Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Patriarch Ignatius IV and Education

Arabic original here, for this week.

Ignatius IV: A History-Making Patriarch

by Dr Elie Dannaoui

When talking about education in Lebanon, the Russian consul in Beirut (1865-1882) Konstantin Petkovich describes in his memoirs the deteriorating situation of the Greek Orthodox community in comparison to other Christian communities. The diplomat explains "this strange phenomenon of ignorance and negligence on the part of the upper spiritual leadership of the Orthodox community, since they were not concerned with opening any popular Orthodox schools or defending their flocks from the influence of Protestant missions and engaging it."  The consul continues his analysis, "... in this matter, also at fault are the wealthy Orthodox who prefer-- on account of their miserliness, the weakness of their patriotism, and their lack of ambition-- to send their sons and daughters to the Catholic or Protestant educational institutions that are active in Mount Lebanon or Beirut, instead of operating their own schools. To the sum of money that they pay can be added the sums of property and real estate that the monasteries and others could offer for this goal, enough to open the best Orthodox schools."

Perhaps these words were true in the second half of the 19th century or earlier times when the Orthodox, like other Christians and Muslims of Lebanon, suffered, even if to relative degrees, from various kinds of intellectual impoverishment. However, it is certain that after Ignatius IV such words are not true of the "Orthodox community", as the Russian consul called them. This is not to say that educational institutions began during the time of Patriarch Ignatius IV of thrice-blessed memory. It is only to point out the creative dimensions that this patriarch gave to the Church's mission in society, as exemplified by his view of the role of the Church's spiritual leaders, the role of the faithful, and their relationship with each other. These aspects meet the three weaknesses indicated in the Russian consul's memoirs-- the ignorance and negligence of the spiritual leadership, the faithful's reluctance to give, and the "negative role" of Western missions among the Orthodox through the activity of educational institutions.

Patriarch Ignatius read history with incarnational eyes, rooted in Antiochian theology. He loved the history and heritage of his Church. He did not stop at the threshold of understanding, but rather used it as a gateway to a new history that he created with his word and deed. He provided a model for the educated, educating bishop, in contrast to the picture painted by the Russian consul. By establishing an Antiochian institute for teaching Orthodox theology at Balamand, he strove to sew the seeds of change by preparing priests in whom are joined piety, knowledge, and culture. The contours of this image are embodied in a comprehensive approach, the least that can be said of which is that it contains an integrated, revivalist plan whose axis is the mind enlightened by knowledge and the heart beating with faith. On this solid basis, Ignatius IV pushed ahead with operating and establishing monuments to knowledge, starting with Annunciation School in Beirut, then the Saint John of Damascus Theological Institute and the dream university on Balamand hill. He went against the flow of history and in this way he made history.

Perhaps the Russian consul hit upon one of the aspects of the crisis of all Lebanese during the 19th century, when their poor lacked the help and support of the well-off members of their communities. However, it is certain that many elements of this equation changed with Patriarch Ignatius. He taught all to give and they gave generously and unconditionally. The heart of the matter is that he is the one who gave. He is the one who took initiative. He is the one who to a great degree contributed to demonstrating the Church's boundless giving. More important than all this, he gave himself to the other, in the image of his Teacher. He proved that personal conviction about the matter was enough to convince others of it and that one who has consecrated his life to a noble cause and has given of it limitlessly, to him should be given limitlessly in return.

The second thing that I would like to pause over is represented by his view of the other. To return to the Russian consul's memoirs, Mr Petkovich calls for the establishment of Orthodox schools and faculties for teaching the children of the Orthodox and helping them to avoid the "danger" of western teachings in missionary schools. Patriarch Ignatius IV was not a traditionalist who based his choices on reaction. Rather, he was innovative, always taking things to a higher level. In this way too he went against the path of many and perhaps this was the most outstanding aspect of his thinking and activity. Yes, he founded schools, faculties, and a university, but it was not only for instructing the children of the Orthodox. It was also to defend them against the real danger: insularity and isolationism. In word and deed, the patriarch made the institution of the Church into an oasis that testifies to the Lord who redeemed humankind without discrimination. He wanted her to be a meeting-place for brothers and a forge of national unity.

One might ask how this patriarch was different from the others. I think that simplicity is the distinguishing characteristic of this historic personality, a simplicity that contained a consistent combination of seemingly contradictory elements. The patriarch was able to offer them to others so that they could serve a single purpose. At a time when people waver between calls for a return to a certain authenticity, others for facing a desired future, and yet others that try to clarify a blurry present, Patriarch Ignatius addressed the confused people of today in simple words, but that those who know history realize that they spring from a well that goes back deep in history. Others grasp these words looking forward to the future. However, the most important thing is that they benefit people of today through the witness of all those who knew thim. He knew the truth and was set free.

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