When Monsignor Charles Lavigerie sent the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) to Jerusalem in 1878, one of his main motivations was his personal love for the Christian communities in the East. From the beginning, he entrusted to them the work for a union between the Churches in the East and the Churches in the West, recommending, in particular, full respect for the ancient Eastern traditions, in conformity with the vision that he inspired to all his missionaries, to become “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22).
In this spirit, the first fathers opened at Saint Anne’s in 1882 a seminary for the formation of the clergy of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church. This seminary existed for 85 years until its transfer to Lebanon in 1967. About 350 priests studied here, among them thirty or so bishops and three Greek Melkite Catholic patriarchs. At the same time, the seminary professors devoted themselves to studying the history of the Churches in the Middle East, the Eastern liturgies, the monasteries of the Judean desert, etc., in view of deepening and making better known the riches of the Christian East. They made, for instance, an important contribution to the International Eucharistic Congress, held in Jerusalem in 1893, which opened the way for the encyclical Orientalium Dignitas, by Pope Leo XIII, on the relations of the Catholic Church with the Eastern Churches (1894).
At the very beginnings of ecumenism in the Catholic Church, the seminary professors started, in 1951, the publication of the periodical Proche-Orient Chrétien as their contribution to the unity of all. This periodical was soon internationally recognized and continued to be published at Saint Anne’s until its transfer to Lebanon in 2015, and a specialized library slowly developed around it. Besides, the fathers collaborated with various ecumenical organizations, local and international, in the ecumenical field: for instance, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Rome), the World Council of Churches (Geneva), Pro Orient (Vienna) the Middle East Council of Churches (Beirut). In Jerusalem, they developed a network of ecumenical relations, official or personal. The network includes the Ecumenical Circle of Friends, the Ecumenical Institute of Tantur, the Episcopal Commission on Ecumenical Relations of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, etc. They intended to remain faithful to this ecumenical vocation while adapting to the changes of times and circumstances. The community at Saint Anne’s continues also the ministry of the formation of priests through teaching at the Theological Institute of Ratisbonne and occasional lectures on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.
Indeed, in 1878, Lavigerie also recommend to his missionaries that they integrate fully in their surroundings, opening up to the believers of other religions, drawing from his own experience as archbishop of Algiers, in a country with a large Muslim majority. Interreligious relations thus are always part and parcel of the orientations of the Saint Anne’s community, through participation in dialogue groups and personal relations.
Faithfull to their founder Lavigerie, who took an active part in the campaign for the abolition of slavery in Africa, the White Fathers of Saint Anne’s intend to continue working for a more fraternal world with authentic justice, durable peace, and equality of rights for all. Respect and care for creation, our ‘common home’, are an integral part of this orientation, which can only become a reality thanks to the relations and collaboration among the Christian Churches, and with the believers of Judaism and Islam.