Recent events have caused me to reflect on the important role of the Church in the Middle East. The plight of Christians in the Holy Land and the various countries that surround the land of our Lord’s birth is a cause of great concern. In recent months, we have all seen instances of churches being burned and Christians being assaulted, detained, kidnapped and murdered.
In October, there was a Synod of Bishops in Rome to discuss the hopes and concerns of those who minister in that vast region. Today Christians in the Middle East are few in number. Many have departed the land of their birth because of the difficulties caused by religious fundamentalism. A large number of Christians live as refugees and migrants in the various lands that make up the Middle East. Conflicts are a constant concern. The fidelity of those Christians, especially our Catholic brothers and sisters (numbering about 1.6% of the total population in the Middle East), deserve our admiration and respect for their fidelity. I hope that you will hold these individuals close in prayer that they might be able to live in peace and harmony.
As I read and reflected upon the just-completed Synod in Rome, I was reminded of the presence of many faithful, devoted men and women who live within the territory of the Diocese of Syracuse and who follow the noble traditions and teachings of what we refer to as the Eastern Churches. Although these Catholics live within the geographical territory of our diocese, they are subject to their own bishops.
Last Sunday morning I was privileged to participate with St. Louis Gonzaga Maronite Church in Utica in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the parish and the 75th anniversary of the construction of the present church. St. Louis Gonzaga Parish is one of those parishes located within the Diocese of Syracuse that belongs to the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn.
We usually think of the Catholic Church as one large community, perhaps differentiated by ethnic groups. However, the Catholic Church is a communion of churches, one Latin (the largest) and twenty-one Eastern, all subject to the Pope. The Maronites, named after a fifth century monk, St. Maron, are one of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The head of their church, Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir, resides in Lebanon.
Lebanese and Syrians first arrived in Utica in the 1880’s. They worked diligently to bring a Maronite priest to the area so that they could have a parish of their own. They first began to celebrate their Divine Liturgy (Mass) in the crypt of Historic Old St. John’s. In 1910, Father Louis Lotaif built the first church. In 1935, the community moved to its present church on Rutger Street, built by Msgr. Francis Lahoud.
The Maronite Catholic Church, despite persecution and difficulties, has always maintained its bonds with Rome and the successor of St. Peter. Today, Maronite Catholics persevere in the faith of their ancestors and are spiritually united with each other throughout the world. By a consistent Christian witness and their rich theological and spiritual heritage, the Maronite Church contributes in a unique way to the ongoing renewal of the entire Roman Catholic Church.
St. Louis Gonzaga Church is not the only Eastern Catholic Church in Utica. The city is also blessed with the presence of St. Basil Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of St.Volodomyr the Great.
Prayer for the Church in the Middle East is very important. All who are reading this column can join in prayer with our brothers and sisters who belong to the Eastern Churches. Together we can ask God to bring peace and harmony to the people of the Middle East.
Let me share with you a favorite prayer of mine that comes from the Divine Liturgy of the Maronite Rite. The priest prays it as he prepares to leave the altar at the end of Mass. The last sentence of the prayer should find a home on our lips and in our hearts.
Remain in peace, O Holy Altar of God; I hope to return to you in peace.
May this sacrifice I have offered upon you forgive my sins, help me to avoid faults, and prepare me to stand blameless before the throne of Christ.
I know not whether I will be able to return to you again to offer sacrifice.
Guard me, O Lord, and protect your holy Church that she may remain the way of salvation and the light of the world.