- Created on 26 April 2009
Damascus - 20090426 - The International Conference on the second millennium of Saint Paul’s birth was held from 23-25 April at al-Zaitouna Church in Damascus under the title of "Reading Paul from the East." The three-day Conference was hosted by the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate in cooperation with Syriaca, University of Padua, Italy, the Franciscan Center of Christian Oriental Studies in Cairo and Memorial St. Paul in Damascus.
Paul and the Dialogue of Cultures in the Middle East
Lecture of His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and of All the East,
of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
for the Melkite Greek Catholic Church,
delivered at the Damascus Conference -
Reading Paul from the East (23-25 April 2009)
We thank the Franciscan Fathers for organizing this conference and further congratulate them for choosing a successful conference theme entitled "Reading Paul from the East."
We are very pleased to host this conference at our Patriarchal Seat located in St. Paul's Street in the Eastern Gate (Bab Sharqi) Quarter along Straight Street (Via Recta); just a stone’s throw from St. Ananias' house on one side and Bab Kisan on the other, whence the disciples helped the newly converted Paul to escape from Damascus. We are all in the Pauline quarter!
· I was born in Daraya, which can be considered one of the sites associated with Paul’s conversion.
· My mother was from Khabab in the Hauran near Masmiyeh, where Paul stayed for three years (35-38) and where today can be found the ruins of a big church called after Paul.
· I was Titular Archbishop of Tarsus, Saul’s birth-place, for over nineteen years (1981-2000.)
· I stayed for three years at the monastery of St. Paul outside the Walls in Rome (1956-1959) and celebrated my first Mass on 16 February 1959 at St. Paul's Basilica next to the monastery.
· I am grateful to Paul who has accompanied me throughout my life and have written the following four letters about the Apostle Paul in his jubilee year:
1. Christmas letter: “For to me to live is Christ.”
2. Lent letter: “I am crucified with Christ.”
3. Paschal letter: “Ye be risen with Christ.”
4. Closing letter marking the end of the Pauline year “Paul and his collaborators.”
Damascus and Paul are inseparable
Damascus has played a very significant role both in St. Paul’s life and in the history of Christianity, particularly, in the worldwide spread of the message of our Lord Jesus Christ (to whom be glory) since it was from Damascus that Paul’s “Gospel,” as he calls it, started out.
As Damascus was a most important city in Paul’s life, it has taken a leading role in the jubilee anniversary of his second millennium, opened in Rome and presided over by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, with our participation. We are grateful to His Holiness for having proclaimed this jubilee celebration.
Damascus is the spiritual mother of Paul and Paul is the spiritual son of Damascus. He was born in the flesh in Tarsus, born spiritually through sacred baptism in Damascus, whence he went out into the world, where in due course he would be born through blood by his martyrdom in Rome.
Physical birth in Tarsus
Spiritual birth in Damascus
Birth of Martyrdom in Rome
That means that Saint Paul was baptized by Ananias around the years 36 or 37, as Saint Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, writing of Paul’s missionary activity in Damascus: -
Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; ‘Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?’ But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ. And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: but their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket. (Acts 9: 19-25)
We don’t know exactly the details of Saint Paul’s stay during those years spent in the region. When did he start preaching in the synagogues, proclaiming courageously Jesus’ name? (Acts 9:22) And when the disciples helped him to escape at night, whither did he go and where did he stay? When he returned to Damascus, how much of that three-year period, mentioned in Galatians, did he spend there?
Thus we understand how Saul-Paul discovered Christ and his teachings without the Gospel (for at that time no Gospel had yet been written) or any other books or papers, and without meeting or establishing a relationship with any of the apostles who preceded him. As he tells us, “..nor did I go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles who preceded me,” (Galatians 1:16, 17). In fact, “they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.” (Acts 9:26) Paul shows us how he discovered the teachings of the Holy Gospel: “For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:12)
In Paul, then, the Old Testament books have, so to speak, embraced their perfection in the Gospel, or New Testament in Christ Jesus. So the visions of the patriarchs and prophets have met and fused with the vision of Paul on the road to Damascus. Both visions - indeed, all visions, revelations and utterances - have intertwined, for the one God is the source of all
Yes, Jesus Christ is God and man. He has destroyed all barriers of history, time, place, geography, ethnicity, past, present and future; barriers between people, Jews and pagans, male and female, slave and free, great and small, to make humanity into the new man, as he is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In him all nations are reconciled, all parties and mind-sets, all trends unite in him
Paul unifies his thoughts, feelings, vision, message and Gospel around Jesus – bringing together all the ways of seeing, Scriptures and languages that he knew and the Roman, Greek, Hebraic, Aramaic, Semitic civilizations with which he was familiar.
