Unity in Antioch


This past June 25 to 28, 2014, the North American Archdiocese participated in a conference at the Balamand University entitled: UNITY IN ANTIOCH.  On Sunday June 29 the conference culminated with a massive Hierarchal Liturgy under a large tent celebrating the Feast of Sts Peter & Paul, the Patrons of our Patriarchate.

This worldwide conference of Antiochians was called by His Beatitude John X to bring together Antiochians to dialogue, exchange ideas and to unite the Family of Faith.  There were interesting presentations called “Axis” which dealt with the themes:

  • Activation of consultation and interaction among parishes and dioceses, as well as amelioration of the dioceses complementing one another.
  • Financial and Wakf Property Development
  • Social Work
  • Effective Presence in Society
  • Communication & Media

We were broken up into smaller groups, predetermined by our personal interests and some very heated discussions ensued.  Later each group leader presented the consensus of the group’s discussions and observations. 

Consistent with the theme “Unity in Antioch” His Beatitude invited all the Patriarchs of Antioch and All the East: the Melkite, Syriac Orthodox, the Maronite and the Syriac Catholic.  Each spoke about the need for unity among the Christians of the Middle East, especially in view of the tumult in their region and as well as the Command of Jesus.  This was certainly a gracious act on the part of His Beatitude and most likely the first such event!  They also met before the Holy Synod opened to continue this manifestation.

The Hierarchal Liturgy celebrated in the open air under a huge tent with most of the Hierarchs of the Patriarchate was impressive.  The back drop was a large screen of the Iconostasis.  Each Bishop commemorated His Beatitude, in the language of his Diocese/Archdiocese which demonstrated the multi-cultural dimension of the Patriarchate.

While at the Balamand, the diversity of culture was evident.  It is in the Eucharist that encapsulated the Unity of the children of Antioch and knitted us together as a family.  At the Sacred Liturgy, everything was transformed; it was an apotheosis of glory.

Prior to the Liturgy, the Patriarch and Dr. Elie Salem were accompanied by the scouts and their band to the unveiling of the largest wall mosaic in the entire Middle East.  His Beatitude then ascended the stage where in the center he vested as the Vesting prayers were chanted by the Balamand Choir and recited by the Clergy.  This is reminiscent of the manner in which the Russian Patriarch is vested by his Clergy.

The Balamand Choir which delighted us with a concert in the Balamand Abbey the previous day, chanted the entire Liturgy beginning with the great Doxology.  Also on the previous day we were bused down to the unveiling of the commemorative stone marking the place the new Balamand Medical Center will be built.

Of course the Vespers for the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul were celebrated in the ancient Balamand Church dedicated to our Lady, the Mother of God.

As in Vespers, so too during the Hierarchal Liturgy, the many Clergy processed and “celebrated” in military precision, unusual for those of us who have been in the Middle East previously!  During both services, the melodious voice of Metropolitan Damaskinos of Brazil was pleasant to the ears.

In view of the fact that the Holy Synod was to be held at the Balamand beginning on July 3, the American Delegation was extremely thoughtful in their deliberating with His Beatitude and members of the Holy Synod.  The Patriarch took time during the Conference and we were asked to see His Beatitude in different groups.

Vicar-General Father Thomas Zain, Protosyngelos Father Timothy Ferguson and myself met with the Patriarch and dialogued regarding the Archdiocese, its future, the election of a new Metropolitan, all against the backdrop of the memories of Metropolitan Philip of thrice blessed memory.

Also distributed among the Bishops was my book, The Ancient Church on New Shores: Antioch in North America, which was received with great enthusiasm as it details the history of the Antiochian Church in North America and also is a insight into the legacy of our beloved Metropolitan Philip.

Father Michel Najim, who delivered an outstanding lecture on Pastoral Life, met with His Beatitude several times.  It was especially poignant because while Father Najim had his tenure as Dean of the Balamand Theological Institute, His Beatitude was his student. And there remains a special bond.

