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Though the Melkite Greek Catholic Church grew at the expense of the Orthodox churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, it did not lose its identity as a church in the Byzantine tradition. Tensions between the Melkites and the Church of Rome began to surface in the mid-19th century, as Rome sought to “Catholicize” the Melkites by imposing Latin disciplines and rites. In 1871, before the fathers of Vatican I voted to endorse “Pastor Aeternus,” which defined papal infallibility and the pope’s universal jurisdiction, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory II Joseph left the Eternal City to avoid voting against the constitution. The patriarch believed the constitution would offend the patriarchs of the Orthodox Church and destroy chances of ecclesial communion. Reluctantly, Gregory and the Melkite Greek Catholic synod later assented to the decree, with the stipulation that “all rights, privileges and prerogatives of the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches [be] respected.”

He paid for his assertion: During Vatican II, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Maximos IV revealed that Pope Pius IX humiliated the patriarch, having him cast to the ground by members of the Swiss Guard and then addressing the patriarch with his foot pressed against his head. But Gregory’s defense of the Eastern Christian tradition is cited as the main influence behind the landmark apostolic letter, “Orientalium Dignitas Ecclesiarum,” issued in 1894 by Pius’s successor, Pope Leo XIII.

Patriarch Gregory is also credited with founding colleges in Beirut (1865) and Damascus (1875) and the seminary of St. Anne in Jerusalem (1882) to counter the great advances made in the Christian East by well-funded Protestant missionaries.

Ecumenism and current developments. “The ecumenical spirit grew in the 1950’s and 1960’s,” wrote Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop Nicholas Samra in these pages in 1997, thanks to the contributions of “four Melkite Greek Catholic priests, three of whom later became bishops and one a patriarch: Fathers George Hakim [later Patriarch Maximos V], Oreste Kerame, Joseph Tawil and Elias Zoghby. These men tremendously influenced the Melkites in matters ecumenical and liturgical. A revival began – the ’courage to be ourselves’ grew within the universal Catholic communion.”

In 1974, through the efforts of Archbishop Elias Zoghby of Baalbek, Lebanon, the synods of the two Antiochene patriarchates – Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox – formed a joint theological commission to work toward full communion. Unfortunately, Lebanon’s civil war ended these initiatives.

A renewed effort in 1996, again prompted by Archbishop Zoghby, breathed new life into the Church of Antioch initiative. It sought to restore the unity of the Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch (that is, the re-establishment of full communion between Melkite Greek Catholics and Antiochene Orthodox and the suppression of two individual patriarchates) even before the restoration of full communion between the Church of Rome and all Orthodox churches.

The synod of the Antiochene Orthodox Patriarchate, though sympathetic, questioned the initiative as did Roman Catholic authorities. Antiochene unity, while desired, cannot be achieved in isolation, they reasoned.

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