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The Conference on Antiochian Unity

A PERSONAL REFLECTION

Overlooking the beautiful Mediterranean Sea is the Balamand Abbey, built by Cistercian Monks in 1157 A.D., on the Hill of Balamand in al-Kurah, Lebanon. The monks left the Abbey before the capture of Tripoli and the Crusaders departed.

Three hundred years later, Greek Orthodox monks took over the Abbey, naming it the Balamand Monastery. Initially, ten monks occupied it, but this number increased to twenty-five in a very short period. Their lives were filled with prayer, tending crops, writing and copying manuscripts, as well as hosting visitors. The buildings were built around a square courtyard, representing the four evangelists, which is the center of their monastic life.

From the moment we arrived at the Balamand, our North American delegation, consisting of Fr. Thomas Zain, Vicar General, Fr. Timothy Ferguson, Protosyngelos, Fawaz El-Khoury, Dan Braun, Dan Abraham, Khalil Samara, Jordan Khurzum, Douglas Cramer and myself, were welcomed and made to feel very much at home. Metropolitans, bishops, priests and delegates from Antiochian archdioceses all over the world convened at this historical conference. They came from Brazil, France, England, Mexico, Syria, Lebanon, Europe, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, and, of course, North America. We prayed together, ate together, and attended the presentations and workshops together. We were equally blessed to have Archbishop Joseph, soon to be Metropolitan Joseph, Bishop Alexander, Bishop John and Bishop Nicholas with us.

On Wednesday, June 25, 2014, after Vespers, hierarchs, clergy and delegates congregated in the courtyard of the Balamand Monastery and were taken on a guided tour. Two churches, we learned, were built on the monastery grounds. We first visited the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos in the Patriarchal Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand. The Iconostas, which dates back to the end of the 17th Century, is made of a rich dark walnut. It is here that we attended Vespers and where, on December 11, 2011, Bishop John, Bishop Nicholas and Bishop Anthony were consecrated, and Bishop Joseph was elevated to Archbishop. As we left the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos, our attention was drawn to a section of the sidewalk under the arched covered walkway. Here an area of the sidewalk had in place a large piece of thick glass. As we looked more closely, we saw a skeleton at the bottom of what was a grave. We were informed that the skeleton was found during one of the renovations made over the years. It had been buried in the same position as we saw it. The decision was made to leave the skeleton just as it was found, buried in-situ (in its original place). A light bulb had been placed under the glass to make the skeleton more visible. It was evident by the placement of the skeleton that this individual had been very carefully laid to rest. A tooth from the skeleton was sent to Oxford University to determine the age of the individual; it was determined to be from someone who lived in the 11th Century.

We next visited the Church of St. George, where the Iconostas was made of marble. The icons in both churches were written by many iconographers from different countries over the course of many years. There were two important periods when this took place: the first was the end of the 17th Century to the early 18th Century; the second period was the 19th Century.

We then visited the Monk's Hall, known today as the Grand Hall, which was built in the middle of the 13th Century. Here the monks would sleep and be cared for when they were sick. Pilgrims would travel and rest here as well. Each stone-cutter left his unique mark on every stone in the wall, indicating that he was the one who had cut it.

Lastly, we were shown the Restoration Room, where ancient books and manuscripts are restored. The painstaking process needed to preserve these historical documents was described to us. The oldest manuscripts date as far back as the 13th Century and were written in both Arabic and Syriac. The majority are manuscripts from the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.

After visiting the Restoration Room, we picked up our registration badges (which we had to wear at all times) and received copies of the reports being presented at the conference (in English and Arabic). Next we attended an Acquaintance Dinner at the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology. Towards the end of the dinner, Patriarch John X came to our table, sat down for a few minutes and welcomed us. Bishop Alexander introduced each of us to His Eminence.

On Thursday, June 26th, we entered the Zakhem Auditorium, located at the University of Balamand, for the official opening of the Antiochian Unity Conference. It began with a prayer and an introduction to the conference. Headphones (which were made available to us throughout the conference) were very helpful, as everything presented in Arabic was translated into English. First, each Eastern Patriarch spoke in turn and addressed the assembly, speaking on the theme of Christian unity amongst the faiths and thanking Patriarch John X for inviting him. Then, Patriarch John X warmly welcomed everyone. His Beatitude spoke of the goal of achieving Universal Christian Unity and how both clergy and laity must work together in the church to achieve this. In welcoming the Eastern Patriarchs, he invited them to join us at this historical conference. As Patriarch John finished speaking, the choir of the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology began their beautiful chanting.

The University of Balamand was founded by Patriarch Ignatius IV of thrice-blessed memory in 1988. The University's buildings are very modern and have state-of-the-art technology. Most of the classes are taught in English, with the exception of the branch of the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA), located in Beirut, in which classes are taught in French.

