To their Excellencies, my beloved brother Bishops, members of the Holy Synod, most reverend Superiors General and Mothers General, and all faithful parishioners of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church,
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” (cf. II Corinthians 13:13)
With this Pauline greeting, by which priest, bishop and Patriarch salute the faithful at the beginning of the anaphora during the Divine Liturgy, we greet you, reverend brothers and dear sons and daughters, in Arab countries and throughout the diaspora. At the beginning of this Year of the Holy Apostle Paul, we greet you from our patriarchal residence in Damascus and from the quarter of Saint Paul, spiritual son of Damascus by baptism.
I shall write a special letter for this year, but I believe I have to send this foreword to enable us thereby to begin together the Year of Saint Paul in spiritual and ecclesial fellowship that will give us joy for this blessed jubilee. I am writing this especially to my brother, his Excellency Joseph Absi, Patriarchal Vicar in Damascus, and to all my sons, the priests and monks, as well as to the nuns and lay-people of our Patriarchal Eparchy of Damascus. I am entrusting this year to our Vicar, priests and committees of that eparchy, to work together as a commission under the presidency of our son, Archimandrite Antonios Mousleh, so as to make the celebration of this Pauline Year special in all our parishes in Damascus.
Celebration in Rome
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI will open this jubilee year on Saturday 28 June 2008 in Rome. I shall take part, by special invitation, in the opening on Saturday and on Sunday 29, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, will concelebrate with His Holiness in the Pontifical Mass in the Basilica of Saint Peter.
I shall be representing our Patriarchal Church, during this opening, in Eternal Rome, place of the martyrdom of Saint Paul; together with the Assembly of the Catholic Hierarchy in Syria, as its president, and our Patriarchal Eparchy in Damascus where the Patriarchal Throne of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is geographically situated. I shall pray at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul as we did with my brothers, their Excellencies the Hierarchs, the Superiors General and Mothers General and the groups that accompanied us last May, during our historic visit to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI who welcomed us with their Eminences the Cardinals, his collaborators in the Roman Curia, with an abundance of love and appreciation.
I believe that the two most important places for the celebration of the Year of Saint Paul are DamascusRome. Damascus was his spiritual birthplace through the baptism bestowed by the Holy Apostle Ananias, our predecessor and first Bishop of Damascus. The second is Rome, place where ended Paul’s “good fight” as he calls it, with his martyrdom wherein the Apostle shed his blood as a libation for love of Christ. In fact, he says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” (Philippians 1:21) “and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) and
The Importance of the Celebration in Damascus
I would like to emphasise especially the importance of the celebration of the Year of Saint Paul to Damascus, capital of Syria, which has been chosen this year as capital of Arab culture for the year 2008. During the reception of the late Pope John Paul II in May 2001, President Bashar Al-Assad said that Syria is the “cradle of Christianity.” Saint Paul embodies the history of Christianity in Syria and in this very city constitutes one of the distinguishing symbols of culture, civilization, heritage and especially religion, for faith is the source and foundation of civilizations. Damascus is the place of our splendid Antiochian Patriarchal Throne. Antioch, called the Great City of God, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and capital of the Umayyad caliphs, is also the capital of the Christian East, and the most senior bishopric after Jerusalem, the City of the Resurrection. In Antioch, the disciples of Christ were called Christians for the first time. That is the name which preceded every national or communal kind of name for Christians. May this beautiful, blessed, universal name again refer to Christians of all rites, confessions, nationalities, countries and peoples!
Damascus Heir of Antioch
Damascus, today, is the headquarters of three Eastern Patriarchs that are heirs of the Antiochian See: Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Syrian Orthodox. To them may be added the two Patriarchs who bear the title of Antioch but are in Lebanon (at Bkerkeh and Sharfeh): that of the Maronite Church and that of the Syriac Catholic Church.
On this occasion, we wish that Antioch and its five heirs in Damascus and Beirut, in Syria and Lebanon, representing the Christians most involved in the Arab East, its culture, civilization and religious and civil history of faith, and in the multiplicity of its confessions and Christian and Muslim millets, may find the place that is their due! May the Church of the Arab East again play a guiding role in the spiritual, faith, pastoral, civil, cultural, economic, sociological and even political domains!
The Year of Saint Paul and the Role of Christians in the Arab World
May the celebration of the Year of Saint Paul be a stimulus for the Church of the Middle East to play its dynamic role in the Arab Christian and Muslim context, unique in Christian dialogue, of fostering peace in that region, supporting human rights whose basis is in faith in God, such as is found in Christianity and Islam. These rights are capable of opening up in the Arab world new horizons onto that prosperity and flourishing of civilization expected by the young generation of Arabs.
