Arrival In Port!

Our Church in Damascus celebrated the evening of Palm Sunday liturgy.  The arrival at Port on the boat of the Church traveling in time to Lent, arriving at Holy Week, a haven of salvation.

The faithful gather in front of the closed door of the church, lighted lamps in hand as Wise Virgins (Mt.25 1-13) awaiting the Bridegroom. The door of the church is struck three times before it is open to let in the faithful of the Paschal Lamb who will live the sufferings of Holy Week which culminate in the Empty Tomb.

This holy week was introduced by the murder of Father Franz Homs in the fourth year of war and violence.

Shells raining down on our neighborhoods, schools closed, we can not give an account of the victims. We are abandoned to Providence.

This small Syrian people, so kind, generous and patient, become accustom to suffering and die in silence.  It is in this spirit that we live Holy Week and Easter holidays, knowing that the Way of the Cross that has marked our lives for three years, accompanies the fourth year … the end of the tunnel is invisible.

At the opening of the door of the Church the congregation implores:

“O Lord, Gate of Mercy, open to those who knock and ask your saving grace, bring us into the light of your kingdom, we are the children of your Church come to our port of welcome, our lamps lit to anchor at your house. ”

Our eyes fixed on the Risen Jesus Christ, haven of peace; we entrust ourselves to Our Lady of Martyrs.

Easter 2014.

+Samir Nassar

Maronite Archbishop of Damascus


Posted in General

Are Christians being persecuted in the Middle East?


Persecution of Christians in the Middle East: Communiqué of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land

Are Christians being persecuted in the Middle East?

Persecution! In many parts of the Western world, this word is people’s lips. It is said that Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East today! However, what is really happening? How should we speak in truth and integrity as Christians and as Church about the suffering and violence that are going on in the region?

There is no doubt that the recent upheavals in the Middle East, initially called the Arab Spring, have opened the way for extremist groups and forces that, in the name of a political interpretation of Islam, are wreaking havoc in many countries, particularly in Iraq, Egypt and Syria. There is no doubt that many of these extremists consider Christians as infidels, as enemies, as agents of hostile foreign powers or simply as an easy target for extortion.

However, in the name of truth, we must point out that Christians are not the only victims of this violence and savagery. Secular Muslims, all those defined as “heretic”, “schismatic” or simply “non-conformist” are being attacked and murdered in the prevailing chaos. In areas where Sunni extremists dominate, Shiites are being slaughtered. In areas where Shiite extremists dominate, Sunnis are being killed. Yes, the Christians are at times targeted precisely because they are Christians, having a different set of beliefs and unprotected. However they fall victim alongside many others who are suffering and dying in these times of death and destruction. They are driven from their homes alongside many others and together they become refugees, in total destitution.

These uprisings began because the peoples of the Middle East dreamed of a new age of dignity, democracy, freedom and social justice. Dictatorial regimes, which had guaranteed “law and order”, but at the terrible price of military and police repression, fell. With them, the order they had imposed crumbled. Christians had lived in relative security under these dictatorial regimes. They feared that, if this strong authority disappeared, chaos and extremist groups would take over, seizing power and bringing about violence and persecution. Therefore some Christians tended to defend these regimes. Instead, loyalty to their faith and concern for the good of their country, should perhaps have led them to speak out much earlier, telling the truth and calling for necessary reforms, in view of more justice and respect of human rights, standing alongside both many courageous Christians and Muslims who did speak out.

We fully understand the fears and sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Christ, when by violence they lose members of their families and are driven out of their homes. They have the right to count on our solidarity and prayers. In certain circumstances their only consolation and hope is to be found in Jesus’ words: “Happy are those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10). However, the repetition of the word “persecution” in some circles (usually referring only to what Christians suffer at the hands of criminals claiming to be Muslims) plays into the hands of extremists, at home and abroad, whose aim is to sow prejudice and hatred, setting peoples and religions against one another.

Christians and Muslims need to stand together against the new forces of extremism and destruction. All Christians and many Muslims are threatened by these forces that seek to create a society devoid of Christians and where only very few Muslims will be at home. All those who seek dignity, democracy, freedom and prosperity are under attack. We must stand together and speak out in truth and freedom.

All of us, Christians and Muslims, must also be aware that the outside world will not make any real move to protect us. International and local political powers seek their own interests. We, alone, can build a common future together. We have to adapt ourselves to our realities, even realities of death, and must learn together how to emerge from persecution and destruction into a new dignified life in our own countries.

Together, we must seek out all those who dream as we do of a society in which Muslims and Christians and Jews are equal citizens, living side by side, building together a society in which new generations can live and prosper.