The primary work of the conference was the presentation of five papers of interest, and five related "Sessions." The papers were presented during Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, June 27th, in the following order: Pastoral Interaction, Financial and Wakf Property Development (concerning property owned by a church), Social Work, Effective Presence in Society, and Communication.

On Friday afternoon and part of Saturday morning, June 28th, all of the delegates reported to their assigned committees. I was assigned to and attended the Social Work Committee.

Upon completion of the "First Committee Session," on Friday afternoon, the delegation from North America was blessed to have a private meeting at 6:00 p.m. with His Beatitude at his residence, concerning the election of our new Metropolitan. We found Patriarch John X to be most gracious, and a warm, loving and caring individual. Our meeting with him was one that we will never forget, knowing that he really cared for us and our wellbeing here in North America.

Our "Second Committee Session" took place on Saturday morning. The more I heard from the priests and delegates on the floor, the more I knew how blessed and fortunate we all are here in North America to have what we have.

Overall, the feeling was that the presence of Social Work begins with Pastoral Care, beginning with the priest, then the deacon, parish councils, and the laity, all working together. The purpose is to reach out and make available education, health and social work services for people with disabilities, and to have relief programs for those in need and those affected by war.

A General Session followed the "Second Committee Session" to present the work of the committees. On Saturday afternoon, a session on the Conference's Final Statement, moderated by Archbishop Joseph, and with His Beatitude's blessings, was held in the Grand Hall of the Monastery.

Many other events took place over Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We had pictures taken with His Beatitude, first with all of the Hierarchs, clergy and delegates on the steps outside the Zakhem Building and then, by delegation, inside the Zakhem Auditorium. We attended the Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony for the University of Balamand Medical Center, the dedication of the Zeenni Technology Center for Engineering and Industrial Research, and the Inauguration of the new Patriarchal Offices Building.

The highlight of the Conference was the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy in celebration of the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, which was held outside in a huge athletic stadium. The name given the stadium was "The Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) Cultural and Athletic Complex." Prior to the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, Patriarch John X dedicated the largest mosaic in the world! On a wall located at the far end of the stadium, it depicts an arm and hand outstretched to a dove with an olive branch. Just before the Divine Liturgy began, we were handed a copy of Patriarch John X's Homily printed in English. Vested in white and gold, all the Antiochian metropolitans, bishops and a few priests participated in the Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy, all in Arabic, was absolutely breath-taking. The deep, rich voices of the choir of the St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology filled the stadium. At the end of the Great Entrance, as each held the Eucharist, every metropolitan, archbishop and bishop in turn faced Patriarch John X, and commemorated him. The entire Liturgy went seamlessly and left us all in awe!

Patriarch John X began his Homily by stating that the heart of the Church of Antioch was "beating with love and joy" with the presence together of all the Antiochian churches throughout the world. He referred to Antioch as a shell, that, despite its small size and its hidden history, holds inside "its most precious treasure: the faith in Jesus Christ." He further stated that "the Church of Antioch is built with love." His Beatitude referred to the Antiochian Orthodox Church as a vineyard that spreads its branches as far away as North and South America, Australia and Europe, and acknowledged their "strong, supporting arm to the Mother Church." He also recognized our "brother and sisters who converted to the Orthodox Church through our Antiochian Church" and said that they are always prayed for. He asked that we pray for God to bring peace to the world, and to bring stability to Lebanon, which still does not have a president, and to Syria. The latter has always respected all religions, and there Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in peace. He further asked us to pray for peace in Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and the entire world. His Beatitude also referred to the abductions of "the two bishops Paul and John and other priests." As he did so, their pictures were shown on jumbotrons that had been placed to the sides, so that those attending could view better the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy.

At one point during his homily, he asked us to pray for those who had intended to come to the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, but who were delayed in buses at the Syrian/Lebanese border.

In closing, Patriarch John X sent his warmest greetings to all throughout the world. He thanked the soldiers who were there to protect us so that this conference could take place, everyone at the Balamand Monastery, the University, and the St. John of Damascus School of Theology, for all that they did to help make this conference a success, and to the mass media who streamed the Divine Liturgy all over the world to those unable to attend.

I feel so blessed to have had this opportunity to attend this historic conference and to represent this blessed Archdiocese on behalf of the Antiochian Women. The last time a conference such as this was held was in 1993. When we met privately with His Beatitude, he told us that he would like to have many more conferences like this in the near future, such as one for youth, one for women, and so forth.

I hope that each of you will have the opportunity to travel to the Balamand, to appreciate its history and culture, and to have the wonderful experience that I and my fellow delegates have had. To attend Vespers in the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos in the Patriarchal Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand, and to walk in the courtyard, which is the center of monastic life, is an experience that I will never forget.

Violet K. Robbat, President
Antiochian Women North American Board