Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has called on Catholics and all people of good will to join together in prayer and fasting on Saturday September 7th for peace in the world and especially in Syria and throughout the Middle-East. The Pope will lead a vigil on the evening of September 7th, the vigil of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, between 7-11pm in St. Peter’s Square.
The vigil of prayer will include Eucharistic adoration, the rosary and opportunity for confession. Pope Francis invites all Catholics to join in prayer, wherever they may be. Regarding the vigil the pope said: “We will gather in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world…” The Holy Father is invoking the prayers of the Blessed Mother under her title, Queen of Peace.
While many Americans are moved by the plight of others via the news media, a consideration of the plight of Christians and the tradition of Christianity in Syria can help to inform and motivate us to pray and sacrifice. Prayers for that peace “which the world cannot give” are most needed as the situation is extremely chaotic.
The conflict between the regime and various rebel groups have displaced over four million within Syria and have caused two million to leave the country altogether. The attendant problems of migration in terms of lack of food, water, and housing, and resultant illnesses are being reported. Many within Syria hope not to be attacked while others are welcoming some kind of intervention.
A brief digest of some news from among the Christians of Syria in recent months:
–In February an Armenian Catholic priest, Michael Kayyal, and a Greek Orthodox priest, Maher Mahfouz, were abducted by gunmen while riding a bus near Aleppo. Later reports claim that Fr. Kayyal was being held by rebels demanding a $250,000 ransom. The whereabouts of these priests is unknown
–On April 22nd Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim were abducted near the border of Turkey and Syria. The driver of their car was shot dead. The whereabouts of the bishops is unknown.
–On June 23rd Fr. Francois Murad, a Catholic priest and contemplative whose monastery had earlier been destroyed by bombing, was shot eight times and killed while trying to defend a community of nuns from the intrusion of Islamist rebels who had invaded the nun’s monastery. An Archbishop of the Syrian Catholics said that Fr. Murad had communicated to him that he was offering his life for peace in Syria and in the world.
–In July Italian Jesuit Fr.Paolo Dall’Oglio was abducted by Islamists. His fate is still unknown.
Christians inside and outside of Syria have acknowledged abuses by the Assad regime while also recognizing that some who oppose the government and who have taken up armed resistance are Islamic extremists. Syria remains, for Christians, a land of witness.
The presence of Christians in Syria is an ancient presence. Communities of Syrian Christian claim as their own some of the great saints of the Church.
One of the greatest conversion stories in the history of the Church is that of St. Paul. As recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul or Saul, as he was then known, was journeying to Damascus to arrest those who had begun to follow Christ. It was on this journey that the Risen Lord appeared to Paul and he was converted. Paul was blinded by the apparition and was led by hand to Damascus. In Damascus he prayed and fasted for three days. In a vision the Lord told a man of Damascus named Ananias to go to Paul. Possibly unique among visions, the Lord gave Ananias a near address, telling him to find Paul in “the street called Straight”. Straight Street still exists in Damascus, Syria. It is there that Ananias visited, laid hands on Paul for healing and that he be given the Holy Spirit. Paul emerged healed and baptized. (Acts Chapter 9) Where Paul walked in the peace of Christ there is now fear.
Luke, a disciple of Paul, was from the city of Antioch, in the region of ancient Syria. Ancient Antioch was a place of learning and tradition hold that Luke was educated in medicine. Christians know him as the author of the Gospel according to Luke and of the Acts of the Apostles. Luke gives us the canticles that the Church sings daily in her Liturgy of Hours: Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc dimittis. He speaks too of the important role of women and love for the poor and mercy. He recounts for us the most beloved parables of Jesus, among them, The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, and The Rich Man and Lazarus. Luke gives us Mary and tells us that she pondered the mysteries of Christ’s life in her heart. This is the model for praying the rosary. In the Acts, Luke tells us that it was in Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians. Antioch claims St. Peter as its’ first bishop before he went to Rome.
St. Ignatius of Antioch who died in the second century was a successor of Peter as bishop of Antioch and is among the first of the Church Fathers whose writings have come down to us. Ignatius was a friend of St. Polycarp. Tradition holds that Polycarp was a disciple of John the apostle. Ignatius wrote letters bravely asking that his fellow Christians not interfere with his arrest and impending martyrdom at Rome where he was to be fed to lions. He wrote of the Eucharist as “the antidote to death” and “the medicine of immortality”.
The fourth-century Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom was a native on Antioch. Chrysostom is a kind of nickname meaning “golden-mouthed”, such was the greatness of his preaching. He was later Archbishop of Constantinople. His relics were stolen by crusaders during the middle ages and brought to Rome. In a gesture of peace, amidst prayers for reconciliation, Bl. John Paul II returned the relics to the Orthodox Church in 2004.
In the fourth-century, St. Maron retired to Mt. Nebo near Antioch to live a life of prayer. He soon attracted disciples who came to live in community, following Christ together. Maron was renowned for holiness. His followers later went to spread the Gospel among those who lived in the mountains. These Christians came to be known as Maronite Catholics. The Maronite community has always been in union with the Bishop of Rome.
Also from fourth-century Syria is the Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem the deacon. Ephrem is known for his hymns, many of which still survive. In those poetic hymns Ephrem wrote on many themes including heaven. He says the paradise of heaven is a place surrounded and walled in by peace. He wrote that those who eat the Body of the Lord “eat Fire and Spirit”. With Ephrem, we sing asking the Lamb of God to grant us peace.
Fifth-century Syria saw one of the most unique saints in history, St. Simeon the Stylite. A “stylite” is a hermit who lives on top of a pillar or rock formation. Simeon eventually lived such a life outside the city of Aleppo in Syria. Atop his column he prayed, fasted, did penance, performed miracles in Christ’s name, and preached. Many came out to see him simply because of the spectacle of a man perched high in the air day in and day out. Apart from the curious who traveled to get a look, there also came leaders to get advice, others for adjudication of disputes, and still others to listen to a man of prayer. The ruined Church of St. Simeon outside Aleppo is still a tourist and pilgrimage destination where the base of his pillar can be seen. Fr. Francois Murad, who offered his life for peace, was beginning a new religious community under the patronage of St. Simeon the Stylite in Syria.
The eighth-century Doctor of the Church, St. John of Damascus or, adjectivally, Damascene, defended the making and use of icons as aids to prayer. During his time, the use of icons was being attacked by some Christians as idolatrous. John defended the use of icons based on the mystery of the Incarnation. In taking a human nature to himself, Christ made his body the instrument of our salvation. The body is made holy in Christ. Holy images remind us that God has visited his people. When we pray before an image of Christ, his mother, or the saints we remember John of Damascus who defended the freedom to depict the body of Jesus and the saints.
The suffering of the people of Syria and the saints of this region remind us of what we mean when we speak of the “communion of saints”. Together in Christ we are joined to those who believe in Christ and who are being sanctified in Him. We suffer when members of the Mystical Body suffer. Our unity is also with the saints in heaven who pray for us as we journey in this “valley of tears”. We pray together with the saints for those who do not yet know the peace of knowing and living Christ.
Pray for this Peace.