Speech of H.B. Gregorios III
For the opening of the Holy Synod
Of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church
18-23 June 2012
The grace of the Holy Spirit reunites us once more! The circle of our Synod is completed by Your Graces’ presence, dear brother Bishops, members of the Holy Synod and reverend Fathers General of our congregations, who give exemplary service to our Church in Arab countries and in emigration and expansion countries.
We are meeting for the third time (after June 2011 and February 2012) in the turmoil of these difficult events shaking our Arab world in all regions to different degrees. We feel more than ever before how deep the bond is between Arab countries among themselves and how deep ours is with them. Thus is realised what Saint Paul says, “whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it.” (1 Corinthians 12: 26)
In these painful circumstances, we need light from the Holy Spirit for the success of our Holy Synod, during which we have to carry out an important, basic key task in the service and guidance of our patriarchal Church.
Our synod will be concerned with the following points:
Firstly, we have to create bishops to bring pastoral care to our vacant eparchies. Secondly, we must continue to prepare pastors for future years. Thirdly, we shall be dealing with a significant problem in this field: studying the criteria to be followed for preparing holy priests, capable of carrying out the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ in the parish and the world.
The importance of communication
We are glad to have this annual review. But this communication between us must be more consistent, efficacious and technical outside the Synod to support and mutually encourage each other, to ensure more solidarity, mutual support, exchange of spiritual, pastoral and administrative experiences.
It is appropriate that we should transmit some practical guidance on this topic, at eparchial level in the Middle East and in the expansion. We have not done what ought to be done in this field.
As patriarch, I am keen to get in touch, not only with my brother bishops, but also with the priests, monks, nuns and above all the lay-people working in the various services of our eparchies. To be more precise, I am keen to correspond by means of modern media with the greatest possible number of our sons and daughters, with their names and addresses, as this is really requisite to encourage their membership of the Church.
Such communication is even vital for the spiritual welfare of our faithful, to confirm them in holy faith. It is vital to explore ways that conduce to greater co-operation in support of our Church’s spiritual, social, health, cultural, educational and dialogue projects, on the moral, material and financial levels.
The capabilities of our Church
There are vast capabilities in our parishes. We have to discover them and benefit from them. In this there is a huge asset for the whole Church, pastors and parishes, parents and children, especially young people, who need good examples before their eyes, to remain faithful to the faith of the Church and the heritage of their community. Through faithfulness, membership increases. In the same way, membership supports faithfulness, faith and our faithful’s progress on their spiritual way.
I have explored many ideas in this field, but with little success. Yet I am still keen to realise my great ecclesial dream of founding “Melkite Solidarity” which is capable of causing a great renaissance in our Church.
Vocations to the priesthood
All that will be successful, if we have sufficient vocations to the consecrated priestly and monastic life. In fact, the number of priests, monks and nuns is gradually diminishing even in our Church.
Some years ago, the number of seminarians in the Patriarchal Seminary of Saint Anna that serves our eparchies, was fifty! Currently this has fallen to twenty-three!
The Pope’s visit to Lebanon
I should like to emphasise the need to prepare our Church to welcome His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Lebanon next September. The first meeting with His Holiness will take place at Saint Paul’s Church, Harissa, where the Holy Father will honour our Patriarchate by signing the Apostolic Exhortation, on the afternoon of 14 September, the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
It would be good to gather together some ideas characteristic of our Church, its heritage, history, role and mission, at all levels, pastoral, ecumenical, national and Arab. I hope that we shall have time to finalise ideas for a paper that we shall give to the Holy Father.
You know that this Apostolic Exhortation is the substance of the Synod for the Middle East. I should like to draw your attention to a significant, key topic in that Synod in which we all took part, namely the Palestinian Case (I am currently preparing a special booklet on the role of our Church in that Synod, which will contain all the speeches given by members of our Church).
The centrality and importance of the Palestinian Case
Among the most significant topics which were most typically studied by the Synod was the Palestinian Case, and the importance and priority of solving the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict, through recognition of the Palestinian State (see in the Synod file a paper on this topic that I sent to the episcopal conferences and other forums).
We all know the story of the involvement of our Church in the Palestinian Case. Indeed, we, the Palestinians and the whole world know the names of Archbishops Gregorios Hajjar, Gabriel Abou-Saada and Hilarion Capucci. And I too defended the Palestinian Case in the wake of my predecessors in the Holy Land during the twenty-six years of my service as patriarchal vicar in Jerusalem. We have contributed locally, regionally and internationally towards a solution to this just cause. And I am continuing in the same direction as patriarch. My brother bishops and I explained this Case in the Synod for the Middle East. We consider that the Palestinian Case to be a deposit entrusted to us, and a substantial part of the history of our Church, its mission and its role of openness onto the wider Arab world. The inauguration of the “Liqaa” Centre by us in Rabweh, in Lebanon, is also a service to the Palestinian cause. In fact, the Centre’s first activity was a round table on the topic of this Case that is central to the history of the region.
Furthermore, we have to study the main lines of the theme of the Episcopal Synod that will be held in Rome in October 2012, in which I shall be taking part as patriarch. We have to vote for a bishop to take part in it. I would like us to put forward some ideas about the Synod’s theme, and how we can bring its message to our world and society with its Muslim majority, and how strengthen and confirm holy faith in our parishes and especially in families and among young people, who are the future of our Church and society.
The situation of our Eparchies
We shall inform each other about the situation of our eparchies in Arab countries and the expansion, especially in the current crises, and about the dangers affecting the Christian presence, Christian unity and Gospel witness in our very challenging society.
The situation in Arab countries
This is the third synod that we have held while stormy winds are blowing on them, and blood is flowing abundantly in Arab North West Africa, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon. But at present the biggest problem is Syria, whose situation is so linked with the Arab world.
I should like here to recall some ideas that I put forward in my Paschal Letter 2012, in which I stated, “That is our faith, despite the painful reality of our life, and despite our weakness. We are all weak when confronted by pain, illness, doubt, frustration, solitude, disappointment, failure, domination by the wicked, the noise and din of arms, the sights of war and violence, massacres, destruction, explosions, criminal acts, plots, intrigues and all the forces of evil that surround us on all sides.” … H.H. Pope Benedict XVI spoke as follows about the suffering of the African continent, during his visit to Africa in November 2011:
“The Church does not propose any technical solution and does not impose any political solution. She repeats: do not be afraid! Humanity is not alone before the challenges of the world. God is present. There is a message of hope, hope which generates energy, which stimulates the intellect and gives the will all its dynamism. A former Archbishop of Toulouse, Cardinal Saliège, once said: “To hope is never to abandon; it is to redouble one’s activity.” The Church accompanies the State and its mission; she wishes to be like the soul of our body untiringly pointing to what is essential: God and man. She wishes to accomplish, openly and without fear, the immense task of one who educates and cares, but above all who prays without ceasing (cf. Lk 18:1), who points to God (cf. Mt 6:21) and to where the authentic man is to be found (cf. Mt 20:26, Jn 19:5). Despair is individualistic. Hope is communion. Is not this a wonderful path that is placed before us? I ask all political and economic leaders, as well those of the university and cultural realms to join it. May you also be sowers of hope!”
The vocation of Christians today
Later in my Paschal Letter 2012 I say, “Love is the world’s salvation! Loss of love is the world’s perdition and ruin. The fears, obsessions and revolutions that pervade our Arab world are perhaps more particularly felt by Christians than others, although we see that all are similarly exposed to weakness, fragility and vulnerability. Faced with and in all these situations and states of affairs, we Christians have to find our place, discover our vocation, and what God’s plan (or economy) of salvation is for us. We have to be especially in solidarity with this Arab world of ours, in which we are rooted. We have achieved so much, in the fields of its history, literature and civilisation. Furthermore, we are the builders and initiators of Arabism, or Arabness, and of Arab thought, as we are its architects, thinkers, pioneers, theorists, and propagators.
“This is the time when Christians must as ever, and even more than ever, discover ‘the love of God … shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,’ (Romans 5: 5) and through that discover the power of the Gospel and the truth and veracity of Jesus Christ’s teachings! Yes! They must discover that they are the children of the Resurrection. Furthermore, they have to discover that their resurrection is their obligation to show solidarity with these realities, the problems of their countries, lands, nations and fellow-citizens! They have to contribute to the resurrection of their society, although they represent the little flock, to which the Lord entrusted that great, immortal, strong, unalterable mission and vocation: that of being light, salt and leaven in our society.
“Thus we participate in and share with our countries, their weakness, fragility and vulnerability in order to discover together the power and hopes of the Resurrection. Saint Paul expressed that when recounting his experience with Jesus: ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12: 9) ‘For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.’ (2 Corinthians 4: 16)”
The flock is little, but its activity is considerable! The little flock is there for the big flock. God protects the little flock for the good of the big flock, that all “might have life, and might have it more abundantly.” (John 10: 10)
The position of the Church in Syria
As for Syria, I should like to recall the declaration given after the regular meeting of the Assembly of Catholic Hierarchs on 25 April 2012:
“We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Syrian people, in seeking a dignified life, national unity, solidarity among all the various social, religious and national constituent groups; in pursuing the widespread, effective reform process that has to be undertaken on the ground, in political, social and cultural spheres and service, through co-ordinating the efforts of all Syrians – government, parties, constructive opposition, specialists – in the framework of national unity and active participation in national dialogue (absolutely indispensable for any reform and without which it would remain but a vain hope), recognizing that this is the best way to escape the cycle of violence and repression. The State has called for dialogue and we invite all national parties at home and abroad to build a new multi-party democratic Syria. We also encourage everyone to participate fully in free and fair elections for the National Assembly on 7 May next, to express the popular will.
“Violence has gone beyond all limits. We can only appeal strongly and emphatically to all people of conscience to return to their senses and abjure anything destructive of human and national life. We strongly condemn all kinds of violence from whatever quarter. We call for peaceful civilians not to be embroiled in political strife, for people not to be intimidated and terrorised by kidnapping, massacre, extortion and home demolition, seizure of property and imposition of authority by force and oppression. ..
“We stand in solidarity with the pain and suffering of all citizens, whether civilian or military, affected by the events and the painful cycle of violence in different parts of the country for the past thirteen months. It is natural for us to have in mind especially our Christian faithful, who have been obliged to leave their homes and towns or villages. Sometimes they have been used as human shields and their districts as battlefields. We stand by them in their plight and assure them that we shall do our best to extend a helping hand to them.”
This position was expressed in the statement (May 2012) of the three Patriarchs of Syria: “In view of this grievous loss, we pray to God to heal the wounds of Syria and Syrians, and to restore the children of the one homeland to one another in love, openness and reconciliation, tolerance, mutual assistance and wisdom, preferring always the interest of the country to any other interest, distancing themselves from violence in all its forms, aiming for the good of our beloved country and building it again on the basis of civilized, humane, firm justice and good citizenship, co-existence and peaceful freedom of expression; all that is related to serving the nation and citizens.”
The situation in Lebanon
As for the situation in Lebanon, I should like to quote what I said after my short European pilgrimage: “We greatly appreciate the invitation to the Round Table from H.E. President of the Republic General Michel Sleiman for the discussions that have just begun. We consider this initiative a significant step towards calming the atmosphere and replacing alarming political language by a more reasonable and responsible tone. We encourage leaders to meet, as solutions can be found through understanding which must be the main concern for all political leaders, especially in the exceptionally tricky situations that the region, including Lebanon, is experiencing.
“We strongly condemn the lamentable events that certain Lebanese regions have recently witnessed and that unfortunately have increased the nation’s suffering. We invite all parties to be peaceable and refrain from resorting to arms and warlike behaviour. We highlight the role of the Lebanese army and value its sacrifices and all it does to protect national peace and the Lebanese entity with its constitutional institutions and its consensual social structure. We believe the institution of the Lebanese army together with the home security forces and other security institutions to be the foundation on which the country’s stability and the nation’s security are built.
“We invite everyone to work continuously for peace, emphasising that Lebanon plays a positive role, especially for the unification of the Arab world, Arab choice, and Arab work, and that is its role, given its political nature and religious, cultural and social makeup. That fulfils the saying of the late Blessed Pope John Paul II, “Lebanon is a mission.” Here, we find that Lebanon could carry out this local, Arab and international mission of helping the region avoid further division and conflict, as whatever affects the region concerns it and vice versa. We believe that internal conflicts are death to nations, with this slogan: “Come and say no to war… no to fighting… no to dissidence… and yes to unity, dialogue and peace.”
We think that the atmosphere of dialogue is the best preparation for the forthcoming visit of H. H. Pope Benedict XVI to Lebanon. That is why it is important for the Church of Lebanon and for the Church of the Middle East to be ready to make this historic visit succeed, given its special importance amidst all the changes and upheavals that the Arab world is experiencing, and so that the visit can be a message to Arab countries, after the Synod for the Middle East, and the follow-up that the bishops suggested during this Synod.
Appeal to world leaders for peace
We appeal to world leaders telling them that peace in the Middle East is the responsibility of them all and key to world peace. Let them come to the land of peace to make peace.
We called everyone to fasting and prayer during the Apostles’ Fast that God might have mercy on us and grant us his greatest gift: peace for our Arab world. Let us love one another to make our Holy Synod succeed. Let us love one another to serve our parishes with greater fidelity and zeal and to be capable of implanting lively hope and optimism in their hearts and make firm faith in their souls so that our faithful may live out Gospel values and be light, salt and leaven in their society.
We conclude with prayer for our Arab nations living in arduous conditions: may our God deliver them and guide them to peace and serenity.
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem