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A Synaxis of the Antiochian World: A Report on the 52nd Convention

A Synaxis of the Antiochian World:
A Report on the 52nd Convention of the
Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
Boston, Massachusetts, July 20-26, 2015
By Subdeacon Peter Samore

“O Antioch: lift up your eyes and look around, for your sons came like the pearls shining with the light of God from the West, and the North; from the sea, and the East, glorifying Jesus Christ in you to the ages of ages.” – St. John of Damascus

These words best describe the communion of the apostolic Orthodox Church of Antioch that can never be broken, even if oceans keep her children at a distance from one another. Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ is at the center of the Antiochian communion, manifest by the apostles and their spiritual descendants who proclaimed Christ’s gospel in all corners of the world throughout all ages.

Antioch is neither limited to “the great city of God” in modern-day Turkey, nor its historical lands throughout the Middle East. It reaches well beyond, especially into the United States and Canada. It is fitting that our Father-in-Christ, His Beatitude, Patriarch John X invoked the words of our righteous father John of Damascus as he presided – at the invitation of His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph – over the 52nd Convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, hosted by St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church of Cambridge, Mass.

His Beatitude’s delegation included Their Eminences, Metropolitan Damaskinos of Sao Paolo and Brazil; Metropolitan Saba of Bosra and Horan, Syria; Metropolitan Ephrem of Tripoli, Lebanon; His Grace, Bishop Gregorios of the Emirates; and His Beatitude’s assistants, Archimandrite Parthenios Allati and Archdeacon Gerasimos Kabbas.

The Convention was the first for both Patriarch John and Metropolitan Joseph after their recent elections as leaders of the churches. The hierarchs, clergy and laity assembled with them in this, the 100th anniversary of the year of the repose of the founder of what would become the Antiochian Archdiocese, our father among the saints Raphael Hawaweeny, bishop of Brooklyn. Truly, his presence was felt throughout the entire convention, as well as the presence of His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip of thrice-blessed memory and eternal repose. This was the first Convention without his physical presence since he first came to the U.S. in 1956.

This Archdiocesan Convention was more than “business as usual,” although the various departments, organizations and ministries had to meet early in the week to set their paces for the immediate future. They were saving their time for personal spiritual renewals later in the week, including in the two-day General Assembly. (More on that coming up.) The Archdiocese, now under the leadership of Sayidna Joseph, is in a process of reevaluation. The meetings early in the week reflected this process. For example:

•   The Department of Liturgics is combing through all of the Archdiocesan service books to correct errors in preparation of new publications to meet the growing spiritual needs of the parishes.
•   The newly-organized Department of Translations is establishing “The Antiochian Orthodox Institute” in La Verne, Calif. to provide worship resources that currently do not exist in English.
•   The Department of Sacred Music is also combing through its online library to correct errors, as well as collaborating with gifted composers in both Westerns and Byzantine traditions to provide never-before-available musical resources.
•   The Department of Internet Ministry is determining and implementing the new and best ways to connect all Archdiocesan clergy and laity to the Orthodox Church, especially as they more constantly rely on social media as their primary source for information. (All reports reflecting the departments’ progress can be found here.)

Patriarch John and Metropolitan Joseph visited the meetings of the four Archdiocesan organizations: the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Antiochian Women, the Teen SOYO, and the Fellowship of St. John the Divine. As their memberships would attest, our leaders in Christ did more than just attend – they taught and inspired. And as our leaders would later attest, they were taught and inspired, too.
At the Order of St. Ignatius dinner, His Beatitude expressed his gratitude for the constant charity this organization has shown to Orthodox Christian institutions in the Middle East, most recently to the refugees and the families of victims lost in the horrific Syrian Civil War. Patriarch John encouraged the Order never to relent in the good that it does for the lives that it touches. His Beatitude stressed that, although Orthodox Christians in Syria “live in a difficult situation, we will never leave our land.”
 
