"Dear brothers and sisters, after the Great Pope John Paul II the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in the Lord's vineyard... The Lord knows how to work and how to act...the fact that the Lord can work and act even with insufficient means consoles me." -- statement of Pope Benedict XVI on his election to the papacy five years ago today on April 19, 2005
Happy Anniversary, Holy Father!
Yesterday at the end of his pastoral visit to Malta, Pope Benedict spoke to young people about the significance of St. Paul's experience of the Risen Christ to their own seeking. I believe it speaks to every age and condition of Our Lord's disciples in our day:
Saint Paul, as a young man, had an experience that changed him for ever. As you know, he was once an enemy of the Church, and did all he could to destroy it. While he was travelling to Damascus, intending to hunt down any Christians he could find there, the Lord appeared to him in a vision. A blinding light shone around him and he heard a voice saying, “Why do you persecute me? … I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5).
Paul was completely overcome by this encounter with the Lord, and his whole life was transformed. He became a disciple, and went on to be a great apostle and missionary. Here in Malta, you have particular reason to give thanks for Paul’s missionary labours, which spread the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean.
Every personal encounter with Jesus is an overwhelming experience of love. Previously, as Paul himself admits, he had “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13). But the hatred and anger expressed in those words was completely swept away by the power of Christ’s love. For the rest of his life, Paul had a burning desire to carry the news of that love to the ends of the earth.
Maybe some of you will say to me, Saint Paul is often severe in his writings. How can I say that he was spreading a message of love? My answer is this. God loves every one of us with a depth and intensity that we can hardly begin to imagine. And he knows us intimately, he knows all our strengths and all our faults. Because he loves us so much, he wants to purify us of our faults and build up our virtues so that we can have life in abundance.
When he challenges us because something in our lives is displeasing to him, he is not rejecting us, but he is asking us to change and become more perfect. That is what he asked of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. God rejects no one. And the Church rejects no one. Yet in his great love, God challenges all of us to change and to become more perfect.
Saint John tells us that perfect love casts out fear (cf. 1 Jn 4:18). And so I say to all of you, “Do not be afraid!” How many times we hear those words in the Scriptures! They are addressed by the angel to Mary at the Annunciation, by Jesus to Peter when calling him to be a disciple, and by the angel to Paul on the eve of his shipwreck. To all of you who wish to follow Christ, as married couples, as parents, as priests, as religious, as lay faithful bringing the message of the Gospel to the world, I say, do not be afraid! You may well encounter opposition to the Gospel message.
Today’s culture, like every culture, promotes ideas and values that are sometimes at variance with those lived and preached by our Lord Jesus Christ. Often they are presented with great persuasive power, reinforced by the media and by social pressure from groups hostile to the Christian faith. It is easy, when we are young and impressionable, to be swayed by our peers to accept ideas and values that we know are not what the Lord truly wants for us. That is why I say to you: do not be afraid, but rejoice in his love for you; trust him, answer his call to discipleship, and find nourishment and spiritual healing in the sacraments of the Church.
Here in Malta, you live in a society that is steeped in Christian faith and values. You should be proud that your country both defends the unborn and promotes stable family life by saying no to abortion and divorce. I urge you to maintain this courageous witness to the sanctity of life and the centrality of marriage and family life for a healthy society.
In Malta and Gozo, families know how to value and care for their elderly and infirm members, and they welcome children as gifts from God. Other nations can learn from your Christian example. In the context of European society, Gospel values are once again becoming counter-cultural, just as they were at the time of Saint Paul.
In this Year for Priests, I ask you to be open to the possibility that the Lord may be calling some of you to give yourselves totally to the service of his people in the priesthood or the consecrated life. Your country has given many fine priests and religious to the Church. Be inspired by their example, and recognize the profound joy that comes from dedicating one’s life to spreading the message of God’s love for all people, without exception.
I have spoken already of the need to care for the very young, and for the elderly and infirm. Yet a Christian is called to bring the healing message of the Gospel to everyone. God loves every single person in this world, indeed he loves everyone who has ever lived throughout the history of the world. In the death and Resurrection of Jesus, which is made present whenever we celebrate the Mass, he offers life in abundance to all those people.
As Christians we are called to manifest God’s all-inclusive love. So we should seek out the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized; we should have a special care for those who are in distress, those suffering from depression or anxiety; we should care for the disabled, and do all we can to promote their dignity and quality of life; we should be attentive to the needs of immigrants and asylum seekers in our midst; we should extend the hand of friendship to members of all faiths and none. That is the noble vocation of love and service that we have all received. Let it inspire you to dedicate your lives to following Christ.
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The Significance of ANTIOCH
As the CNEWA tour unfolded, we saw our visit to the ancient Christian churches in Lebanon and Syria as one of mutual encouragement. It was also an exploration for us of the meaning of the Church of Antioch in the development of the early community in which the disciples of Jesus were "first called 'Christians'" (Acts 11:26). In this and subsequent postings, the association of various patriarchates in succession to Peter's leadership.
