Diversity of Eastern Churches
The participants encountered the rich diversity of the Eastern churches and the exceptionally warm ecumenical climate, meeting the five patriarchs of Antioch and all the East — all successors of the Apostle Peter, who directed the life of the church there before settling in Rome.
Though Antioch is now a city in Turkey of about 200,000 people, over 7,000,000 Christians around the world can trace their faith to the city where the followers of Christ were first called Christians.
The Antiochene Christian communities in Lebanon and Syria, commented Archbishop Dolan, 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!
The delegation was received by each of the patriarchs of Antioch: Greek Orthodox Ignatius IV, Melkite Greek Catholic Gregory III, Syriac Orthodox Ignatius Zakka I, Syriac Catholic Ignace Youssef III and Maronite Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir. The group also visited Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX.
It was impossible to visit all the institutions and projects aided through the generosity of the donors of CNEWA, but at least the group was able to sample a variety of good works.
Members of the agricultural cooperative in the northern Lebanon village of Kobayat proudly showed off their olive press factory, constructed by CNEWA. Now 30,000 Christian villagers are benefitting and able to continue to live off the land.
A room full of enthusiastic girls welcomed the delegation to the mountainside orphanage of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters in Ain Warka, Lebanon, where joy and love were almost tangible.
Two dozen seminarians at St. Annes Melkite Greek Catholic Major Seminary in Raboueh, Lebanon, did not hesitate to dialogue with the bishops about priestly life today, either as single or as married men.
The Iraqi Christian refugees that greeted the trip participants at the Ibrahim Al Khalil parish center in Damascus poured their hearts out as they described their shattered families and political plight.
The Palestinian Christian refugees who live in the UNRWA Dbayeh camp north of Beirut for generations were more resigned to their equally unresolved situation. The Little Sisters of Nazareth tend their needs with CNEWAs help and voiced all the challenges and frustrations of camp life to the bishops.
At the Foyer de la Providence near biblical Sidon, a large, modern and well- equipped technical school gives young men vocational training with modest assistance from CNEWA – Pontifical Mission.
The elderly, too, are not forgotten. Bishop Elie Haddad of Saida welcomed the group to the new home for the elderly he recently opened in his eparchy with the help of a CNEWA grant.
The World of the Antioch Church
From 8-14 April, members of CNEWAs governing boards visited the world of the church of Antioch, modern Lebanon and Syria, and the work of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission there.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, President of CNEWA, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., of Ottawa and Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle were joined by CNEWA Secretary General Msgr. Robert Stern, Canada National Secretary Carl Hétu, CNEWA U.S. National Secretary Gabriel Delmonaco and members of CNEWAs Beirut office.
Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem Cardinal John Foley also joined the group.
“The ecumenical and interreligious climate, especially in Syria,” observed Archbishop Dolan, “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 Paull II, ‘Lebanon is not just a nation, but a message.’”
The delegation observed firsthand the region’s religious and sociopolitical complexities, nuances often little understood in the West. For example, in visiting the Great Mosque of Damascus, they venerated the shrine of the head of St. John the Baptist, which occupies a prominent plae in the center of the mosque.
They benefitted as well by briefings from the papal representatives in both countries.
The group was inspired by its visits to the shrines of Our Lady in Harissa and Matara, but to celebrate Mass in the Church of St. Paul on the Wall in Damascus brought the group in living contact with the “Apostle of the Gentiles.”
Best of all, to join Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III’s outdoor celebration of a solemn Divine Liturgy on Thomas Sunday (the Sunday after Easter) at an ancient mountaintop church dedicated to the saint and, following, to meet with hundreds of men, women and children present were beautiful and unforgettable experiences of the living faith of Christians in Syria today.