At the Teen SOYO meeting, the hierarchs expressed how greatly the teens impressed them by their faith and service. “They said, ‘how can we help?’” His Eminence recalled. “They knew that this is not the time for lectures. People are getting killed, displaced from homes, and put into many dangers.” Sayidna Joseph also told the teens that, in spite of the war – and at great risk to his life – His Beatitude goes to their fellow Orthodox Christians all over Syria to give them hope, answers, direction and encouragement.
 
To the Antiochian Women luncheon, His Beatitude brought “the blessings of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.” Patriarch John said, “When a woman brings up her family, she raises a whole generation. May God give you strength to continue your diakonia (service).” Without that diakonia, Metropolitan Joseph stressed that the Church has nothing; and without charity, there is no Christianity. “We share the penny we have with other people,” His Eminence said. “This prepares us for the kingdom of heaven.” Both men thanked the Antiochian Women for also raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for Syrian refugees. The project for 2015-2016 is Hungry Children at Home and Abroad.
 
Finally, at the Fellowship meeting, Patriarch John promised the young adults gathered that he and all the hierarchs will work to help them find the true light of Christ in their hearts. This is currently being done through the various lessons of the Holy Fathers and multimedia ministry – video, a radio station, and photos and stories via social media – readily available online to keep Orthodox Christians here connected to Christ and His holy Church situated throughout the world. Metropolitan Joseph encouraged the young adults to “think bigger, and do what you have to do to keep the Christian torch alive in this nation.” To that end, the Fellowship is nearly finished with a restructuring process that will only focus on outreach to young adults while reassigning ministries (e.g., Creative Festivals, Food for Hungry People) to their proper departments.
 
Surrounding all of these meetings were, of course, twice-daily divine services: Great Vespers and Little Compline every night, and the Divine Liturgy or Orthros in the morning, sung by the most talented voices gathered from across the Archdiocese to the glory of God. Subdeacon Rassem El-Massih, assistant to Metropolitan Joseph, led the Byzantine chant choir. Mr. Paul Jabara, director of the Department of Sacred Music, led the Western four-part choir. You can listen to the beautiful choirs on Ancient Faith Radio. Worship is what kept the hierarchs, clergy and laity focused squarely on Jesus Christ, and not on temptations to give into politics or infighting.

Of course, the Creative Festivals championships were as exciting as ever. On Wednesday night, the seven teams who won in their respective dioceses were locked in an intense competition at the Bible Bowl. Questions were derived from the book “The Life of Our Father among the Saints: Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn, Good Shepherd of the Lost Sheep in America.” His Grace, Bishop Basil led the composition of this book. It was fitting that St. George Church of Houston, Texas – comprised of Danny Saber, Mark Saber and Danielle Shahin – Sayidna Basil’s team from the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America won the Bible Bowl, scoring 103 out of 105 points. His Grace then led the entire audience in the chanting of “Rejoice, O Father Raphael,” the saint’s apolytikion.

On Saturday morning, the Oratorical Festival brought together the seven contestants who took first place in their diocesan competitions. The judges chose Salena Ibrahim from St. Mary Church of Palos Heights, Ill. – Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest – as the Archdiocesan champion. Sayidna Joseph congratulated all of the participants on the energy and substance that they shared in their inspiring orations about St. Raphael, which can all be heard at Ancient Faith Radio.

In between those days, the General Assembly convened the clergy and lay delegates to formulate some of the direction of the Archdiocese. However, Sayidna Joseph restructured it from its previous form. He asked the departments and organizations to submit their reports for posting onto www.antiochian.org a month before the Convention so that they would help save time by not presenting orally. However, their leaders took brief questions from the floor.

The amount of time saved allowed time for Patriarch John to give inspiring and informative lessons on Thursday and Friday. They lasted an hour each, and the General Assembly was riveted. In his first teaching, His Beatitude introduced the story of 6-year-old “Samir,” who lost his ability to speak when a rocket destroyed his home. His Beatitude let a video, produced by the Patriarchate and available atwww.antiochian.org, tell Samir’s story and the stories of all those who have lost everything during the Syrian Civil War.

“Our current era witnesses the killing of man under different titles. There are disarrangements of states borders, slavery to the weaponry market, and tremble under the attacks of terrorism,” Patriarch John said. “It is my right as an Oriental to live in security. It is my right that my children do not starve and can go to school. It is my right that my borders are secure and to celebrate a peaceful history in this our land and to have it as an example for the present and a hope to the near and far future.”

His Beatitude condemned the silence of the world’s governments who have done nothing to help rescue his brother, Metropolitan Paul, and his Syriac Orthodox counterpart, Metropolitan John, both of Aleppo, Syria, since their kidnappings two years ago. He also expressed disgust that shattered antiquities and artifacts receive more lament than shattered human lives. However, Patriarch John did not leave the General Assembly – and the world which would watch his speech online – without the hope of our Lord.

“We are here today, to tell the world that Christians are kneaded with the soil of our land,” he said. “Christians are a piece of our homeland’s heart, and it is a piece of theirs. We are aware that the victor writes the face of history, but we also know that the untruthful history is reviled by Jesus of Nazareth Who was crucified on the cross of glory.

“We do not fear the testimony for Jesus Christ in every time and place; however, we are people of peace and the product of the Inventor of peace,” His Beatitude continued. “Beloved in Christ: We do not fear because we are proud of you. We are proud of our archdiocese, of our church in North America and Canada. We are one and a united church. You are inside the heart of Antioch, and Antioch is in your heart.”

Then, Metropolitan Joseph said, “This is why we need the Patriarch to be with us all the time,” drawing rousing applause from the General Assembly. “His words bring hope to all of us everywhere.” Sayidna Joseph then recalled leading a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Syria and Lebanon in November, 2010. Some members of the pilgrimage at the Convention had tears in their eyes, knowing that some of the monasteries and churches they saw are now practically destroyed. Fortunately, others are rebuilding, bringing about some hope for the future.

The three guest Metropolitans were given the floor to describe activities and ministries in the lives of their Archdioceses. Each expressed how St. Raphael’s struggles in ministry play out similarly among their clergy and faithful.

First to speak was Sayidna Damaskinos of Brazil, Sayidna Joseph’s first cousin: “The people are scattered over the vast region. To summarize the gospel, the harvest is vast, but the laborers are few. The church needs priests and ministers just like St. Raphael. We thank God for the work, but we have few laborers. Despite the pastoral difficulties these days, we continue to do the same ministry as in North America by receiving converts, not in big masses, but individually.”

Second to speak was Sayidna Saba of Bosra and Hauran: “We have a geographically large archdiocese, but few people. It was established by St. Timon the Apostle [of the Seventy]. We have had a renaissance, but the war has ended it. I appreciate my relationship with this archdiocese through Metropolitan Philip, Metropolitan Joseph, and Bishop Basil. We are a twin of this archdiocese. The truth of the Lord binds us together in terms of our work. Financial support is one element of the relationship between Hauran and the Diocese of Wichita to get us through our difficulties.” Sayidna Saba recalled a pilgrimage people of his sister diocese made in 2010. “Those who came from Wichita left a great impression on our people, more than the financial support. This is a true picture of the unity we have between the churches.” (See more about “The Hauran Connection.”)

Third to speak was Sayidna Ephrem of Tripoli: “We are few, but we are pious, and we have good relations with Muslim neighbors. We have two important centers: one is the Theological Pastoral Center that hosts conferences and activities. It gathers persons from all ages. Conferences present teachings from a pastoral degree (perspective) to those who want to know their dogma and tradition. They meet weekly with special teachers, and they have a summer camp. The other center focuses on family and youth. It is called the Help Center for social assistance and special needs, including psychology. We recall our Lord’s teaching: ‘I was hungry, and you fed me.’ When I became a bishop [in 2009], Patriarch Ignatius IV told me that the bishop usually waits for the people to come to him. Now the bishop has to go to the people. I try to follow this advice. Our church must be a dynamic church; we have to search for new ways to minister to our Orthodox people. We must have people who are specialized to go to others. St. Raphael went from church to church, and house to house. In these times, in east and west, we need people who have the qualities to go from one point to another and preach the word of God. This is the tradition of the Antiochian Church.”

The remarks of his brothers on the Holy Synod of Antioch, Sayidna Joseph said, were a calling to everyone that “we don’t minister from behind a desk, but we travel, just like St. Raphael.”

On Friday, His Beatitude taught again, this time on how the sacrament of baptism leads to holiness and salvation.

“Remember your day of baptism,” Patriarch John said. “The priest who is officiating during the sacrament asks the godparent holding the child to turn towards the West. The priest asks, ‘Do you renounce Satan, his works, angels and pride?’ We turn to the West as a symbol of sunset, of darkness, and of the devil, so that we can respond, ‘Yes, we renounce.’ Then, the priest turns the catechumen back to the East, where the sun rises, and the symbol of turning back to Him Who is light. He then accepts Christ.”

His Beatitude then taught that Orthodox Christians must avoid dualism between the spiritual life and the social life. “Some think, in order to apply the Christian life and the message of the gospel, prayer and fasting are only used in connection to the Holy Church,” he said. “We think that those two aspects of life are separate, but that is totally untrue. ‘Let us commend ourselves, our entire lives, unto Christ our God.’ My mind, my heart, my body, my feelings all belong to Christ. Everything I do is for Christ.”

And thus, with lives fully committed to Christ, Patriarch John said that we really become masters of our own lives, fully conscious of our own inner beings. “We must act not like slaves, not like hired servants, but like children of God, not fulfilling commandments in fear, nor expecting a reward, but because we love Him and strive to become like Him.”

“When the Patriarch talks, he reminds me of when Christ taught His people on the grass,” Sayidna Joseph said afterward. “This is the best nourishment for us, to bring us into the ethos of the Fathers and the Church. This is why I decided that at every convention we’ll have a teaching like this before we start doing our business.”

Then, Sayidna Joseph gave his first State of the Archdiocese address in his tenure as Metropolitan of the Archdiocese. He started by calling to mind “the cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us so that we avoid sin and stay on the path to the kingdom of heaven (Hebrews 12:1-2).

“Among the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ stand those men who have preceded me as the leaders of this God-protected Archdiocese,” Sayidna said, “most notably our Father among the Saints Raphael of Brooklyn, Metropolitan Antony Bashir, and Metropolitan Philip Saliba.” The General Assembly then gave a standing ovation and sung “Memory Eternal.”

“Foundations are very important, but the Church cannot prosper on foundations alone,” His Eminence continued. “We must continue to build beautiful and magnificent structures upon those foundations. I do not speak of physical structures alone, but more importantly spiritual structures. If we are to run this race with endurance, it will take a strong team effort from everyone who is a part of this Archdiocese.”

Sayidna Joseph promised a deep and fraternal relationship with His Beatitude, Patriarch John, who “represents the presence of all of my brother hierarchs who are the members of the Holy Synod of Antioch. We pledge that the strong bond of unity between this Archdiocese of North America and our Mother Church of Antioch will remain strong.” His Eminence pledged the same with his brother hierarchs in the Archdiocese, as well as a demonstration mutual love and respect centered on Christ in the concelebration of the divine services.

His Eminence then laid out goals for the Archdiocese; among them, more evangelism and outreach; proper recruitment and education of men for ordination to the diaconate and priesthood; more ministerial roles for the laity; improving efficiency and responsiveness when it comes to finances; a comprehensive review and republishing of liturgical texts; and a development of monasteries across the continent.

