabara who was a

theologian wrote ‘…. our lord conferred upon Peter in what is built by Peter

might remain firm and stable to the end… 17

Abdallaha Benaatibus

Eminent canonist of the East Syrian church Abdallaha Benaatibus of 11 century

in his canons wrote ‘….like the number of four parts of the globe, the

Patriarchs are to be four and their chief, the Patriarch of Rome as the apostles

have ordained…’ 18

These show that the East Syriac church was in communion with the Greco

Roman Churches especially the Petrine See of Rome even though there were no

juridical relationships.

Since the time of the Crusades, there have been communications between

various Popes and the East Syriac church. Rev Dr Placid Podipara in his work

The Church of Selucia and its Catholic communion enumerates several

examples 19 .

East Syriac Church: Communion with Petrine See of Rome

Sabrisho V

Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) sent Dominican Friars to the East Syriac and

Jacobite Patriarchs and the East Syriac Patriarch Sabrisho V gladly accepted

them. Patriarch's vicar Rabban Ara, representing the whole Selucian church

submitted a letter to the Pope along with a letter from Chinese Christians and

Metropolitan Isho Yahb of Nisbis and two other Archbishops and three Bishops.

Ramban Bar Sauma

A more illustrious story is that of the visit of Ramban Bar Sauma to Rome as

the Patriarchal visitor in AD 1288 20 . Ramban Bar Sauma and his disciple Monk

Markose were Mongols in ethnicity from Peking and travelled to Jerusalem as

pilgrims. They could not reach Jerusalem due to wars and reached Baghdad to

visit their Patriarch. Patriarch Denha I consecrated Monk Markose as a

Metropolitan for Catay and Ong(China) as Yahb Allaha (Jaballaha). But

Patriarch Denha I died soon and Jaballaha was elected as the next Patriarch of

the East Syriac Church as Jaballaha III(1281-1317AD)

Patriarch Jaballaha sent his teacher Ramban Bar Sauma as the Patriarchal

visitor to Rome and Europe to seek help to free Jerusalem.

Ramban Bar Sauma reached Rome in 1287. As Pope Honorius died on April 3

1287, they met the 12-member College of Cardinals and then proceeded to

Paris. On their return, they met Pope Nicholas IV who was one among the 12

cardinals they met earlier. Ramban Bar Sauma was cordially received. Ramban

Bar Sauma was allowed to celebrate East Syriac Liturgy in Rome on the V

Sunday of Lent in front of a great congregation who commented: the rite is the

same but the language is different. On Palm Sunday, Pope Nicholas celebrated

the rituals and the Holy Eucharistic liturgy and gave communion to Ramban

Bar Sauma first. After Easter, the Pope sent Bar Sauma back to Bagdad with

Holy Relics including that from the garment of Our Lord and poikile or bonnet

(silk head cover) of Marth Maryam. The Pope sent a golden crown of pure gold

adorned with precious stones for Patriarch Jaballaha III with vestments

including silk shoes embroidered with pearls for liturgical functions and a ring

from the Pope’s fingure. Pope Nicholas also gave letters of patent authorising

him as the Patriarch of all the Orient. Ramban Sauma was made Papal visitator

of all the Christians of the Orient.

There were further relations in the later years.

This shows that for the East Syriac Church, in every century, there were some

relations and communion with the Petrine See in Rome. This was not a juridical

communion but an ecclesial communion in faith, sacraments and love.

Local Particular Churches- Sister Churches

In the early Church, different Particular churches coexisted as sister churches.

The Western church has amply drawn from the treasury of these Eastern

churches for its liturgy spirituality and jurisprudence. The basic dogmas of the

Christian faith concerning the Trinity, and God’s word made flesh of the Virgin

Mary were defined in the councils held in the East 21 .

These sister churches were equal in dignity. In the early period of the Pentarchy,

it did not exclude the primacy of Rome, but the primacy was never exercised in

the same way among the four Patriarchs of the East as it was during the Latin

centralisation of the Middle Ages 22 . Professor Emmanuel Lanne, who was a

Professor of Saint Anselmo and Pontifical Oriental Institute Rome and was a

member of the secretariat for promoting Christian unity, Consultor of

Councilium for liturgy, Congregation for Eastern Churches, Commission for

Faith and order, member of the international commission for the theological

dialogue with the Orthodox churches and also that for the Reformed churches

comments, in the West, there were only one Apostolic Church, the Roman

Church while in the East, the Oriental Churches live the communion among

themselves as sister churches and not as mother and daughters in faith and love 23

Post Vatican Council II- Concept of One Church of Christ

After the Vatican Council II, the Roman Church recognised the importance of

the Eastern Churches. Various conciliar and post-conciliar documents exhort the

richness of the Eastern traditions and that they are invaluable treasures in the

catholic church as different expressions of faith.

Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, the president of the Vatican Secretariat for

Promoting Christian Unity in his speech at the National Workshop for Christian

Unity on May 5, 1987, in Atlanta said that the change of wording from the

Church of Christ is Catholic Church to the Church of Christ subsists in the

Catholic Church is fundamental to the ecclesiology of the Vatican Council II 24 .

Cardinal Willebrands explained Christ’s one Church goes beyond the visible

limits of the Catholic Church. These words are seen in Lumen Gentium No 8

and No 4 of the Decree of Ecumenism promulgated by Saint Pope Paul IV on

November 21, 1964.

The Catholic Church accepts that the one Church of Christ is seen even outside

Catholic Communion. Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church

solemnly promulgated by His Holiness Saint Pope Paul IV acclaims many

elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside the visible structure of

the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter 25 .

Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism of the Vatican Council II

narrates: ‘Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and

endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can

exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of

God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the

Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and

lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ’ 26 .

Universal Church- the mother Church; Roman Church a sister Church

Through an authoritative and binding note on 30 June 2000, Cardinal Joseph

Ratzinger clarified that sister churches are, exclusively particular churches

among themselves. But the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Universal Church is

not a sister Church but the mother of all the Particular Churches. Thus, the

Particular Church of Rome can also be called a sister Church of all other

Particular Churches 27 . This expresses that the Catholic Church is not the Roman

Church but the communion of all Particular Churches- Roman Church, other

Eastern Catholic Churches and even non-catholic Eastern Churches that have

preserved a valid episcopate and Eucharist 28 .

Unitatis Redintegratio also confirms that ‘the heritage handed down by the

Apostles was received with differences of form and manner so that from the

earliest times, of the Church, it was explained variously in different places

owing to diversities of genius and conditions of life 29 ’. This validates the

authenticity of different traditions and thereby the existance of different

Particular Churches.


Pope Francis’s Synod on Synodality in which, the Roman Church is seeking to

listen to others and to have communion, participation and mission with the

people of God. Pope Francis is asking the Church to go to the deepest roots of

her synodality, a venerable tradition of the Church. Thus, the Church intends to

walk together with other churches and communities to the common

eschatological vision of the Church. 

The One and only Church of Christ

The Church of our Lord Isho M’shiha is

one and only one which constitutes the communion of all the particular

Churches which represents different traditions which are different

interpretations of divine revelations. This communion ecclesiology is reflected

in the vision of heaven of Yohanna Sleeha where the almighty God is sitting on

the throne. Around this, 24 thrones on which 24 elders wearing white robes with

golden crowns on their heads. These 24 elders cast their crowns before the

throne of God singing ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and

honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and

were created’ 30 . These 24 elders before the throne of God are the heads of the 24

particular Churches in the Catholic communion. One of them represents the

Reesh Methrapolitha of the Syro Malabar Church in the Catholic communion.

End notes

1 Emmanuel Lanne, Inter ecclesial communion,according to the eastern point of view, in Xavier

Koodapuzha Ed., Oriental Churches theological dimensions, OIRSI, 1988 Kottayam p18-19

2 Marc Cardinal Ouellet, The Ecclesiology of Communion, 50 years after opening of Vatican Council II

Adoremus Sept 2012, Vol XVIII, No 6

3 Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic constitution on the Church solemnly promulgated by His Holiness Pope

Paul VI on November 21, 1964, No 4

4 J H Srawley The Epistles of saint Ignatius, London 1900, p 97 foot note 1 online version accessed on 30 May 2024.

Saint Ignatius argued that Bishop is the centre of each individual Church and Jesus Christ is the centre of

Universal Church.

5 H B Swete, The Apostolic creed, its relation to primitive Christianity, 1894 p 75

6 J H Srawley The Epistles of saint Ignatius, London 1900, p 97 foot note 1 online version accessed on 30 May 2024.

7 Thomas Koonamakkal, The Church in the Churches: A Syriac ecclesiology p86

8 Thomas Koonamakkal, opus cit p 89

9 Thomas Koonamakkal opus cit p 91

10 Rev Dr Placid Podipara, The church of Selucia and its Catholic Roman Communion in Rev Dr

Thomas Kalayil, Ed. Collected works of Rev Dr Placid J Podipara, Vil I p 109

11 Rev Dr Placid Podipara opus cit p 110

12 Alphons Mingana, The early Spread of Christianity in India, Bulletin of the John Ryland’s library,

Manchester vol 10, No 2 July 1926, p 460

13 W A Wigram, An introduction to the history of Assyrian church 1910,p 97)

14 Rev Dr Placid Podipara opus cit p 110

15 Rev Dr Placid Podipara opus cit p 112-113

16 Placid opsus cit p 113

17 Placid Podipara opus cit p 114

18 Placid Podipara opus cit p 114

19 Rev DR Placid Podipara, The church of Selucia and its Catholic Roman Communion in Rev Dr

Tghomas Kalayil, Ed. Collected works of Rev Dr Placid J Podipara, Vil I pp136-150

20 James A Montgomry, The history of Yaballaha III, Nestorian Patriarch and of his vicar Bar Sauma,

Columbia University Press, 1927, pp26-72

21 Unitatis Redintgratio, The decree on Ecumenism of the Vatican Council II given in Rome at Saint

Peter’s, 21 November 1964, no 14.


ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html accessed on 08 June 2024)

22 Emmanuel Lanne, Inter ecclesial communion,according to the eastern point of view, in Xavier

Koodapuzha Ed., Oriental Churches theological dimensions, OIRSI, 1988 Kottayam, p 45

23 Emmanuel Lanne opus cit p 30

24 Johannes Cardinal Willebrands,

communion accessed on 08 June 2024

25 Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church solemnly promulgated by His Holiness Saint

Pope Paul IV, 21 November 1964, No 8


ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html accessed on 08 June 2024)

26 Unitatis Redintegratio, opus cit. No 3

27 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of faith, a letter to the presidents

of the Conferences of Bishops, 30 June 2000, note no 8-12,

hiese-sorelle_en.html#_ftn2 accessed on 08 June 2024

28 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, opus cit no 12

29 Unitatis Redintegratio, opus cit. No 14 para 3

30 Revelations 4:4-8

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