Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Patriarchate of Antioch in 1992: An Interview

 Translated from: Service Orthodoxe de Presse no. 168 (May 1992), pp. 10-12.

A Visit to the Orthodox of Syria and Lebanon by Sister Irène and Sister Laetitia

Nuns of the monastic Community of the Resurrection in Conques-sur-Orbiel (Aude), received into the communion of the Orthodox Church in 1989, Sister Irène and Sister Laetitia have just spent almost three months in Syria and Lebanon. Invited by Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch, under whose canonical obedience their community falls, they had the opportunity during their stay to visit most of the dioceses and monastic communities found in these two countries.

What impressions did you get from this immersion in the life of the Church of Antioch?

What first emerges from this stay is the joy of having touched the place of our filiation from the Church of Antioch in the person of its patriarch and to have felt, in contact with the bishops and faithful, a deep spiritual affinity, the fruit of the grace of these long years that we have lived the Antiochian tradition [NOTE: the nuns had previously been Melkite Catholics before converting to Orthodoxy], to the point that several people, priests and laity, were astonished to realize that we had the same approach as they did to important problems.

We had the good fortune to meet frequently with Patriarch Ignatius IV and to hear him express his thought about ecclesiastical life. It is always a wonder to approach such a man of God, with such a rich personality: at once capable of prophetic intuition and rigorous reasoning, a man of asceticism and great compassion, a church leader who always has the feeling of being at the people's service, remaining accessible to all.

What's very striking is the great simplicity of the bishops and clergy and their closeness to the people. In several dioceses, we noticed how easy it was for the faithful to come greet the metropolitan and to present their problems to him. It is true that, in these countries governed by personal law, the bishop must also take on an entire social, administrative and judicial role.

Antioch, one of the most ancient Christian churches, founded by Saint Peter even before that of Rome, where, according to the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples of Jesus first received the name "Christians"... How is it now?

One of the things that also struck us was that everywhere one touches Christianity's continuity since the beginning of the Christian era: Damascus, site of Saint Paul's conversion; Maaloula, where Saint Thecla, Paul's disciple, lived and died; in the ruins of ancient churches that go back to the fourth century in Hawran and to the fifth century in Northern Syria; and finally in the permanence of Christianity: the foundation of several current monasteries goes back to the sixth or seventh century. Thus it's a land where Christianity has always been alive down to our own time and where it has known how to keep the integrity of its faith beside Islam. Still today Syria is 20% Christian Arab, the great majority of whom are Orthodox. These Christians, for the most part, are descendants of the first Christians, just like in Lebanon.

We have seen that today these communities are very much alive. The first thing that catches the eye, both in Syria and Lebanon, is that the churches are full, that young people go to them in just as large numbers, if not more, than older people and that the faithful commune in droves. In Syria, the divine liturgy is celebrated in all parishes on Friday (the weekly day off) and on Sunday. There's almost as many people in the church on both days. Nevertheless, the number of churches is doubtless insufficient for the number of Christians.

One also feels the continuity of Christianity in the fierce determination of many Antiochians to preserve the best of the tradition of the Fathers while nevertheless not being closed to new forms that questions of history and the modern world often require of any authentic witness. Due to our ignorance of the Arabic language, we were unfortunately not able to have access to the impressive number of books, magazines, parish bulletins, etc. published by various dioceses, by the monasteries, or by the Orthodox Youth Movement, the MJO, which transmit the thought of this new "School of Antioch", the first fruits of which we can find in the books by Patriarch Ignatius, the articles of Metropolitan Georges Khodr, and some articles already translated or written in French.

This language problem also did not permit us-- especially in Syria but also in Lebanon-- to have the all the contact we would've liked to have had with all the youth engaged in the life of the Church, who know longer know a foreign language, but who in many dioceses are entirely devoted to pastoral or missionary activity.

We have also perceived continuity in this desire to remain in this land, despite the vicissitudes of history, both ancient and recent, and thus, in these ambitious construction projects (Balamand University, new monasteries, churches, many recently-opened schools, hospitals and social centers, etc.) launched by the patriarchate and other dioceses just to help the Orthodox people (and their fellow-citizens) to better overcome the temptation to emigrate which exacerbates the worsening of the economic situation, especially in Lebanon, as well as fear of the future.