Finally, we pray for all, for those who join their efforts to ours, and for those who are harming us now or even killing us. We pray that God may allow them to see the goodness He has put in the heart of each one. May God transform every human being from the depth of his or her heart, enabling them to love every human being as God does, He who is the Creator and Lover of all. Our only protection is in our Lord and like Him we offer our lives for those who persecute us as well as for those who, with us, stand in defense of love, truth and dignity.

Assembly Of The Catholic Ordinaries In The Holy Land,  Commission Justice and Peace

Jerusalem, 2 April 2014

Posted in General

The Death of Two Great Churchmen

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This past week we were saddened by the passing of two great churchmen, Metropolitan Philip Saliba of the Antiochian  Orthodox Church, and Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
On behalf of the clergy, religious and laity of the Eparchy of Saint Maron, I extend to their beloved faithful our heartfelt sympathies and promise of prayers. For more about each of these great leaders please see:
In the Letter to the Hebrews 13:7  we read this :
Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
May they rest in peace.
+ Gregory
Posted in General

Lent 2014

The Holy Father has set the stage for us at the beginning of Lent. May God help us live this Lent everyday:

Pope Francis: Do Not Get Used To Behavior That Anasthetises The Heart

Vatican City, 5 March 2014 (VIS) – This morning the Holy Father celebrated the general audience with 30,000 faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis dedicated this Ash Wednesday’s catechesis to the Lenten journey of forty days that leads us to the Easter Triduum, and recalled the two suggestions offered to us by the Church in this period: to be more aware of the redemptive work of Christ, and to live our Baptism in a more committed way.

“The awareness of the wonders that the Lord carried out for our salvation should lead our minds and hearts to gratitude to God”, he said, and added, “Fully living out our Baptism – and this is the second invitation – means not becoming inured to the situations of degradation and poverty that we encounter when walking the streets of our cities and towns. There is the risk of passively accepting certain types of behavior and of not marvelling at the sad realities that surround us. We grow accustomed to violence, as if it were a normal part of our daily news; we get used to seeing our brothers and sisters sleeping in the streets, as they have no roof to shelter them. We are used to refugees who search of freedom and dignity, but are not received as they should be. We get used to living in a society that claims to be able to do without God, in which parents do not teach their children how to pray or how to make the sign of the Cross. This inurement to forms of behavior that are not Christian, that are the easy way, anesthetise the heart!” He asked the faithful present, “Do your children know how to make the sign of the Cross? Do they know how to pray the Our Father or the Hail Mary?”.

Francis explained that Lent comes to us “as a Providential moment for changing our route, for recovering our capacity to react when faced with the realities of evil that always challenge us. Lent should be lived as a time of conversion, of renewal at personal and community levels by drawing closer to God and through trusting adhesion to the Gospel. In this way, we are able to look upon our brothers and their needs with new eyes”.

The Pope remarked that this moment is “favorable for converting to love for one’s neighbor; a love that assumes the gratitude and mercy of the Lord Who made himself poor so that by his poverty we might become rich, and invited all to “invoke with particular trust the protection and help of the Virgin Mary, so that she, the first believer in Christ, might accompany us in days of intense and penitential prayer, to allow us to celebrate, purified and renewed in spirit, the great Paschal mystery of her Son”.

Posted in General

Visit to El Salvador

(Every year, bishops and lay faithful who serve on the Board of Directors of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are asked to visit one or more of the 91 countries that CRS serves, in order to see firsthand the work of the more than 5,000 CRS employees worldwide.)

There is something beautiful in seeing people who so lovingly serve others who can never repay them. Yet even knowing this in my heart, I was not really prepared for the joy that welled up inside me (oddly enough) last year during my trip with CRS staff to Syrian Refugee camps near Zahle, Lebanon and to the underground Migrant Retention Center in Beirut, both places where God’s presence was so badly needed and so lovingly given.  This same joy was also present during my recent trip to El Salvador, which was also an official visit of some members of the Board of Directors of Catholic Relief Service (CRS).  With my whole heart I can sincerely say that after both these visits I was again so proud to be Catholic!

On the plane going to El Salvador a little girl asked me was I going “on vacation” like her? I told her it was not actually a vacation, but I was going to see how Catholics from America help other people, especially the poor, in El Salvador.  She seemed content with that answer, but then she asked me “what is a Catholic?” Once again I did my best to explain. I said that we are people who love Jesus and because we love him we love to help others. She seemed satisfied with that answer. Thank God.

El Salvador, Day 1:  “God’s Office”

Our first day was spent in San Salvador, the capital city, and began with Mass at the Altar where Archbishop (“Monsignor”) Oscar Romero was killed while celebrating Mass. One bullet from the assassin pierced his heart, and then embedded itself in the wall behind the altar, just behind where I stood as we concelebrated there.   His heroic witness to the dignity of every person, rich or poor, was inspiring. Day one ended with a visit and dinner at the Jesuit University of San Salvador, where six Jesuit priests and two lay women helpers were gunned down, victims of hatred towards those who sought justice for the poor.