After each session we would all take in common our fasting meals of Sts Peter and Paul where His Beatitude would come to each table to greet us.  Following this period, on Sunday after the Liturgy, Fawaz El Khoury invited and arranged for our group to go to Restaurant Ehden for a sumptuous lunch.

While the delegation stayed at a hotel in Byblos, I was a guest at the home of my former parishioner Elias Abu Shaheen in Amioun Lebanon.  His hospitality along with the help and kindness of Jacques Sarraf and Nabil Nahas of Beirut, Kal Kardous and family of Beit Meri, enabled me to be free to attend the sessions and have the comfort of home along with Lebanese hospitality.

One of my parishioners, Mirna Abboud, lost her mother who lived in Douma and Michel Sarkis, who was visiting from Montreal, made himself available for me to go visit her.  At the same time I visited the home of the late Metropolitan Antony Bashir, which will be a museum and they also named a Senior Citizens Complex after him.  While I was in Douma I also discovered and found it interesting that they have a church that is for the Tibshraeny family.  All my life I was told that the Tibsharenys’ came from Baskita.

I was also able to pay a visit to the Convent of Our Lady of the Presentation in Asrafieh, where my grandmother’s first cousins, Mother Mary Jo and Belagia Tibshraeny, were for many years until their repose.  A pilgrimage here is always a treat.

Speaking of consecrated nuns, I had a blessed encounter with Mother Belagia Sayyaf of Maaloula who told of the horrors of their captivity and the new mother superior of Our Lady of Seydnaya Monastery who told of their miraculous deliverance from the rebels.  All this brought home the trauma of the war in Syria.

On Monday June 30th, Dr. Elie Salem hosted a large gathering of members of administration, faculty and delegation along with all the Bishops.  Upon our arrival Dr. Salem said, that without the bold initiative of Elias Abu Shaheen together with the support of our Patriarch of Thrice Blessed memory Ignatius IV, the University of Balamand would not have been built.

As the evening was drawing to a close, His Beatitude signaled for us to come and talk with him.  And as during previous meetings, he took our hands, looked into our eyes and told us to trust him to do the right thing by this Archdiocese.  And lo and behold, on July 3rd, 2014, the Holy Synod almost unanimously elected Archbishop Joseph as the new Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of All North America.

Where certain issues remain to be resolved, the Patriarch over looked certain rumors and contentions, and it is his leadership that is essential for the final result.  The election of Archbishop Joseph as Metropolitan does not mean that we love any of the other candidates any less.  The Holy Spirit revealed Himself in the past two elections with His Beatitude and now Metropolitan Joseph.

I was in Lebanon the previous month, invited by the Honorable Gebran Bassil, Foreign Minister, to participate in the Worldwide Conference on the Diaspora.  It was during this trip that I was able to spend quality time with His Eminence Metropolitan Elias Audi of Beirut.  Later I was invited to Damascus at the request of His Beatitude John X for a lengthy meeting.  Gazing into the eyes of His Beatitude, one connects immediately with a person of great integrity and spirituality.  His Beatitude took notes and was particularly interested in the work of the Antiochian Heritage Foundation.  He then extended me the invitation to attend the Conference: Unity in Antioch.

Following the meeting, I was hosted at a lunch with Bishop Ephraim Malouli and his team.  We spent a warm afternoon of touring the Patriarchate to see the work of His Beatitude.

Driving back to Beirut, I mused about my previous meetings with the late Patriarch Ignatius IV and I realized “there is a new man in town”.  I found it quite amazing that our new Patriarch has broken fresh ground constructing new institutions, which he blessed with great fanfare at a reception, all the while coping with the uncertainty of the whereabouts of his brother and the tenuous situation in Syria.

All of my meetings with His Beatitude occasioned me to see that we are witnessing the work of a real visionary with an outlook towards the future.  He is earnest in his love and determined about his will to lead the Patriarchate into the 21st Century.

 

Economos Antony Gabriel

St George Antiochian Orthodox Church

Montreal (Quebec) Canada