How are things exactly in Lebanon? Were you able to notice a real recovery?

We were touched to see the extraordinary vitality of the Orthodox institutions despite the difficult conditions of life (almost no public services, which is to say only a few hours of electricity per day, little or no mail distribution, very poor telephone service, roads in bad condition, etc.). In this context, it is amazing to see the marvels of imagination deployed to find resources and at the same time to innovate in charity work. For example, a workshop for producing uniforms that depends on the Diocese of Beirut and at first worked exclusively for Saint George's Hospital, today has fourteen employees: it furnishes uniforms to various establishments of the city and with its profits allows clinics to be financed.

You have certainly had a lot of contact with the new monastic shoots that are appearing in the Patriarchate of Antioch. What can you tell us about them?

First off, let me tell you how much we felt at home in all these monasteries, received with great brotherly love.

As you say, it's true that new communities are currently appearing in Syria and Lebanon, to say nothing of the monasteries that are a little older such as Saint Jacob, near Tripoli (it's the most important, with 18 nuns) or Saint George at Deir el-Harf. There are young communities that are still small in number, often with no more than three to five monks or nuns. In these beginnings, most of these monasteries were inspired by Athonite monasticism, with a rather marked ascetic character, but which dos not impede these lively and very frequent contacts with the people of God and in particular the youth, among the most engaged in the life of the Church.

The abbots of several of these monasteries do work of real spiritual fatherhood: they receive many and gladly leave their monastery to make regular visits to different dioceses or centers of the MJO in order to hear confessions, lead spiritual retreats or participate in one or another gathering. The abbots of the main monasteries have been regularly gathering together for the past several months and have started to publish a collection of ascetical and spiritual works (two volumes of about 100 pages each have appeared in the past four months).

Although many people are convinced that these shoots that are faithful to traditional monasticism will, in maturing, reveal more and more of the riches particular to Antioch's monastic tradition, many laypeople have expressed to us a desire for another form of religious life as well. Some of them hope for a visible religious presence-- a sign of the physical presence of the Church-- in the Orthodox institutions (hospitals, schools, etc.). Others emphasize the necessity of pastoral activity among women that could only be carried out by consecrated women (several studies and research seem to have been conducted on reestablishing the order of deaconesses). More generally, one feels the need for a monastic witness that is accessible to people and which can help them to live in a Christian manner.

How will your monastery follow up on the contacts established during this visit?

The patriarch envisages a stay in our monastery for young women from Syria or Lebanon who are thinking about the religious life. We hope to be able to help them as much as possible to develop their vocations which they will live out in their own country in the service of the Church.

His Beatitude also hopes that all the Antiochian Orthodox living in France will know that our monastery is their monastery, that despite the current cramped location they will be welcome if they visit us and that we hope that in the future we will be able to expand our welcome, if God gives us the means.

(Interview conducted by Raymond Rizk)

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Met Ephrem (Kyriakos): Unity in the Church is Conciliar

 Arabic original here.

Unity in the Church is Conciliar

Conciliarity is a movement, a movement of love and a movement of diversity.

God is one, and for the Church communion must be at the same time perfect unity and perfect diversity.

The head does not impede the freedom of the members. He does not lord over them. He remains in coordination and conciliarity with them.

Unity is a bond of love, a bond of communion. Therefore, God is love.

The Church is a communion of love in the image of the Holy Trinity. What is her conciliar character that leads to unity?

The Church is the body of Christ. She is the community that the Lord redeemed with His blood. She works to bring together all those divided as one.

This unity is embodied in the mystery of the Eucharist.

It is there where the bishop gathers together with the faithful. The bishop is always in the midst of God's people. He cares for his church, that is, for God's people, through the truth of the word, the word of Christ.

He uncovers the members' talents and bears them in his prayer. He is not concerned first of all with material gain or idle glory.

"Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;  nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-3).

The entire people of God preserves the faith. The bishop's mission is to declare the word and act upon it.

The council of bishops is also a face of unity. Each bishop there bears his church's experience and weaknesses.

On the other hand, the people bear the bishop in their prayers, so that decisions will come that are pleasing to God and salvific for every element of the Church.


Metropolitan of Tripoli, al-Koura and their Dependencies