In between the rich experiences of those who witness to truth and give everything for the faith, were several encounters. We spoke at length with Monsignor Romero’s successor, Archbishop Jose Louis Escobar, as well as to a personal friend of Monsignor Romero, Bishop Gregory Rosa Chavez, Auxiliary Bishop. We were surprised and edified to know that since the death of Monsignor Romero, the Church of El Salvador has experienced a spiritual renewal with many new and indigenous vocations to the priesthood and religious life.  The words of Tertullian of the second century are still valid today, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

We also visited the Papal Nuncio, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and who spoke to us about the special circumstances of the Church in El Salvador.  We then had an “information lunch” with the CRS staff as we discussed their four key projects: 1. support for at-risk youth, 2. advocacy for environmental and safe water issues, 3. emergency disaster preparations, and 4. the careful planting and organizing of small cocoa farms for families in the Sonsonate region.

After meeting the 33 full-time staff of CRS (almost all are born and raised in El Salvador) and learning how they interface, support and collaborate with the local Bishops’ Conference and with Caritas El Salvador, we then heard several stories from the staff, some whom have worked for over 25 years with CRS.  Each one recounted the specific role they play on the CRS team, many with heartfelt gratitude for the great privilege to work in this field.  Two staff members, in particular, recounted that as children they could remember “caritas leche” or milk that Caritas would distribute to the poor.  In their time of great need, the efforts of American Catholics, who chose to go beyond themselves, reach out to others, and assist local Catholics to share love and the Gospel in the simple form of “milk,” has left a lasting impression!

One such CRS employee, a native of El Salvador, told us that she tried to explain to her little son about the office where she works and what she does because his friends wanted to know.  Since her son could not fully understand her explanation of what Catholic Relief Services (CRS) of the United States actually meant, she said he just decided to say that his mom works at “God’s office.”  How humbled we felt to hear these stories of great love and joy by CRS staff. We promised to send a message of gratitude back to the CRS Board and to all Catholics who support the work of CRS: Thank you for giving some of the good people of El Salvador the privilege of working in “God’s office!”

El Salvador, Day 2: “Mauricio”

Our second day was more of the same, grace, joy and love. Our morning was spent in one of the poorest “barrios”, in the outskirts of San Salvador.  Barrio “October 10″ in the municipality of San Marcos is composed of hundreds of cardboard, tin, or in some cases, brick, makeshift shanties, one right next to the other, perhaps 2,000 of them. In the barrio is located a K-12 grade public school, a common gathering building, which included a small medical clinic and meeting rooms, and a police post. The barrio was much like the very poor “favela” Pope Francis insisted on visiting during his trip to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day August of last year.

We heard there the stories of several youth whose lives were redeemed by a successful CRS effort. All together there are more than 4,000 youth throughout the country, 18-25 year olds, who have been mentored by CRS and local partner staff and prepared for meaningful and legitimate work. Many of them now, in turn, mentor others.

“Mauricio” was one such young man who left a lasting impression.  His brother was cut up and killed before his very eyes by his own gang members. Why?  Because his brother, who became a true believer in Jesus Christ shortly before, refused to stay in the gang.  He wanted something more for his life and with his last breath, he also urged Mauricio to resist.  It was a miracle that Mauricio ever made it out alive. He was beaten and left half dead, but somehow, by God’s grace, he did survive.

After a few different prison sentences, and because a family, not his own, loved him, and like his brother, shared their true faith in Jesus Christ, by the grace of a CRS initiative that arrived just in time, Mauricio’s life was redeemed and set on a totally new path.  Now he is a graphic artist, painting murals around his barrio, and now mentoring others. He now lives with that family who loved him unconditionally during his difficult time in and out of the gang and in and out of the prison system.  The father of this family told me that he himself grew up without a father or mother and made his way on the streets, so when he first met Mauricio, he wanted him to have so much more than he ever had! How beautiful and true is redemptive love! There were many other heartfelt stories, but since I had the chance to spend part of the day in the little shanty with Mauricio and his adopted family, his story stands out.

The day ended with a dinner, in which around 10 prominent businessmen were invited to share in the work of CRS.  I was personally quite blessed by the presence of three of the 10 men whose grandparents, like mine, migrated from the Holy Land, from the “little town” of Bethlehem to El Salvador in the late 1800′s.  Jose Jorge (Don “Pepe”) Simán, Jorge Zablah, and Javier Simán all have founded their own businesses, are successful, and have retained their love for justice and respect for the poor.  We shared our common stories of grandparents from the Middle East and their migration to the new world. I was proud to know and work alongside them for CRS.

One of them, Javier Simán, and I spoke at length about a special mission to do what we could for the many “Mauricios” of El Salvador.  That evening we were able to put him in touch with the work of CRS and thus develop a lasting partnership that the CRS staff are happy to cultivate. The day finished in fraternal dialogue about the important work of the Church for the poor and how businessmen can be of special service in this mission, especially using their expertise.  I think Mauricio has a bright future!

Day 3: “It’s a Wonderful Life”

On this the last of our three full days in El Salvador, we went to visit small cocoa-farming families in the Sonsonate region of the country, accompanied by CRS staff and experts.  The Bishop of the area met us for Mass in the small town of Caluco and we visited several families that have been helped by the intelligent master design of the dedicated CRS staff.  The theme of “It’s a wonderful life,” where Jimmy Stewart despaired and was shown what life might have been without him, kept running through my mind.  What would have happened to these good people (today over 300 families) without the helping hand of CRS and their local partners?  If, God willing, this effort succeeds, and everyone in the region is hopeful that it will, we will have touched 10,000 families!

By finding a young agriculture expert from an El Salvadorian University, who also has a special talent and love for people, by connecting him with water experts from CRS, by finding indigenous men and women from the region, which was known in ancient days as a cocoa region, and by respecting their desire to replant cocoa, which can be easily cultivated by a family because cocoa plants grow to be around 6 feet tall and their large pods are easy to pick, CRS was able to make people’s dreams come true.

In the past, large coffee and sugar-cane farms in the area were the projects of big businesses, workers were paid very little and had very little personal investment in the work.  Likewise, the crop was oftentimes subjected to the fluctuations of climate and the market, and this kind of farming often impoverished agricultural areas. CRS, by finding American donors willing to finance a project that included many poor families, by leveraging the expertise of many people in El Salvador, and by taking the time and patience to work with individual farmers, families and small town governing committees, the CRS staff, like Jimmy Stewart of “It’s a wonderful life,” were able to pull off something quite “wonderful” indeed!

One farmer donated his land to accommodate an experiment with seedlings and planting arrangements; one allowed his land to be used as the main water source, one farmer and his wife are project managers, one grandmother is the secretary of the cooperative committee, one young woman is responsible for the germination and fertilization of all the coffee plants, two young bright college students from among the families there are responsible for the nature-friendly, bio-degradable soil and seedling treatments. When put all together, this careful planning, two years already in the process, has enabled families to cultivate, hopefully by next year, the cocoa plants on the land that they themselves own.  Some families have two acres, some have less, some more, but everyone has a chance to work individually on their own land, and cooperatively with others to get the right soil conditions, best possible cocoa seedlings, and reach a variety of market opportunities.

It was commonly decided that the cocoa plants should be placed six feet apart, because they need shade, thus mangos, avocados, and other larger fruit trees are to be planted around them.  This gives the soil the variety it needs, and the family the variety of foods they need.  What a beautiful and intelligent way to help families honor their own land, have dignity from the work of their own hands, and work closely with one another, with God, and with the good earth.

This project helps marriages because husband and wife can be together in the raising of their children. It also helps communities to be both independent and interdependent. Thus the project is marriage and family friendly, earth friendly, and local community friendly, and these are among the best ideals of what CRS stands for.  As a member of the Board of Directors of CRS I was grateful that CRS could make a difference in the lives of so many families to live happy and hopeful lives. It is indeed a “wonderful life” when people choose to make a difference for one another!

Bishop Gregory John Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn

Posted in General

Trip To El Salvador

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I travel to El Salvador February 17- 21, 2014, as part of a delegation led by the CEO, Carolyn Woo, and the Board of Directors for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). One purpose of the five day visit is to see firsthand the work that CRS is doing with the poor of El Salvador. We will be visiting cocoa farmers in the fields and youth-at-risk programs in the city; and the CRS staff that assists them there will be with us.

As you know, El Salvador, like Lebanon, went through a horrific civil war. Archbishop Oscar Romero and many others were killed for defending the rights of the poor. Our visit is intended to better inform us on the Board of the great work American Catholics are doing in El Salvador, which is one of the 191 countries that CRS serves. Last year with CRS, I visited Syrian Refugee camps in the area of Zahle, Lebanon, as well as the Detention Center for migrant workers (built underground for 60 but now detaining 600 migrants!) in Beirut. I am always amazed by, and so grateful for, the great witness of Catholics who serve the poor!

I have received all my (several!) vaccination updates and am ready to go. Please keep us in your prayers, and keep the good people who serve the poor, sometimes at great risk to themselves, in your prayers as well.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

+Gregory John Mansour


Posted in General

Homily of His Eminence Sean Cardinal O’Malley at the Pro-life Vigil Mass on January 21, 2014, Washington, D.C.

