The Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Theological Consultation in the United States has discussed at length the increasingly common presence of Oriental Orthodox students in the Catholic schools of our country. Rejoicing in the mutual respect and esteem that characterizes the relationship between our two communions, we issue the following guidelines to promote a more effective realization of that relationship in Catholic schools. They are designed to offer specific suggestions that are consistent with the ecumenical policy of the Catholic Church and pay due respect to the pastoral practices of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

As Pope John Paul II reminds us, " is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of 'appendix' which is added to the Church's traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature" (Ut Unum Sint, n. 20). Among the primary concerns of Catholic schools, therefore, will be to foster this ecumenical activity and to provide appropriate pastoral care for students who belong to other faith traditions, especially fellow Christians.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches today are the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India. Each of these churches is fully independent with its own hierarchy, but all of them are in full communion with each other. Because of this, it is possible for the clergy of any one of these churches to minister to members of any other Oriental Orthodox Church. In order to assure appropriate pastoral care, it is clear that Catholic pastors, school administrators and teachers should have an adequate knowledge of the churches and traditions of their students. We have indicated below resources that we hope will be helpful in this task.

As a matter of principle, the Catholic Church does not seek converts among the faithful of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Thus every effort should be made to respect and even promote the participation of Oriental Orthodox students in the life of their own churches, and to avoid practices that could appear to constitute an invitation for an Oriental Orthodox student to join the Catholic Church. In particular, it is inappropriate for Oriental Orthodox students to be included in preparation programs for Confirmation or First Communion, especially since they will have received these sacraments at the time of their baptism.

Another practice that can give the impression of seeking converts is the requirement in some places of membership in--and financial contributions to--the Catholic parish where a school is located in order to pay a lower tuition fee. This can appear to be a financial incentive for an Oriental Orthodox family to join the Catholic parish. While the tuition policy of Catholic schools is a complex question and we cannot offer a solution to this problem that would be applicable in all cases, we strongly encourage Catholic pastors to find a way to allow Oriental Orthodox to participate in their schools without appearing to encourage transfer of membership to the sponsoring Catholic parish. It should be kept in mind that dual church membership is not acceptable for either of our communions.

Sacramental sharing is another area of concern. While the Catholic Church allows the Oriental Orthodox faithful to receive its sacraments in many cases (cf. CIC 844, §3 and CCEO 671), the Oriental Orthodox Churches themselves have varying disciplines on the matter. The Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches do not allow their faithful to receive sacraments in any church outside the Oriental Orthodox communion, but the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox do allow it in some circumstances. Care should be taken to respect the discipline of the church to which an individual Oriental Orthodox student belongs. At the same time, care should also be taken to prevent an undue sense of exclusion among Oriental Orthodox students. Whenever possible, they should be included as active participants in Liturgies of the Word and other non-sacramental services.

In all these cases, the best solutions can always be reached by direct contact with the local Oriental Orthodox pastors of the students involved. They should be consulted whenever questions arise, and should be invited to participate in the pastoral care of the students who belong to his church by hearing confessions, teaching religious education classes, celebrating liturgical services, etc. Along these lines we recall the statement of the 1993 Ecumenical Directory n. 141, which reads, "In Catholic schools and institutions, every effort should be made to respect the faith and conscience of students or teachers who belong to other churches or ecclesial communities. In accordance with their own approved statutes, the authorities of these schools and institutions should take care that clergy of other communities have every facility for giving spiritual and sacramental ministration to their own faithful who attend such schools or institutions. As far as circumstances allow, with the permission of the diocesan bishop these facilities can be offered on the Catholic premises, including the church or chapel."

If no Oriental Orthodox pastor is located in the area, it is best to contact the nearest bishop of the church to which the student belongs. This information can be obtained from the local diocesan ecumenical officer or the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, New Rochelle, New York
June 7, 1999


Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, Vatican City, 1993, especially paragraphs 37-91.

Ecumenical Formation of Pastoral Workers, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, DC, 1998.

Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Interchurch Marriages and Other Pastoral Relationships, National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches, Washington, DC, 1995.

Roberson, Ronald G., The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, 6th edition, Rome: Pontifical Oriental Institute, 1999. Available from the publications office of the United States Catholic Conference. 

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