What Paul experienced throughout his life as cultural, spiritual, social and human pluralism was transformed into a breadth of teaching in his epistles, which set forth the foundations of a dialogue between man and God, man and his fellow-brothers, a dialogue of civilizations and cultures.
Let us review the main features that establish a dialogue of civilizations and cultures, a dialogue among human beings according to Paul's teachings.
The solidarity of the body’s members: a symbol of the Church
Indeed, how beautiful is the dialogue described by Paul between the body and its members! First, the dialogue starts inside humanity, within man himself, among his members working together in harmony and unity. Paul then moves from that human body and the importance of unity among its members, to the Church, which he likens to the body and the faithful to its members. Here also, the life of the Church will not be sound unless there is dialogue, collaboration and solidarity. This applies to human society as well and to the presence of Christians in society, in the country to which they belong, and to their collaboration and solidarity with all their fellow-citizens.
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: and those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to that part which lacked. That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. (I Corinthians 12:12-30)
Charity: the basis of all dialogue
Paul continues setting out the law of dialogue in the body, the Church and society, as being founded on charity which is the “bond of perfection,” the bond for all gifts, and the basis of any relation between faithful and citizens.
Thus, Paul writes one of the most beautiful canticles ever sung by humans, to describe that most splendid attribute of God which reveals His essence and the nature of all religions and beliefs, namely, the Hymn to Charity (Love), which is the basis and characteristic of all dialogues and the foundation for all relations among humans whatever their religion or beliefs, even were they atheists rejecting every religion.
“But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.”
(I Corinthians 12: 31)
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (I Corinthians 13: 1-10, 13)
Abolishing the wall of enmity between people
Paul is a realistic person and knows very well human frailty. He himself experienced this weakness in his body, and Jesus addressed him saying, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Moreover, Paul knows quite well that charity (love) is not a simple, easy commandment, and that living according to love requires great effort. Therefore, he explained that the primary task of Jesus is abolishing enmity among men, spreading trust and making peace. These all together form the basis of dialogue and solidarity among men.
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: but now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:11-19)
Solidarity of Rich and Poor Countries
Based on the principles mentioned above, we can establish solidarity between rich and poor countries. Annually, we witness different meetings at various levels: such as the January meeting of the G20 (Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors) in the Davos Resort, besides that of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN) due to take place soon in Rome. The year 2008 witnessed a major economic crisis due to covetousness, greed and man’s exploitation of his brethren, the poor and the weak.
Hence the Apostle Paul lays down in his Epistles the law of solidarity between rich and poor countries, based on the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as ye abound in every thing, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also. For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich. For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened: But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality: as it is written, “He that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack.” (II Corinthians 8:7, 9,13 -15)
But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work: (as it is written, “He hath dispersed abroad; he hath given to the poor: his righteousness remaineth for ever.” (II Corinthians 9:6-9)
Damascus, Antioch and Baghdad: meeting-place of civilizations
Paul, in his epistles, laid down the foundations for dialogue, thus, transforming the Gospel into a civilization. He paved the way for a conversation of cultures and civilizations based on faith, for without faith in God, or in human dignity, there will be no dialogue, no meeting, no living together, no co-existence, no tolerance, no forgiveness, no reconciliation and no peace…
In this context His Excellency, President Bashar al-Assad of the Syrian Arabic Republic, during his reception of the late Pope, Blessed John-Paul II, declared that, “Syria is the cradle of civilization.” The President also said to us in private conversation, afterwards publicly repeated, “Palestine is the cradle of Jesus (peace be upon him) – but Syria is the cradle of Christianity.”
Actually, the Church of Antioch is the heir of the Roman Region called “Antioch and All the East” starting from Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) stretching across much of the Arab World (present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq) and crossing even further towards the East, thereby including such major ancient capitals, as Constantinople, Antioch, Damascus and Baghdad.
Indeed, this region is the meeting-place of civilizations, languages and cultures: Latin (the official language of the Roman Empire), Greek (the cultural language in the Eastern Roman Empire) received by the Romans from Alexander the Great, and Syriac (the language of the people) with all its variety of Hebraic-Aramaic languages, besides the Arabic language, the language of Arabs, Muslims and Christians and the language of the Holy Qur’an.
In this region, the holy fathers, our ancestors in faith, had dedicated their lives to translating Greek culture and civilization into Syriac and later into Arabic, with the emergence of Islam.
Thus, the Church of Antioch embodies plurality and diversity in Christianity as a whole. This rich Church reflects two heritages that existed concomitantly, namely, the Greek and Syriac, followed later by the Arabic civilization.
Consequently, in the one Church of Antioch and one eparchy, two heritages in two languages existed, the Greek heritage and language together with the Syriac heritage and language, and later under their influence and through the scholars of these two heritages, the Arabic language and civilization emerged in the Church.
Hence, in Antioch and in this blessed region the languages that were known by Paul (Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, and probably Arabic) fused together, through our holy fathers, who translated these languages and civilizations into Arabic.
What is remarkable in our Greek Church, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is that it used concurrently and for consecutive decades, Greek (endemic in cities), Syriac (native to rural areas) and later Arabic, which emerged with Islam. These three languages were used together in many areas, in liturgical prayers and sometimes even in daily life, as we still find today.
Our ancestors lived the dialogue of cultures and faith
Our ancestors experienced the dialogue of cultures, civilizations and faith in the circuit of Mediterranean cultures and languages.
As the Greek language and civilization penetrated the Mediterranean Basin, the holy fathers had to study it, learn it thoroughly and then convey it into Syriac (the language of the countryside) and later Arabic (the language of Muslims and Islam). The Arabs in their turn translated Greek civilization and language into Latin across Andalusia. Through Andalusia and Arabic, Greek culture gained access to Spain and Western Europe.
Muslim Arabs contributed to transferring Greek civilization to the West during the Middle Ages, through the translations made by Christians (Syrian and Greek- Syriac).
Thus, Antioch was the bearer of a cultural and civil Christians-Muslim interfaith dialogue, contributing to a Christian-Muslim civilization, fused together in the Arab East.
Today, this is our mission too, in the steps of Paul and the Greek and Syriac fathers. Today, in the twenty-first century and this third millennium, we too, like Paul and our holy fathers and ancestors are responsible for continuing this dialogue, meeting, solidarity, collaboration and reciprocal enrichment, in our Arab society with its vast Muslim majority.
It is a truly unique responsibility for Christians to handle, and it springs out of the need for their presence and witness in the Arab world with its vast Muslim majority (constituting 300 million Muslim inhabitants and 5 million Jews, to 15 million Arab Christians.)
I have explained this unique role in certain of my Christmas Letters, particularly the fourth, entitled “Emmanuel, God with us:”
Mankind in the School of Jesus Emmanuel
So Christmas becomes a call to all mankind to learn in the school of Jesus Emmanuel, God with mankind, so that all mankind becomes one with God, so that people acquire solidarity with one another in this life, loving each other, being concerned, united, helping each other, meeting each other for good, justice, truth, peace, virtue, good morals, noble purpose, mutual respect, mutual reverence, valuing, understanding, together building a better world. He himself came and took as the goal of his life “that they should have life and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10)
The Meeting Centre
We founded in 2003 a centre which we called The Encounter Centre. It has a branch in Syria, another in the Lebanon and there will soon be a third one in Egypt. The symbol of this centre is two hands greeting each other, despite tall, thick ramparts raised to prevent them. This encounter unites and acquires all its strength, firmness and effectiveness thanks to divine revelation, the basis of our holy faith, which breaks down and even removes any possible barriers between people, allowing each to discover the other, his dignity, role and mission and helping instead to build relationships based entirely on profound, humane faith convictions, spiritual convictions. This unity is symbolized by a church and a mosque to be found in the logo of this Encounter Centre.