The climax of the Convention came on Sunday, July 26, when one patriarch plus sixteen hierarchs, scores of clergy, two large choirs, and nearly 2,000 faithful, gathered for the celebration of the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy. Boston’s Hynes Convention Center Auditorium – converted into a church for the gathering’s purposes – was just large enough to hold everyone. In his sermon, Patriarch John described the partaking of the “Lamb of God” as “the fulfillment of the work of this convention.” (View the photo gallery)

“You are the children of God, as St. Paul tells us,” His Beatitude said in his sermon, referring to Epistle lection for that day from Galatians (3:23-4:5). “This directs us to the dignity that is our relationship to the likeness of the Father. This is a means of strength, to be called the children of God, but it should also give us a sense of humility.”

Patriarch John reminded everyone present that they are all one in Jesus Christ. “As we become brethren with love for one another, we become one holy family in Christ Jesus.” His Beatitude stressed that Christians are adopted as God’s children through the mystery, or sacrament, of baptism. “We put on Christ, were buried and resurrected with Him at the same time. More precisely, we emulate daily all that Christ did.”

His Beatitude gave thanks for the clergy and faithful who came from near and far, sacrificing their time and resources to bear witnesses to the message of today’s Epistle.

“I thank my dear and beloved brother, His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph, for inviting me so that we can be together to love one another,” His Beatitude said. Turning to the faithful, he added, “I thank all of you for putting in the hard work to keep the faith and preserve this holy tradition.”

In turn, Metropolitan Joseph also thanked the visiting hierarchs from the Middle East, his brother bishops of the Antiochian Archdiocese, and hierarchs of other Orthodox jurisdictions in Boston. He also thanked the host parish of St. Mary – especially the pastor, V. Rev. Antony Hughes and the convention chairpersons Ms. Mary Winstanley O’Connor and Mr. Raymond Sayeg – for making the biannual gathering a huge success.

In a reflection of the digital age in which we live, following the Divine Liturgy, His Beatitude, His Eminence and other hierarchs took time to pose for dozens of pictures – including “selfies” – with the clergy and faithful. The hierarchs took time throughout the entire Convention to do this, knowing how much those small mementos mean to the people who love them.

View a photo gallery of the Convention

List of Hierarchs Concelebrating the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy at the 52nd Archdiocese Convention: Sunday, July 26, 2015

Patriarch John X of Antioch and all the East
Metropolitan Joseph of New York and all North America
Metropolitan Damaskinos of Sao Paulo and all Brazil
Metropolitan Saba of Houran, Bosra and Jabal Al-Arab, Syria
Metropolitan Ephrem of Tripoli, Al-Koura and Dependencies, Lebanon
Archbishop Nikon of Boston, New England, and the Albanian Archdiocese (Orthodox Church in America)
Bishop Antoun of Miami and the Southeast
Bishop Basil of Wichita and Mid-America
Bishop Thomas of Charleston, Oakland and the Mid-Atlantic
Bishop Alexander of Ottawa, Eastern Canada and Upstate New York
Bishop Nicholas of Bloudan, Syria
Bishop John of Worcester and New England
Bishop Anthony of Toledo and the Midwest
Bishop Nicholas of Brooklyn
Bishop Gregorios of the Emirates

Present but not concelebrating
Metropolitan Methodios of Boston (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)


Author’s End Notes: This lengthy article is still a mere snippet of the vast highlights and jewels of the 52nd Archdiocesan Convention. Please take some time out of your busy schedules to experience them for yourself through photos, printed stories and speeches, and audio and video recordings. You can visit www.antiochian.orgwww.ancientfaith.com, and the Facebook pages of the Antiochian Archdiocese and Antiochian Patriarchate.

His Beatitude, Patriarch John and His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph constantly stressed the need to give generously of our treasures to help Syrian refugees. They said the best, fastest and most efficient avenue is through International Orthodox Christian Charities at www.iocc.org.