Syria and Lebanon?
Hardly two countries I would have pictured visiting after Easter! I have to admit that was my first reaction upon hearing the proposal from Monsignor Robert Stern, one of our great priests of the Archdiocese, who serves as Executive Secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a most respected organization assisting our Eastern Rite Catholics in the lands of the Bible of the Mideast.
However, since as the Archbishop of New York I now serve as the president of this splendid agency, I thought I had best accept the invitation … and am I ever glad I did!
So, on Easter Wednesday I departed New York, to fly to Beirut, the beautifully stunning city of the Mediterranean Sea from where I now write you back home.
It will take a while to sort through some impressions of the last week, but let me at least try to share with you the profound appreciation I have gained for the venerable Christian Communities of Syria and Lebanon.
They are ancient! We have been inspired by the deep sacred roots of these churches, places and people so much a cherished part of the story of our redemption.
So we have prayed “on the road to Damascus,” where Saul became Paul; at the house of Ananias on “Straight Street” where the shocked and blinded Paul came to be baptized: and at the church on the spot where St. Paul was lowered in a basket to escape persecutors.
So we have been embraced by the Patriarchs of the historic churches that trace their origins to Antioch, where we were “first called Christians,” and where Peter himself served as first bishop for seven years before he went to Rome: the Melkite Greek Patriarch Gregory III Laham; the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius IV Hazim; the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, Cardinal Moran Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas; the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir; the Syrian Catholic Patriarch of Antioch Ignace Yousef III Younan; and the Armenian Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia Neres Bedros XIX Tarmouni.
So we have bent to enter caves where monks have lived in penitential, prayerful seclusion and silence since the earliest Christian centuries, and prayed at fifteen century-old shrines to our blessed mother and St. Thomas the Apostle in the mountains outside Damascus and Beirut.
For us “babies in the faith” from America, to be in warm and welcoming company of communities that go back to Jesus, Mary and the apostles is simply exhilarating.
Ancient, yes! But they are also young and vibrant! So we worshipped at Sunday Mass, in the uplifting Melkite Rite, with hundreds of young families, and congratulated eight-year-old first communicants at a huge family meal afterwards.
So we conversed with dozens of Melkite and Maronite seminarians earnest in priestly formation, and sang Easter songs with a hundred orphaned girls at a home and school tenderly run by sisters.
These Christian communities may be tiny numerically; they are indeed confronting towering problems; they certainly can chart their Christian lineage back to Peter and Paul; but they are not relics! They are not museum pieces! The church is young and alive!
They all get along! We sometimes perceive the religious climate of the Mideast to be tense, neuralgic, even at times violent. Tragically, this is accurate in some places. Not in Syria and Lebanon.
So the bishops of the ancient churches mentioned above, joined by the local Presbyterian pastor, came together in hosting a most symbolic meal for us in Homs, Syria.
So the Grand Mufti of Syria, Shiekk Hassoun, welcomed the Melkite Patriarch and us to the Great Mosque of Damascus, and two Islamic leaders prayed in the front row of Sunday Mass at Sayadnaya in Syria.
The Ecumenical and inter-religious climate, especially in Syria, was warm and gracious. They long for unity and in many ways have achieved it. And Lebanon is an example of a country where religious cooperation is necessary for survival itself. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Lebanon is not just a nation but a message.”
They suffer! Yes, the destruction of past wars and violence are still obvious; Christian refugees from Iraq cried as they shared with us their anguish at a center offering food, clothing, and healthcare run by the Melkite patriarch as funded by CNEWA; and pastors told us that weekly their faithful people leave these biblical lands to emigrate to countries offering more hope; and Catholic Palestinian refugees in Beirut, in a camp where CNEWA is present, told us of their near hopelessness after over sixty years of exile.
Thank God for those brave souls, who remain, committed to these honored, historic Christian communities! Thank God for organizations such as CNEWA that brings support and encouragement to these inspirational people.
Each of the religious communities thanked us for the much needed sustenance they receive from agencies such as CNEWA and Catholic Relief Services (CRS); each of them especially asked that we convey to you, our people in America, their gratitude, plus their message: “We are still the land of the Bible! We have been here since Jesus, Peter and Paul! And we intend to stay! We need your solidarity in prayer and concern, and we promise you our own!”
Who can be inattentive to such a message?
Yes, these historic Christians are but a wee minority in overwhelmingly Islamic countries. While it has not always been so, now, in Syria and Lebanon, out older brothers and sisters in the faith mostly enjoy freedom and friendship, and their communities are vibrant and respected.
It was so clear to us that, by their perseverance in the faith, by the depth of their prayer and liturgy, by their service in education and charity, by the cohesion of their families and their communities, and by their tenacity in clinging to their homelands, they are indeed a light to the world.
Over and over again we heard them exchange the old Easter greeting:
“Christ is risen!”
“Christ is truly risen!”
Do they ever mean it!