Church of the Arabs
The expression “Church of the Arabs” means in a unique manner the Church of Jesus Christ, living in an Arab milieu and in a deep and intimate relationship with this Arab world, with its sufferings and hopes, its joys and pains, its problems and crises. The Church is Emmanuel, Church with and for this Arab society and in this Arab society, without forgetting its Arab roots and Arab nature, due to history and geography. The most important thing is not to affirm that the Church is Arab, but rather that the Church has a mission in the Arab world and society. In fact, this Arab world in which the Church lives, in which it is planted as in its own soil, sealed into the depths of its history and geography, is in its vast majority the world of Islam The Church constitutes fifteen million out of two hundred and seventy million people. This Church of the Arabs, this Church of the Arab world and society is a Church of Islam, of Muslim society, a Church that lives with the Arab and Islamic world It is the Church that lives in this Arab, Islamic world, which is in interaction with it, suffers and rejoices with it, builds with it, hopes and grows with it, loves and serves with it: it is truly the Emmanuel Church, a Church with and for this world.
Church with Mankind
The Christian must go beyond himself and his church, his own person and become really catholic, in the general meaning, “of all and for all.” The expression “Church of the Arabs and of Islam” is a cultural or incultural expression for the one Church of our creed, “I believe in one, holy catholic Church” that is, that unites in itself all cultures, civilizations, languages and ethnicities.
This expression “Church of Islam” lies in the depths of my thought, personality and consciousness and comes from a very deep analysis far from any proselytism, or wishing to win over Muslims. This expression is, in my conscience, synonymous with love, (charity), respect, mutual help, fellowship, understanding, dialogue, affection, ardor for others, as it is said in the Qur’an, working together in our Arab homelands to build a better world, the civilization of love.
Let us say to everyone in the Arab world that the solution to our problems lies in our faith as Muslims and Christians. If we succeed in facing up to this challenge in a positive and decisive way, we shall bring about a unique victory and surely be an example to the whole world as agents of peace and salvation in our world, both Eastern and Western.
Faced with these truths and challenges, we realize more than ever the importance of our union and our solidarity in the Arab world. Besides, I would say that among the priorities of our Church is working for unity and service of the Arab world. We are from this world and for it and its development, for its service, to defend its role and for interaction and solidarity with it and all related causes. We are obliged, as a Church, as individuals and a community, each one in his position, in his eparchy, in his parish, each according to his professional, social and political commitment to listen to all its thoughts, to its whole vision.
The fruits of the unifying incarnation also touch all the nations of the whole world and it is as Jesus said, or rather as is said about Jesus, that he will “die for the nation,” but not only for the (Jewish) nation, but also to unify all the scattered children of this world. That is why it is the duty of Christians to be the initiators, the heralds of unity for the entire world. (Christmas Letter 2004)
In my Christmas Letter (2006) entitled, “Peace, Living Together and the Christian Presence in the Arab Middle East,” I reported some passages from the Letter of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs indicating that the Catholic hierarchies (and others in general) have the same orientation with regard to identifying the role of Christians in the Dialogue of Cultures:
Living together is the future of these Arab countries and is valuable for both Christians and Muslims. It means accepting the other as he is, respecting him and venerating him, recognizing him as fellow-citizen, with all concomitant human rights, those of every one on earth and especially in the East.
Christians are an important element in that living together. There is no living together without pluralism, meaning that our society comprises Christians in all communities, Muslims in all their groups, Druzes and Jews.
This living together is threatened by emigration, whose most important and dangerous reasons are the wars, calamities and crises whose origin is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the injustice that flows from that. In the same way, products of this conflict are extremism, fundamentalism, violence, the ideology of terrorism and feelings of enmity and hatred in society and lack of equality in rights and job opportunities. There is also a lack of opportunity for participating in different posts in the country, its governance and parliament, ministries and other services.
If the hemorrhage of emigration continues, it means the East will be void of its pluralism. There will be a collapse of what we call living together. In those circumstances, Christians would not able to resist the series of calamities, crises, wars, clashes and conflicts.
But what may yet help Christians to resist in the face of all these difficulties and not emigrate is the faith conviction that remaining in Arab countries, where Christianity was born and where God has planted them, is in itself an apostolate, vocation and mission. This mission stems from the fact that the Antiochian Christian Church here, as I always repeat, is an Arab Church from its roots and ethnicity. Moreover it is Church of the Arabs and Church of Islam and Emmanuel Church, God with us and for us. It is also the Church with and for the other: the other is the Muslim citizen in our Arab society which is in the majority Muslim, in which Christians are responsible for bearing the Gospel message, and proclaiming its values in society, so that the Church may be present and witnessing in society, participating and interacting with it.
The atmosphere suitable for all these elements cited above - pluralism and living together with all that goes with that - is an atmosphere suitable for peace in the region; peace that is lasting, complete and firm, that may be the warranty for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the other hand, if Arab countries and Muslim citizens really care about pluralism and living together and if they feel the Christian presence is important in the region, then Christians have to be able to enjoy full fellow-citizenship with all the rights that go with it. It is absolutely indispensable that Arab countries unite their voices and words, to bring about a civilizing, just and peaceable solution for the Palestinian cause.
If that does not happen in the near future, the hemorrhage of emigration will grow as will Islamic fundamentalist movements, violence and terrorism and young Muslims will very simply fall victim into their net. That means that we should pass on to our young up and coming Arab generations a somber inheritance and a black future. Then Arab Muslim society would lose the components of its pluralism and living together and there would be realized, unfortunately, the prophecy about the clash of civilizations, religions and cultures.
Word of God: Words of Mankind
Pentecost was a prodigious event: the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and many of the Jewish pilgrims who had gone up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost, who, when they realized what had happened, ran up towards the upper room at Sion, where the apostles had been gathered after the ascension of Jesus Christ whilst awaiting the Father’s promise, that is, the descent of the Holy Spirit. And the tongue or language of the apostles was empowered after the Holy Spirit had descended on them in the form of tongues of fire to indicate the importance of speech, pronunciation, language and words in bearing the message of Jesus. “Their voice is gone out into all the earth and their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 18 (19): 4, LXX)
The apostles addressed the crowds around them, announcing the Word of God, but in just one language. However, though those present were of different nationalities and countries, speaking different languages, as Saint Luke tells us, yet they heard the apostles speak, each one in his own native language. So the Word of God is one, though for all people, reaching all, each in his own civilization, with its language, culture and characteristics.
It is truly the Word of God, because it really can reach all mankind and become a Word for people. That is the great challenge for preaching with conviction, for pastoral writing and in all documents issued by church authorities. The challenge is how to make the Word of God understood and bring it to people in such a way that it remains really his Word (without trickery, confusion or alteration) while meeting with people’s words and with their understanding, mindset and way of thinking. Yet it must elevate their thoughts and change their mentality, so that their own words really enter into harmony and contact with the Word of God. Then may be realized what Saint Paul said, “We have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16)
The Word of God: Dialogue of Religions and Faiths
The Council of Vatican II gave us the golden rule for religious dialogue, by showing us the importance of discovering the good things or the wealth of others. Here is what the Second Vatican Council said in Nostra Aetate (1965):
It is of very great importance for people to love their religion and the Word of God for mankind, and know it in ever greater depth, preserving and defending it. But one must be open to the other person, to his convictions and faith. If not, we fall into relativism, which is the greatest enemy of faith.
There is no monopoly on the Word of God. It is just as much the other person’s as it is mine. Our Muslim world is afraid of our preaching, but does not cease preaching Islam. That is an unreasonable position. We require our Muslim fellow-citizens to acknowledge our freedom to bring the good news to others, with love and respect for their faith, but we do not require anyone else to embrace our faith. It is enough if people can find out about it and come to esteem and love it. Conversion is the work of God. Do not attempt to convert a friend, or loved one. God converts whom he will.
The Word of God is for me and its revelation is to me, but not to me alone. I must allow others to share in it. We must have, as we say in the Arabic proverb, bread and salt.
But it is not bread or salt that enables us to live together. What matters is rather how we can share together in the Word of God in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. How can we feed each other by the Word of God? How can the Word of God become an essential food? As we say in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily (epiousion) bread.” The Our Father is really a call to share together in the Word of God.
We thank God for the many, beautiful relationships between Christians and Muslims that occur especially in everyday living. However, I would like us to share together in the Word of God, since that is what unites us, draws us together and gives us strength, reinforcing our faith. Let us not be afraid to love the Word of God in our brothers and sisters. Let us not be afraid of verses from the Qur’an and let them not be afraid of verses from the Gospel or from the Torah. These are the Word of God for us all, every one according to his own calling. I would like to tell our Muslim brethren not to fear our faith. Let us all rather be afraid of using words of vengeance, criticism, pride and haughtiness. The Word of God does not despise anyone. It is not proud, boastful or puffed up. It does not engage in bad behavior or enjoy retaliation. It does not rejoice in evil, but in good. It rejoices in love and believes all things. (cf. I Corinthians 13)
Words of God and Words of Men
Let us love the Word of God, for the Word of God is for us all. Let us share these words, proclaiming them in song and loving them. Let these words of God be for our friendship, living together and mutual relationship. Instead of using empty, lying flatteries, let us nourish ourselves with earth’s most beautiful words and feed each other with these same heavenly words that God addresses to the children of men, for God is bountiful and bestows his life-giving words on us all. Let us not be afraid of the words of God, but rather let us fear the words of men. Let us so act that our human words be changed into words divine.
I propose founding a forum to be called “The Forum of the Word of God,” so that Christians and Muslims can meet together and together discuss and meditate upon the Word of God.
Our zeal for the Word of God should be a means of sanctification for us and for deepening our faith. We must not allow our zeal for the Word to become a weapon to exploit others, judging, persecuting and compelling them to embrace our faith, any more than we can allow the Word of God to become the cause of conflicts, disputes and confrontations between our faithful and those holding different religious convictions. Nor should it become an instrument of terrorism and a pretext for one group to claim superiority over another. The Word of God (not we ourselves) is the true judge between us and those who are not of our faith.
Let us not forget the importance of Unity among Christians, because it is the foundation of success in their unique mission: the Dialogue of Cultures. Our Christian faith is a constant vocation of unity, as Jesus said: “that they may all be one; Father, that the world may believe” (John 17:21). This last prayer of Jesus is not just a persistent call for unity; rather it is Jesus’ last commandment.
The Word of God becomes incarnate so that the world may be one, that mankind be one, in harmony, unified, beautiful, illuminated, keeping the imprint of its Creator, his charismata and above all, his unity. As the Qur’an says, “One God alone, without peer,” did not wish man to be lost in the multitude, through being scattered, torn apart, in loss, estrangement, alienation from God, division, discord, hatred, war, killing, destruction, vengeance and confusion. He wanted to enable humanity to participate in his divine unity: that’s why he became human in the person of Jesus Christ, in order to “gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.” (John 11:52)
The Prayer of Jesus for Unity
Incarnation and monotheism (or oneness) are two expressions which are mutually attractive. We see them as signs of the will of God to unify all his creatures, unifying them amongst themselves in the depths of divine revelation.
So we see throughout the whole life of Jesus, a leitmotiv linking all the events in it, a divine concern, that does not wish to see man lost, isolated, scattered, divided against himself in his mind and heart, aspirations and personal life, employment, family and social life. God created human beings after his image and likeness and wishes to gather them into a single fold, like the good shepherd that he is, leaving the ninety-nine sheep inside, to go in search of the one that has gone astray, and bring it back on his shoulders, returning inside the fold with it. So there will be a single community and a single shepherd, a single fold and a single pastor and he will be the vine and all humans will be the vine-shoots, united by the tendrils of love. So they will be able to yield fruit, fruit both abundant and permanent.
On the day of Pentecost, the disciples received the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire and saw that among the crowds listening to the sermon of St. Peter, faith in Jesus Christ burst forth. They returned home edified by the one faith and subsequently, the apostles left to go out into the whole world and in whatever corner of the earth people listened to the message of Pentecost, there the apostles were able to spread faith in Jesus Christ among different languages, cultures and peoples.
The Church: Place of Unity
The event of Pentecost is the feast of unity and diversity. Moreover, it is the basis of the signs of the Church, as the Church Fathers have formulated it in the Creed of the Council of Nicaea, “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
These signs are the realization of the goals of the incarnation, redemption and salvation of the whole world: in fact the Church is the place of unity, salvation and redemption.
We need the Damascus road. May everyone in the world tread the road to Damascus, so that the world may change and people move from shadows to light, from night to day, sin to righteousness, persecution to love, violence to kindness, selfishness to altruism, terrorism to solidarity, fundamentalism to openness, the spirit of vengeance to such feelings as Saint Paul expresses when he exhorts the faithful to have among themselves the thoughts and manners that are in Christ Jesus, and reminds them that the fruits of the Spirit are “love.. gentleness, temperance.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
And with Saint Paul, we say to all those who will read this Pauline Christmas Letter, “…now it is high time to awake out of sleep: … The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the amour of light. Let us walk honestly... But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” (Romans 13:11-14)
What a beautiful world is Paul’s! May the world of Saint Paul’s Epistles invade our suffering world today that lies in darkness, in revolt, hateful, vindictive, combative, exploitative, materialistic, carnal, obsessed with sex, superficial, egotistic, vacillating, erring, disorientated, without reference points, aimless: our world has such need of Paul! Beyond Paul, it needs Christ, the Gospel, the Good News. It needs God. It is really athirst and ahungered for God, but the tragedy is that the world is unaware of the fact that it is athirst and ahungered, for its cares, passions, depravation, futility and lifestyle stifle the Word of God planted in the human heart and hence it cannot bear fruit. This world does not hear the voice of the living and risen Jesus, who is waiting for each one of us on the road to our Damascus, on the Via Recta, and calling us by name, begging, challenging, chiding, awakening us from sleep, stupor, insensibility, hardness of heart, to tell us this, “Thou art mine; I have loved thee; I love thee; I know thee by name; thou art a chosen vessel for me
This year the Agape Company produced a film entitled, “Damascus speaks: St. Paul.”
Yes, that’s true! Damascus speaks of the great event of Paul’s conversion at its outskirts.
Damascus speaks or rather Jesus Christ has spoken in Damascus. In Damascus, Paul saw Jesus risen and alive; in Damascus Paul was chosen to bear the Message of Jesus to the world through its different languages and cultures.
Paul saw Jesus in Damascus
Paul listened to Jesus in Damascus
Paul talked with Jesus in Damascus
Paul spoke of Jesus in Damascus
It is from Damascus, that Paul addressed the world in all languages and cultures. He spoke to them of the Christian Faith, through the Gospel: in Athens, in the civilization and culture of Greeks and in Rome, in the civilization and culture of Romans, while speaking to Nabateans and Arabs in Hebraic-Aramaic and Syriac languages.
In Paul, the Psalmist’s saying was fulfilled, “Their voice is gone out into all the earth and their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 18 (19): 4, LXX)
God still speaks in Damascus, to the Damascenes, to the children of Syria and to the children of the Arab world: the cradle of revelation and faith. Damascus is and will ever remain, with all its faithful - Christians and Muslims – speaking of faith-related matters and thereby safeguarding the faith committed to their trust by their parents and ancestors. Damascus speaks and will always be speaking, through Church, mosque, country, President, people or government, so as to carry to the world Paul’s message, the message of our faith and religious values, as Christians and Muslims, and as Paul did, we will remain loyal to his mission as teacher of cultural dialogue.
As Paul says: “Bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ,” (II Corinthians 10:5) so that every human being will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord for the Glory of God. Amen.
Patriarch Gregorios III
Partriarch of Antioch and of All the East,
of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
for the Melkite Greek Catholic Church