Almost 200 years ago the Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson wrote a wonderful story called “The Emperor’s New Suit”.  It is the story of a very proud and vain king who thought so much of new clothes that he spent all of his money on his apparel.  His only ambition was to be the best dressed.  One day two swindlers arrived in the city and convinced the king to buy a new suit made of a magical material that was invisible.  They told the king that those who could not see the cloth were stupid and unfit for office.

The king was quite deceived and paraded through the street of his capital to receive the ovations of his people.  The crowds lined the streets and applauded when the king passed by.  The crowd shouted compliments and congratulated the king on his magnificent clothing.

Suddenly a little child shouted, “But he has nothing on at all.” The king continued on his way.  His chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they were carrying the train of his robe which did not exist.

“The King’s New Clothes” today are called reproduction rights, termination of pregnancy, choice, and many other subterfuges that disguise the reality and the brutality that is abortion.

The crowd applauds the Kings’ New Clothes, people are afraid to question.  Those who do not applaud must be stupid, naïve, obstinate.

The voice of the Church is like the child who declares before the world that the new clothes are a lie, a humbug, a deception.  The Church with the candor of a child must call out the uncomfortable truth.  Abortion is wrong.  Thou shall not kill.

Our first reading is from Deuteronomy.  In this last sermon before he dies on Mt. Nebo, Moses tells God’s people: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.  Choose life then, that you and your descendants might live, by loving the Lord, obeying His voice, and holding fast to Him.  That will be life for you.

“Choose Life”, that is the message of the Church confronted by the King’s New Clothes.  Choose life.

John Paul II commented on the many declarations of human rights and many initiatives inspired by these ideals that seem to indicate a growing moral sensitivity, more alert to acknowledge the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class.

Sadly these noble proclamations are contradicted by a tragic repudiation of them in practice.  This denial is still more distressing indeed more scandalous, precisely because it is occurring in a society which makes affirmation and protection of human rights its primary objective and its boast.

The Holy Father John Paul II asks “How can we reconcile these repeated declarations of human rights with the continual increase and widespread justification of attacks on human life?  How can we reconcile these declarations with the refusal to accept those who are weak and needy, or elderly, or those who have just been conceived?”  These attacks go directly against respect for life and they represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights.  It jeopardizes the very meaning of democratic coexistence; rather than societies of “people living together’, our cities risk becoming societies of people who are rejected, marginalized, uprooted and oppressed.

When the Church raises a prophetic cry, “Choose Life”, we are performing a great service to all society.  Life is sacred.  Life is a mystery.  Life must be protected, nurtured, respected.  The Gospel of Life is the center piece of the Church’s social teaching.

When the value of life is compromised or diminished, all life is at risk.  When we give the State the power to determine which human beings are worthy of living and which should be eliminated, what we are doing is opening a Pandora’s Box that unleashes every kind of injustice and violation of human dignity.

Life is precious.  The transmission of life, sexuality, and marriage, which is the sanctuary of life, are all sacred.  The Church’s consistent life ethic contrasts with the incoherent proclamation of human rights that fails to protect life when it is most vulnerable.

Human rights, without the right to life, are the Kings New Clothes – it’s a fraud, an exercise in self-deception.

When Roe vs. Wade was handed down 40 years ago, Archibald Cox, the Harvard University expert in constitutional law and Watergate prosecutor states “This decision (Roe vs. Wade) fails even to consider what I suppose to be the most compelling interest of the State in prohibiting abortion:  the interest in maintaining that respect for the paramount sanctity of human life which has always been at the center of Western Civilization.”

The Church’s pro-life message is a great service to all society.  The culture of death flows out of the extreme individualism of our age.  The Church’s antidote is community and solidarity.  Pope Francis is always talking about a culture of encounter.

In his stunning Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.”  Pope Francis goes on to say: “Frequently, attempts are made to ridicule the Church’s efforts to defend the unborn.  Attempts are made to present the Church’s teaching as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.  Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.”

The Holy Father laments the fact that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations.

The Good News is that God never gives up on us. He never tires of loving us.  He never tires of forgiving us, never tires of giving us another chance.  The Pro-Life Movement needs to be the merciful face of God to women facing a difficult pregnancy.  Being judgmental or condemnatory is not part of the Gospel of Life.

In pre Revolutionary Cuba a Catholic radio play was broadcast that caused quite a bit of attention at the time.  It was called: Muralla.  It was the story of a middle class Catholic Family, husband, wife and five children.  Each Sunday the whole family went to Mass together.  They all went to communion each Sunday with the exception of the father.  This was a source of great anxiety to the whole family.  The wife and children were always encouraging their Dad to go to confession and join them at the communion rail.  He resisted all their pleading.  The years passed.  The man grew old.  When he was dying, his wife sent for the priest who came and gave him the last sacraments and Extreme Unction – anointing of the sick for the dying.  After making his confession and receiving communion, the man called his wife and children around his death bed and said, before I die, I want to tell you why I did not go to communion for all these years.  When I was a young lawyer, I falsified a Will.  All the money we have really should belong to a distant cousin.  I knew that if I went to confession I would have to make restitution so I have waited until now.  With that the man died, but now it was the wife and children who stopped going to communion because they did not want to make restitution either.

We are often quick to judge people because we have not walked in their moccasins.  Until we find ourselves in the same situation we don’t know, we might do the same thing that we judge others for.

Today’s Gospel is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament.  The Pharisees are determined to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma.  Should the woman caught in adultery be punished by death as the law demanded?  If Jesus said “no” they would accuse him of neglecting to obey the law.  If Jesus said “yes, kill her”, He would turn people against Him for having the woman killed.

The Pharisees brought in the woman almost like a stage prop to use her for their political purposes.  It is interesting to note that her partner has escaped punishment.  It is only the woman who pays the price for their actions.  She is filled with shame and is in fear for her life, with feelings of anger, despair, disappointment and a profound sense of loneliness.

It is curious to note that this is the only place in the Gospel where we see Jesus writing something.  For Jesus, there was no need to publish or perish.  We do not know for sure what Jesus was writing.  Some of the Church’s Fathers speculate that Jesus was writing the sins of those brave men, after telling them that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.  When the men see their sins, the stones fall from their hands and they begin to sneak away beginning with the oldest.  Jesus is left alone with the woman; the crowd with their prurient curiosity and the Pharisees disarmed by Jesus, have slipped off.  St. Augustine describes that Gospel scene as miseria and misericordis.  Misery and mercy meet.

Jesus has come, not for the healthy, but for the sick.  He has come to set up the field hospital.  He is the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep behind to seek out the lost sheep.  That gives Him more joy than the 99 just people who do not need the Good Shepherd.

The feelings of the woman in the Gospel must be like the young woman caught in a crisis situation of an unwanted pregnancy.  She feels overwhelmed, alone, afraid, confused.

We must never allow that woman to perceive the Pro-Life movement as a bunch of angry self righteous Pharisees with stones in their hands, looking down on her and judging her.  We want the woman to experience the merciful love of Christ.  Jesus does not condone the woman’s fall, but He does not condemn her.  He invites her to make a new start, to know that she is forgiven and loved.  Pope Francis urges us to practice “the art of accompaniment” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other, in this case, the woman in crisis.  This accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian Life.  This is precisely what the Sisters of Life, Project Rachel and the Community of Jesus the Living Mercy are doing.

We are all here because we want to save the thousands of innocent children who are being executed by the very people whose mission should be to heal and protect life.  The truth is that we can save those babies only by saving the Mothers.  When they experience God’s loving mercy then they will become capable of showing mercy to their children.  The Pro Life Movement has to be about saving Mothers.  We need to focus on the women to try to understand what they are suffering.

The work of the pregnancy crisis centers has helped countless women to be able to choose Life.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to all the volunteers and workers.

There are millions of women in our country who have had abortions, millions of men who pushed them, encourage them, and drove them to the abortion clinic.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of them could accept John Paul II’s challenge to those who have chosen abortion to commit themselves to life, “whether by accepting the birth of other children, or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them; to become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.”

One person to take up this challenge was Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the founder of NARAL and the Pro Abortion Movement in the U.S.  In the 1970′s Dr. Nathanson ran an abortion clinic in New York City, which operated from 8:00am ‘till midnight.  He performed roughly 100 abortions a day.

But then after having promoted abortion and convincing people of its urgency, Bernard Nathanson, the tailor that produced the King’s New Clothes in the United States, finally heard that child’s voice pointing out the inconvenient truth.  His conscience could no longer allow him to fool himself into believing – it was not a human being.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson became the most eloquent opponent of abortion and the abortion industry.  In 1982 I invited him to come and speak to Black and Hispanic leaders in the Archdiocese of Washington, right here at Caldwell Hall.  A few years later Dr. Nathanson accompanied me to Honduras where he presented his film, The Silent Scream, to the medical faculty, and on National television.  He was very instrumental in getting the laws that legalized abortion in Honduras reversed.  He spent the rest of his life trying to do the same in the United States.

God’s grace turned Saul of Tarsus, the implacable persecutor of the Church, into the Apostle of the Gentiles; and that grace transformed Bernard Nathanson into an apostle of the Gospel of Life.

The antidote of abortion is solidarity; community where people are willing to care for each and for the most vulnerable.

The message of the Gospel of Life is, as Pope Francis tells us (in Evangelii Gaudium), a message of Joy.  The Holy Father writes: “to those who feel far from God and the Church, and to all who are fearful or indifferent I would like to say this: the Lord with great respect and love is also calling you to be part of His people.  The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.  The very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others.”

The challenge Pope Francis places before our young people to be evangelizers.  To evangelize with beauty and joy.  The Holy Father says (in Evangelii Gaudium): “To communicate the moral teachings that promote growth in the Gospel way of life, it is helpful to stress again and again the attractiveness and ideal of a life of wisdom, self fulfillment and enrichment.  In light of that positive message our rejection of the evils which endanger that life can be better understood.  Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shines forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.”

At Lampedusa Pope Francis cast a wreath into the sea where thousands of poor immigrants lost their lives at sea.  He warned about the globalization of indifference.

We face this in the Pro Life Movement.  Just as with slavery in the past, today many Americans are repulsed by abortion but believe that it is a necessary evil.  Our task is to show them that it is not necessary.  It is an evil but it is not necessary.

Where there are community and solidarity, more humane solutions present themselves when there is a difficult pregnancy.  When the abortion decision of the Supreme Court was handed down, the logical response of our Pro Life Movement was a resolute call for “Adoption, not abortion”.  The truth is each year there are fewer and fewer adoptions while the number of abortions is over a million.  Many young Americans don’t know anyone who is adopted, and if they do know someone, it is probably someone from China, Russia or Guatemala – giving the impression that entrusting a child to an adoptive family is not something Americans do.

The history of adoption is not always a glorious one.  There is a popular film in the theaters right now portraying some of the worst practices of the past.  Philomena, portrayed by Dame Judi Dench, tells the story of a young girl forced to give up her baby.  It is a tragic history.

We need people to hear the good stories of adoptions of courageous birth mothers and generous adoptive families that have truly provided a loving family for an adopted child.  In Boston we are making adoption part of a pro-life curriculum for our young people.

The majority of women who succumb to abortion are poor.  Poverty is a dehumanizing force that leads people to feel trapped and to make this horrible choice.  The Gospel of Life demands that we work for economic justice in our country and in our world.  In a society where the rich are getting ever richer and the poor poorer, abortion looms ever larger.  Planned Parenthood was founded to eliminate the poor.

We can rescue unborn babies from abortion by rescuing their mothers from a life of poverty and hopelessness.  Pope Francis challenges our complacency and indifference to the oppressive poverty that spawns so many abortions.

Yes, the Catholic Church’s consistent life ethic is a great service to society.  It is our task to witness to the truth that love, compassion and solidarity can build a just society that will be safer for the poor, the unborn and those on the periphery.

I often share with people the fact that on the island of Martha’s Vineyard there is a beautiful church dedicated to St. Augustine.  There are lovely stain glass windows that depict the seven sacraments.  When the tourists enter the church, the first window they see is one that represents the sacrament of confession with the crossed keys, the priest’s stole and the words: “Go and sin no more”.  But the church is not air conditioned so in the hot days of summer they open all the windows in the church.  Well, the only pane of glass that opens on that window is the part where the words “no” appear.    So tourists enter the church and see the window that says “Go and sin more”.

In my ten years as Bishop there, not one person ever complained about the window.  The irony is that many people think of us Catholics as people of No —– don’t do this, don’t do that.  In reality we are the people of Yes — yes to God, yes to life, yes to compassion for the poor and suffering, yes to the solidarity and community that make us messengers of joy even in a valley of tears.  The Gospel of Life will always trump the King’s New Clothes.

Posted in General

CRS Reflection

I go to Lebanon every year, sometimes twice a year.  I try to visit those places where people struggle.  I have always believed, like Pope Francis, that the Church has to be where people suffer.  Nonetheless, on my last trip to Lebanon in June of 2013 I was not prepared for what I saw.  At the request of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and in union with Caritas Lebanon, I visited thousands of Syria refugees – mostly women and children, in the area near Zahle, Lebanon. We also visited the underground prison for migrant workers in Beirut, built for 60 but now housing more than 600.  I was not prepared for the suffering I witnessed. I was also not prepared for the joy of seeing the gracious response of the Caritas and CRS personnel who give from their heart and soul to those that Christ asked us to feed, clothe, visit, and love.  I could see firsthand why Pope Francis keeps reminding us of the prisoner, the refugee, the child in need, vulnerable women and men migrant workers, and the suffering of families.

The work of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is to meet people in their need, and I am proud to be part of it.  In fact, every Catholic in the United States who cares enough to donate is part of the great mission of CRS, which is engaged in 191 countries throughout the world. It has been said that human need knows no religion, race or nationality, and this is so very true. We serve those people in need not necessarily because they are Catholic, but rather because we are!  May this warm Christian charity continue to serve as a witness to Jesus himself, who came to serve the poor and the needy. How blessed we are to be part of his outreach of love.