Along with this backgrounder by Chorbishop John D. Faris here are some photos from a meeting in HOMS (Syria) with Christian leaders (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) who strive for a spirit of cooperation among a majority Muslim community, with which they also live in cordial relations.
On our arrival in Homs, we concelebrated Mass (in the Latin rite) in the Melkite Cathedral
Peter’s First See - The Evolution of the Patriarchate of Antioch
For most people, the phrase “See of Peter” refers to Rome. Rome is the site of the martyrdom of St. Peter and it has been, ever since, the See of Peter. The term see may be unfamiliar. It is derived from the Latin word sede, meaning chair or seat, and refers to a seat of government, which in this case is the city of the bishop. However, there is another city of the ancient Roman Empire that can also rightfully claim to be the See of Peter.
Apostolic foundations. One way in which the early Christian communities established their legitimacy was to cite their apostolic origins. Because no apostle was more pre-eminent than Peter, many of the early churches took pride in their links to him. Rome, the capital, claimed prominence among all the churches because it was in this city that Peter led the church and was eventually martyred.
Constantinople (founded as New Rome) took pride in the fact that Andrew, the elder brother of Peter and the first-called among the apostles, is buried there. Alexandria, in Egypt, a city second only to Rome in the Roman Empire, claims its apostolicity because it was evangelized by Mark, a disciple of Peter. But Antioch can rightly be called Peter’s first see because he served there for seven years before going to Rome.
Archbishop Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio in Syria and Jordan (left), drove from Aleppo to greet us; also pictured: Cardinal Foley and our host, Homs Melkite Archbishop Isidore
Unfortunately, little of the ancient glory of Antioch remains in the modern city of Antakya, in southeastern Turkey. Its 100,000 inhabitants make a living by trading and processing the fruit, olives, wheat and cotton grown in the surrounding countryside. Only archaeological remnants survive as testimony to the glories of the ancient city of Antioch.
In 301 B.C., Seleucus I Nicator, a general in Alexander the Great’s army, founded a city near the mouth of the Orontes River (today known as the Asi). Seleucus intended this city to serve as the capital of the Seleucid Kingdom and named it Antioch, in honor of his father, Antiochus. Because of its strategic location at the crossroads of caravan routes, the city flourished and became a center of commerce.
The Roman general, Pompey the Great, conquered the region in 64 B.C., making it a Roman province with Antioch as its capital. Already renowned for its wealth and luxury, Antioch was to become the third largest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria, with a population of over a half million. Antioch, while always retaining its Greek character, was also home to Macedonians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Jews and Romans. At the time of the apostles, Antioch was a center of government, commerce and culture.
Like the Seleucids before them, the Romans committed large sums of money to adorn the city with temples, statues, gardens, aqueducts and public baths. Even in the 11th century (when the city had already fallen into decline), Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lionheart, did not want to leave the elegance of Antioch for the mud of Paris.
Christian community. Urban dwellers – perhaps because of their contact with numerous strangers passing through or taking up residence – more readily accept new ideas. In the time of the Romans, it was the people of the large cities who were open to the news that a Jew who had been executed by the Romans had risen from the dead. For this and other reasons, the apostles at first restricted their preaching to the cities. Christianity was so identified as a religion of the cities that the term pagan (derived from the Latin word paganus, meaning rural) came to identify one who did not believe in Christianity.
Antioch was a naturally fertile ground for the new religious movement. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Gospel was taken to Antioch by disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene, who fled the persecution of the Jewish authorities (Acts 11:19-20). These disciples did not restrict their preaching to the Jews living in Antioch, but expanded the audience to include Greeks. Their efforts met with success. Soon the Church of Jerusalem sent Barnabas and Paul to continue the work. Eventually the community of believers achieved an independent identity: “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).
Peter himself went to Antioch around A.D. 44 and directed the life of the church in Antioch for seven years before going to Rome (Galatians 2:11).
The success of the evangelization of the Greeks, being non-Jews, eventually became the cause of the first great controversy facing the church. The Christians of Jerusalem of Jewish origin held the position that anyone who became a Christian first had to submit to the Mosaic Law in such matters as circumcision and diet.
The new Christians of Antioch – led by Paul and Barnabas – disagreed, asserting that circumcision and the other prescriptions of Mosaic Law did not oblige Gentiles who desired to become Christians. Eventually, the Council of Jerusalem accepted the position of the Antiochene Christians in 52.
As a center of government in the Roman Empire, Antioch was ideal as the hub of evangelization, even more so after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. For centuries, Antioch thrived as a Christian city, with numerous churches in the city itself and monasteries in the surrounding region. Its liturgical traditions influenced those of all the surrounding churches.
Numerous martyrs (Ignatius, Asclepiades and Babylas) attest to the vibrant faith of the city. Great men such as Flavian, John Chrysostom and Theodoret all came from Antioch. On the negative side – again perhaps because of its comfort with new ways of thinking – it was in Antioch that the heresies of Arianism and Nestorianism originated. (to be continued)
Christian leaders welcomed us to Homs and shared with us their spirit of solidarity