Letter of H. B. Gregorios III,
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem,
Great and Holy Lent 2011
Damascus, 24 February 2011
Divine grace and apostolic blessing
To our brother bishops, members of the Holy Synod,
And to all the clergy and people,
Members of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church
In Arab countries and throughout the world!
It is a spiritual delight to speak to you through this short quadragesimal letter, to encourage the faithful clergy and people of our Church to observe the sacred rule of fasting.
In the rules of the Church I find a programme for these blessed days. This is a propitious occasion to remind ourselves of these rarely discussed rules, seven in number:
- Attend (or participate in) the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and appointed holy days
- Fast during Great Lent and other appointed times
- Observe abstinence on Wednesdays and Fridays
- Confess in the presence of a priest at least once a year
- Receive Holy Communion at least during Paschaltide
- Pay the tithe or tenth
- Abstain from getting married at seasons when it is disallowed.
It will be seen that these rules have a general character, although they are mostly linked to the Great forty-day Lent that precedes Pascha and to the other fasting seasons of the liturgical year (preceding the Nativity, the Apostles and the Dormition.)
As I do every year, I should like to refer to the Canon of Holy Lent, according to the ancient, original discipline as follows:
- The days of fasting and abstinence are Wednesday and Friday of Meatfare Week before Cheesefare Week and Monday through Friday of the weeks of Great Lent and of Great and Holy Week, unless one of those days coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March)
- Great and Holy Saturday is the only Saturday on which one must keep a fast. It is forbidden to fast on the other Saturdays of the year, because Saturday (Sabbath) is a holy day linked with the day of the Resurrection (Sunday)
- Days of abstinence are for the whole time of Great Lent, including Sundays and during all of Holy Week, unless the Annunciation falls then, except for Palm Sunday, when fish may be eaten.
- Abstinence is abstinence from meat and gravy, dairy products, eggs, milk, cheese and butter, whilst fish is permitted on some days: 25 March and Palm Sunday. Wine and oil are permitted on certain days.
- Our Holy Synods have more than once dealt with the question of fasting and abstinence, especially between 1949-54. General guidance was given, above all, after Vatican II, that each local bishop organise the discipline of fasting and abstinence suitable to his eparchy.
- Despite different dispensations which were put in place for different situations in life, the discipline of fasting according to the old, Eastern tradition remains firm and, thank God, fairly well practised in many monastic religious institutions, among the clergy and faithful.
The rules of the Church recall, besides Lent, other obligations. I exhort everyone to observe them, especially during Great Lent, as follows:
- Attend the Divine Liturgy on every Sunday of Lent.
- Confess and practise the sacrament of Penance, which seems to be disappearing from the spirituality and practice of our Christian life.
- Prepare for Holy Communion with fervour. In fact, Holy Communion is becoming something of an external, social observance, for one sees the faithful lining up, but without an appropriate inner preparation.
- Pay the tithe! We are aiming at the projected restoration of the practice of this rule, which has spiritual as well as social and humane aspects. Indeed, by observing this rule, we are practising charity to the poor, sick, sufferers, students, unemployed and anyone in need and penury. Besides, through the tithe, we support the social, cultural and health projects of our Church, parish and community. Further and above all, through the tithe, we put into practice the commandment of Our Lord, and all the spiritual and social values of the Gospel.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Through fasting, prayer, penitence, alms-giving, works of charity and mercy, we accompany the birth-pangs of several of our Arab countries, shaken from the beginning of this year (2011) by painful events. So we can help our people’s way of the cross, sufferings and endurance to become the way of resurrection, through the realisation of social justice, rectitude in government, service for the well-being and development of Arab citizens and their spiritual, human and social progress in faith. In that way, those who govern and bear responsibility in our Arab countries, will put into practice what Jesus affirmed, describing the aim and goal of his Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection, “I am come that they might have life, and might have it more abundantly.” (John 10: 10)
The Word of God and fasting
When the tempter tested our Lord Jesus Christ, saying to him, “Command that these stones be made bread,” Christ answered, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4: 3-4)
That is why we encourage all our faithful to read the Word of God in Holy Scripture, especially during the time of Great Lent. That is what we read in Propositio 2 of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops:
The Word of God is the soul and foundation of the Christian life and of all pastoral work; we hope that every family would own a Bible.
The synod fathers encourage daily reading of and meditation on the Word of God, especially “lectio divina,” and the creation of a website about the Bible, including Catholic explanations and commentaries which are easily understood by the faithful. We would also like to see the preparation of an introductory booklet to the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, which could offer a simple way to help people read the Bible.
They also encourage eparchies and parishes to introduce and promote Bible studies in which the Word of God is meditated upon and explained in such a way as to answer the questions the people have, and help them to become more familiar with the Scriptures, deepening their spirituality and apostolic and missionary commitment.
Fasting together – celebrating Pascha together
Christians throughout the whole world celebrated Pascha together in 2010. We shall again celebrate the Feast of Feasts together in 2011. Everyone wishes to be able to celebrate the great Feast of the Resurrection together always.
It should be noted that the Synod for the Middle East dedicated Propositio 28 to inviting all Christians to work “for a common date for the celebrations of Christmas and Easter.” Similarly, the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon has adopted this proposition of the Synod.
Syria is the next candidate for taking the decision to celebrate Pascha together. I ask especially our Christians of Syria to pray that Christ, risen and living in our Churches, may inspire our dear pastors to decide to celebrate together forever!
The Example of the Venerable Beshara Abu Mrad
We have the joy of proposing to one and all a magnificent monastic and priestly example for the blessed days of Great Lent, which is that of the Basilian Salvatorian monk, Father Beshara Abu Mrad, who has just been declared Venerable on 10 December, 2010. He is the example of fasting, prayer, mortification, ascesis and the practice of Christian virtues and the evangelical beatitudes.
A five-year plan
Lastly, we ask all our faithful, all our sons and daughters, to collaborate with their pastors, the bishops and priests, and their lay collaborators, to act upon the proposals of the Synod for the Middle East and to set up together a five-year plan to be submitted to our next Synod (June 2011) for our whole Patriarchal Church in Arab countries and throughout the world.
To everyone, I wish a Holy Lent!
With my love, my blessing and my prayer,
+ Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem