Yesterday and today, I participated in the spring meeting of the Diocesan Vocation Directors from our region (Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin). We met at Mundelein Seminary north of Chicago – something of a central location for our geographic area. I am always blessed by these gatherings with my brother vocation directors – we are able to support one another and share ideas and questions with one another about a unique ministry for which we are often the only assigned priest in each of our dioceses. But that’s not the point of this post … it just sets the context.
This morning, we joined the seminary community at Mundelein for their daily Mass in the St. John Paul II Chapel. For the second year in a row, our spring vocation directors gathering coincided with the seminary’s observance of the Feast of Our Lady, Queen of Poland – which includes Mass celebrated primarily in Polish. There is a large Polish population in Chicago, and the seminary there includes men who are natives of Poland who are in formation to serve the Polish-American Catholic communities. This year, we were blessed to have a visiting Polish bishop to preside at Mass, Bishop Jan Watroba of the Diocese of Rzeszow. In his comments after communion, which were delivered in Polish and simultaneously translated into English by one of the Polish priests on the seminary staff, he encouraged the seminarians to study in the School of the Good Shepherd and the School of Mary. The Mass was a beautiful reminder of the universality of our Catholic faith.
This afternoon, on the drive back to Indianapolis from Chicago, I was able to listen to Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s weekly show on The Catholic Channel on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. One of the guests on the show was another bishop, Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of the Greek Melkite Catholic Archeparchy of Aleppo, Syria. He gave a heart-wrenching and poignant first-hand report of the current status of the persecution of Christians in Syria. But he began by giving some of the history of the Church in Syria. It is one of the oldest local churches in the world, evangelized immediately after Pentecost by the first group of Christians baptized by the apostles. It was a member of the Church in Syria who baptized St. Paul in Damascus – and so the great missionary work of St. Paul can be said to have had its origins in Syria. In his particular diocese, which has been in existence since the 2nd century, one of Archbishop Jeanbart’s predecessors as Archbishop of Aleppo attended the Council of Nicaea – in the year 325!
But today, the small Christian minority in Syria is being persecuted and is leaving the country. Churches and homes have been destroyed. Christians have been killed. Bishops have been kidnapped – with some still in captivity and no word on whether or not they are still alive. The Cathedral in Aleppo has suffered major destruction – and yet the Holy Week services this year still drew many people, who were risking their lives by being there. And while Pope Francis interceded and asked the support of world leaders to speak out against the persecutions of Christians in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, little has been done.
At one point during the interview, Archbishop Jeanbart was asked who were the enemies of the Christians in Syria – as a way of then asking who their friends are. He said that they have no enemies. They love everyone. They have persecutors – ISIS and other radical, fundamentalist Muslims, mostly from outside of Syria. But they are not enemies. And among the friends of the Christians in Syria are many of the local Muslim leaders, including the Grand Mufti of Aleppo and others who have offered support and aid. And even with many of the Christians leaving the country, Archbishop Jeanbart and his priests have pledged to stay – they say that they cannot leave their home and their people and that the Christian faith will not be driven out of Syria.
From Poland to Syria in a day – and with thoughts of Nepal and Baltimore and so many other places in mind as well. Technology and travel and communication have made it so much easier to connect with and know about current happenings all over the world. But at the same time, many of us are also most comfortable compartmentalizing our lives – watching happenings from a distance so as not to become too involved or too invested in things that we feel we can’t have much of an effect on anyway. But in these Easter days, as we read from the Acts of the Apostles about the missionary spread of the Gospel in the earliest days of the Church, we are also reminded that we are all one Body in Christ and share all things in common as children of God. But what does that look like in practice?