Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Georges Bacouni works in his office in Galilee. (photo: Corinna Kern)
The archbishop visits St. Vincent de Paul Hospital in Nazareth. (photo: Geries Abdo, courtesy Melkite Catholic Archbishopric)
Archbishop Georges meets with Msgr. John E. Kozar of CNEWA and Mar Jacob Barnabas Aerath of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church at the Vatican in 2016. (photo: John E. Kozar/CNEWA)
I send this letter from Mount Carmel in Haifa in Galilee, close to the holy sites of the Prophet Elijah.
When I was 12 years old, I expressed my desire to become a priest to my father. He replied by shouting: “No, get out of my face!” I thought it was the end of my vocation.
Two years later, my father passed away and suddenly I found myself in charge of my family, being the eldest boy. As a poor Christian, my dreams were limited to studying, working and, later, getting married.
But the Lord had other plans for me. In 1990, the last year of the civil war in Lebanon — where I was born and grew up — the Lord called me again to priesthood. The archbishop of Beirut accepted me as a seminarian even though I was 28 years old, a late vocation. I resigned from the bank where I had been working for more than ten years and started my theological and philosophical studies.
I was ordained in July 1995. Ten years later, in 2005, I was elected and ordained bishop to serve the Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Tyre in the south of Lebanon. And now I have been serving in Israel as archbishop in the Melkite Archeparchy of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All of Galilee for more than three years.
What a blessing, to be in this particular part of the world — where Jesus was born, grew up, proclaimed the Good News, was crucified and rose from the dead.
The Lord entrusted me with the flock of his homeland and to follow in the footsteps of the apostles.
When I was taught how to meditate on a Gospel passage, I was asked sometimes to imagine the places where Jesus lived: Capernaum, Tiberias Lake, Nazareth, Jerusalem.
Now I know all these places, and they remind me of the historical facts. But Jesus is not only part of the history, he is still alive and in the midst of his church.
When you enter Peter’s house in Capernaum, where Jesus healed the paralytic; when you see the place where he fed five thousand people; when you are in a boat in the middle of the lake where he walked on the water; and many other holy sites, I assure you that you feel you are sharing the experience of the apostles and the crowds. You feel privileged being Christian. Visiting these sites — let alone living there — is a spiritual retreat.
Many of my predecessors used to say, “I am the archbishop of Jesus.” I don’t dare say that, but it’s true in a way that the bishop in Galilee is responsible for Jesus’ hometown.
What a blessing! But in the same time, it’s a huge responsibility and difficult mission for many reasons.
First, Arab Christians from all denominations make up no more than 1.7 percent of the population in Israel. Almost half are in my eparchy. And yet, Catholics, Orthodox, evangelical Protestants and many religious orders from all over the Christian world maintain a foothold in the Holy Land — particularly in Jerusalem.
To not be of the majority is a challenge in and of itself, but to be divided makes our mission more difficult and weakens our testimony.
Second, what we as a church experience here is common with Christians all over the world: We have a crisis in our families, as youth participation declines — in part because Sunday in most places is not a day off — and gaps widen between generations, as a unified concept of values erodes.
I always share with the people of my eparchy that the pilgrims who come from abroad are not only here to visit the holy places, but to meet the local Christians and find in them genuine witnesses of the faith.
The third challenge is the plight of Christians living in the Middle East. While we are free to practice our faith in Israel — and we live in peace with other communities of faith in our society — the situation of our brothers and sisters in neighboring Syria, Iraq and Egypt has been harmful to the church in the whole region.
I keep saying that, since I became bishop, the blessings have increased and the cross has become heavier. But in all things the Holy Spirit is filling me with grace and encouragement to keep on in my mission.
I made a plan to visit, with the parish priests, all the families of our eparchy in their homes over a period of five years. So far, almost half of them have been visited. I have seen that many remain firm in their faith, even if they don’t attend church. They love their church; they are proud of their Christianity. Every year, during Advent, their generosity surprises me during the fund-raisers for the suffering Christians in Syria or Iraq.
A few months ago, representatives of the leaders of the European Catholic Episcopal Conferences met in Jerusalem. I told them that the last part of my liturgical vestments worn during my ordination was the omophorion, a woolen shoulder garment. It is a symbol of the lost sheep. I told them that my call and my main task are to look after the lost sheep and be a good shepherd. This means that the bishop is not a businessman, nor a politician, nor a general manager.
All kinds of pastoral work give me great joy, and being close to the faithful, sharing with them their joyful or painful times, achieve the goal of my consecration. They want to know whom their bishop is, and that it’s easy to reach him.
In our tradition, we have married men who can be ordained priests. The seminarian has to decide before being ordained deacon. When I decided to stay single, my main reason was to have enough time to dedicate myself to the mission. Instead of having my own family, I have a wider one. All the faithful with whom Jesus entrusted me are my family, with all the joy and pain that I experience. I don’t pretend that I have succeeded, but at least this is my vision.
I have lived, worked and served in many countries in the Middle East. Many Christians have left, but many others remain. We are the salt and the light of the region. In Galilee, Jesus taught: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:11-12)
This is happening nowadays mainly in Syria, Iraq and Egypt. It’s difficult for a Christian to stay there, but we need to stay. We are Arabs, this is also our land and if God put us in this part of the world, it is because he has a purpose: To be witnesses, to proclaim the Good News and to be peacemakers. It’s important to say to humanity that we can live together regardless of our various religions.
Part of the discipleship is persecution. The Lord told us: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24)
At the same time, and also in Galilee, Jesus promised that surely he would always be with us, to the very end of the ages. He is always with us and there is no need to be surprised; the cross and persecution are part of our daily life.
Near our cathedral in Nazareth, we have a chapel we call the Church of the Synagogue. There, Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord.” (Isa 61:1-2)
Let’s keep doing this in the parishes, monasteries, schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, social centers, prisons, with the refugees and all the needy. In this way, we will prepare for Christmas in Galilee, in the Holy Land, in the Middle East and in all our countries.