Pope Francis appealed for universal respect of the basic right to religious liberty on Thursday, especially in lands where Christian communities constitute struggling minorities. The call came in the second of two related addresses to the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops of Eastern Churches, who are in Rome this week for the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, and to the full body of participants in the Assembly. In his remarks to the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops, the Holy Father thanked his brothers for their visit, saying their coming together gives him the opportunity to renew his esteem for the spiritual patrimony of Eastern Christianity.
Citing the words of his predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in the post-Synodal exhortation, Ecclesia in medio oriente (nn. 39-40), Pope Francis said, “[You are] watchful guardians of communion and servants of Ecclesial unity,” adding, “that union, which you are called to realize in your Churches, finds natural and full expression in the ‘indefectible union with the Bishop of Rome’.” Pope Francis went on to say, “In order that our witness be credible, we are called ever to seek justice, mercy, faith, charity, patience and meekness.”
The Holy Father also delivered a separate address to all the participants in the Congregation’s Plenary Assembly, which is looking at the Eastern Churches a half century on from the II Vatican Ecumenical Council. Pope Francis spoke of his joy at the new growth and flowering of the Churches that spent long decades of oppression under Communist regimes, and also of the perseverance of the Churches in the Middle East, which often live as “little flocks” in areas signed by hostility and conflict. Pope Francis’ thoughts turned in a particular way, “To that blessed land in which Christ lived, died and rose again. “Every Catholic,” he said, “owes a debt of gratitude to the Churches living [there].” The Pope specifically mentioned the plight of Christians in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, saying that there and elsewhere throughout the region there is often too much cause for weeping.
“The Bishop of Rome will not rest,” he said, “so long as there are men and women, of any religion, affected in their dignity, deprived of life’s basic necessities, robbed of a future, forced to the status of refugees and displaced persons.” He went on to say, “Today, along with the pastors of the Churches of the East, we make an appeal: that the right of all [people] to a decent life and to freely profess their faith be respected.”