The warming of relations between the Assyrian Church and the Roman Catholic Church was vividly demonstrated by the Vatican’s recent “Guidelines for admission to the Eucharist between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East.”
The Church of the East, often described as “Assyrian” in order to emphasize its Persian heritage and to prevent confusion with other Eastern Churches, is the continuation of the ancient Christian tradition which used to be called “Nestorian” by outsiders (it never used this name itself, although it holds Nestorius in high esteem).
Its Christology was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431, and it has led an independent life since those times, expanding vigorously toward the East during the first centuries of its independent existence (“Nestorian” missionaries reached as far as India and China, among other places). The Chaldean Church is a Uniate Church, which was formed in the 16th century, after a group of Assyrians united with Rome.
The Assyrian Church consequently remained quite isolated, not being in communion with any other Christian Church. In addition, due to its historical location centering in the Middle East, it was strongly affected and weakened by the turbulence of history. There is today an Assyrian diaspora in a number of Western countries. The new guidelines are intended to provide admission to the Eucharist in Chaldean parishes for those Assyrians who have no access to sacramental life according to their own tradition “in their motherland and in the diaspora.” This is justified by the Roman document as a “situation of pastoral necessity.”
Reciprocally, Chaldeans who find themselves in a similar situation “are permitted to participate and to receive Holy Communion in an Assyrian celebration of the Eucharist.” While “not equal to full Eucharistic communion”, this marks another step in the increasingly warmer relation between the main branch of the Assyrian Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
A turning point had been the “Common Christological Declaration” signed in 1994 between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV, which was meant to allow the resolution of the separation which had taken place in 431 and to put “an end to 15 centuries of misunderstanding on the subject of our faith in Christ.” Yearly meetings of a Committee for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East have taken place since the 1994 Declaration.
— By Jean-François Mayer