The CNEWA family learned today of the death of one of its primary partners in the Middle East, Patriarch Ignatius IV of the Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Antioch. On Monday, he suffered a stroke and was rushed to St. George Hospital in Beirut, where he died today. He was 91 years old.
Since the 1940’s, he had been in the forefront of pastoral activity. He founded a youth movement dedicated to catechesis and formation. He reached out to the New World and set up structures here to encourage growth among the Antiochene Orthodox community. Back home, he reached out to non-Christians, establishing strong relationships with the Alawi, Druze and Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities. But it is perhaps his commitment to healing the ancient church of Antioch, once led by the Apostle Peter, for which he is known and loved.
Elected in 1979, Patriarch Ignatius established a warm relationship with the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius I, who was elected in 1980 and also lived in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The two worked together to understand the Christological nuances of their particular tradition — nuances that have divided the Antiochene church since 451 — agreeing to provisions for intercommunion of the faithful and even the concelebration of the eucharistic liturgy.
He deepened, too, ties with the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which shares the same rites and traditions and remains in full communion with the church of Rome. The “Church of Antioch Initiative” pushed the ecumenical envelope for the healing of the church. Such advances include the sharing of churches, including the 2005 construction of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Damascus suburb of Doumar, which CNEWA assisted in developing.
Another highlight during his patriarchate was the visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria in May 2001. The pope was cohosted by the Greek and Syriac Orthodox patriarchs, as well as the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch, Gregory III. Msgr. Robert Stern, then CNEWA’s secretary general, participated in the trip and wrote that the pope was welcomed to the Antiochene Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, where he was “warmly welcomed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Ignatius IV. Two other patriarchs of Antioch stood at his side: Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I and Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III.
“The packed cathedral included not only the Catholic and Orthodox bishops of Syria, but most of the other Catholic patriarchs, many of the Greek and Syriac Orthodox bishops of the two patriarchates from other countries around the world and an enthusiastic congregation.
“Beautiful symbols of unity were a joint profession of the Creed, warm and loving words from both the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and the pope, a mutual embrace or kiss of peace and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by all.
“Sometimes,” he concluded, “we talk so much about the need for Christian unity we almost forget how much real unity already exists.”
May this loving apostle of unity rest in the peace of Christ.