Moreover, very dear reverend brothers, I would like to inform you that His Holiness the Pope will send a representative at the end of the year to Syria, Lebanon and other countries of the region where Saint Paul travelled to proclaim the Gospel of peace and love.
Opening of the Jubilee Year in Syria and Lebanon
Several special events will take place in Syria and the Lebanon. In the latter country, the opening of the year will be celebrated on Saturday 28 June with ecumenical prayer in which all denominations will participate – Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical.
In Damascus itself, for three days, there will take place a series of events shared by all the different Christian communities, with the participation of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism (details of the programme are available in Damascus.) These celebrations are related to the places which witnessed the main stages of the conversion and calling of Paul:
- monastery of the vision of Saint Paul at Tel Kawkab (an important site of the Greek Orthodox Church) where the official opening of the Year of Saint Paul will take place;
- Church of Saint Ananias, in the care of the Franciscan Fathers;
- monastery of Saint Paul on the Wall or at the Kisan Gate, whence Saint Paul fled to Hauran (this important site belongs to the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate);
- cave where Saint Paul took refuge after his flight (in the care of the Franciscan Fathers, Bab Sharqi quarter.)
The programme includes a pilgrimage along Straight Street and visits to the great Umayyad Mosque, the citadel of Damascus, the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Patriarchates, besides the important sites mentioned above.
The celebration also includes a pilgrimage to the Church of Saint Paul at Daraya (an Arab word meaning monastery of the vision, the place where it is thought that the Lord appeared to Saint Paul), as well as in other churches of the capital dedicated to Saint Paul, amongst which is the church shared by Greek Catholics and Orthodox at Dummar, and the cathedral of the Syriac Catholics.
General Programme in Damascus
Concerning our Damascene eparchy and Syria in general, we should like to mention the creation of a special committee to work out the details of different programmes in the light of the celebrations anticipated this year. Amongst these are being arranged talks, an exhibition on Saint Paul, the publication of a monthly bulletin under the title, “Letter of Saint Paul to the Damascenes,” pilgrimages to Damascus itself and the parishes and places in the city that recall Saint Paul, to Turkey (visit to Tarsus, birth city of the Apostle, Cappadocia, Antioch), as well as to Malta, Athens and Italy.
Still on the theme of our Damascene eparchy, we should like to express our gratitude to his Excellency President Bashar Al-Assad, whom we met in company with our brother, Vicar General Joseph Absi, and to whom we explained the whole importance of this anniversary of the second millennium of the birth of the holy Apostle Paul, spiritual son of Damascus. For this jubilee confirms the remark of the President, that we recalled with pride, namely that, “Syria is the cradle of Christianity and the meeting-place of civilizations.” His Excellency showed a keen interest in the matter and asked the Ministries of Tourism and Information to undertake substantive measures to co-operate in ensuring the success of this anniversary. For that purpose, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism published three large posters. The patriarchal committee in its turn has created a poster on which Saint Paul is seen looking out from the walls of Damascus at the whole world, both East and West. After his conversion, it was from Damascus that he would carry the light of the Holy Gospel to the four corners of the earth.
We have sent out to several episcopal conferences across the world invitations to come and visit the holy places of the Pauline adventure in Damascus.
Brethren and Beloved Children,
We believe this jubilee year to be a special opportunity to renew holy faith in the hearts of our faithful. That is what His Holiness the Pope recommended when we visited him last May. For that purpose, every bishop in his eparchy ought to find appropriate ways to mark this jubilee year. We hope to remain in contact to exchange services and talks with a view to the success of this jubilee, and that it may bear fruit in our parishes. We pray especially for the Year of Saint Paul to be a year of just, lasting and general peace in Palestine, Lebanon, SyriaIraq as throughout all our dear East. and
We close this letter in peace and love, after the manner of Saint Paul whose own would conclude in an outpouring of love, kindness, brotherliness and tenderness. We would like these feelings to reach in our name, all those who read and publish this letter. So we wish that all to whom these feelings extend may share them with family, relatives, friends, acquaintances, colleagues and fellow-citizens.
We greet you, brethren, with the words of the Apostle himself, “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with an holy kiss. All the saints salute you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all! Amen.” (II Corinthians 13: 11-13)
With my apostolic blessing
+ Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Translated from the French by V. Chamberlain
Photo credit to Daniel Dzurovčin of the Gréckokatolícke biskupstvo Prešov.