Posted in General

Merry Christmas

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
As we prepare for a fairly comfortable Christmas 2013 many of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East are preparing for a rather harsh one. Still there is no room at the inn for Jesus.
Here below I have posted a video produced by Aid to the Church in Need on Lebanon. We must pray for and assist the Lebanese (especially Caritas Liban and Catholic Relief Services) who work hard to make Christmas a little better for the Syrian refugees who have sought shelter in their country.
I have also posted two sad commentaries on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
May we do our share to help make Christmas a little happier for the millions of those affected.
+ Gregory
Posted in General, Religious Education

In the Muslim world, the genius of Christianity

Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman heads the Eparchy of Latakia in the north of Syria, a region that so far has been spared the violence of the country’s civil war, which may come as a surprise to many in the West who imagine the entire country to be in the grip of violence. The territory is home to Alawite Muslims, who run the country, and who continue to live peacefully beside a Christian population of some 45,000.

Latakia and neighboring towns are a haven for Syrians fleeing the fighting, Muslims as well as Christians, the latter having fled Damascus, Aleppo and Homs (which is part of the Latakia Eparchy) in great numbers, the majority of them currently stranded in Lebanon.

Bishop Sleman is on a visit to the US to rally support for his local community, not only to  help him cope with the needs of the internally displaced—whose status, unlike that of  ugees, make them ineligible for UN aid—but to give local Christians a chance to sustain a livelihood through farming. He is aiming to buy livestock and machinery for agricultural production, such as cheese-making.

”If Christians cannot make a living here, they will leave, and most of those who leave—particularly for the West—do not return,“  the prelate said, adding that “their enduring presence here and throughout the Middle East is vital for the well-being of Muslim society,“ serving as an indispensable antidote to fanaticism and extremism.

Also high on the bishop’s wishlist is the establishment of a residence for young women attending school and college in Latakia, a haven that will ensure parents of the safety of their daughters, whose education is critical to the future of Syria. The bishop spoke with Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity, on Oct. 17, during a stop in New York.

After two years of fighting and so much bloodshed, what is your vision of a formula to establish peace in Syria? What is your message for the American audience?

Bishop Sleman: Great effort must be made to establish a dialogue between the regime and moderate elements of the opposition. The world’s big players must get involved in earnest and put real pressure on the various parties to come to the negotiating table: America and its allies—France, all the Europeans, Israel; and Russia, which must call on Iran and its allies. But there has been no real leadership up to this point. The big challenge is religious fanaticism. This is a very difficult issue, of course.

The problem of so many media is that they don’t really grasp real picture of the situation. The Arab spring has been depicted as this clear push for liberty and democracy—but the
actual results in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, for example, are proving otherwise. In many respects, the West is poorly informed, including its Churches, despite good intentions.

Right now, in Syria, the story needs to be told that moderate rebels and Islamists have begun fighting each other. The world’s major powers must intervene—now—to stop Syria
from tumbling into utter chaos. I am very worried about the situation. Nonetheless, I continue to have hope—call it a foolish hope, if you will. But with God everything is possible.

One of the enormous stakes is the ability of Christians to remain in the lands of the birth of their faith.

We need the solidarity of people and governments in the West to ensure the ongoing presence of Christians in Syria and throughout the Middle East. We cannot allow the land
to be without Christians, because the Christian presence helps Muslims to be moderate. That is what John Paul II said about Lebanon: “it is more than a country, it is a message [of the coexistence of Muslims and Christians].“ The environment of Islam benefits from the engagement of the Christian faith, which ensures, of course, also our own openness with regard to the Muslim world.  That is what I want to tell American Christians and Catholics. To be able to really live out my faith I stress two principal pillars—God, who is absolute in heaven, and man, whose value is absolute on earth. In touching the one, you touch the other. Any kind of religious fanaticism is a breach of this fundamental respect for God and man. That is the message of the Christian witness, its presence in the Muslim
world, which Christians in the West make possible through both prayer, and material support.

However, I don’t believe that we should rely on a constant supply of money—only while  the fighting continues. Eventually, local Christians must find ways to become self- sufficient and thus be able to stay. We must find ways to prevent them from becoming refugees themselves! The local Church is seeking to play a crucial role in this regard.

In Syria, and elsewhere in the region, Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side for centuries.

I cannot and will not speak separately of Christians and Muslims. We have lived together in Syria for 1400 years. Why can we not manage to live together any more? That is the big
question. We Christians want to stay and moderate Muslims want the same thing. Why do Jihadists and fundamentalist Muslims come to Syria, and elsewhere, to insist that this coexistence is no longer possible? We should not split up countries and regions along religious lines. This is a great risk: a country with a single religion becomes extremist, provoking war. Religion must not be used as a pretext for violence.

So there is nothing in Islam that is fundamentally incompatible with regard to tolerance of Christians?

Indeed. Again, we have lived together for 1400 years. Now, Saudi Arabia is a different matter.  Countries that are 100 percent Islamic are a different story; there, Muslims have not been forced to find ways to live together with Christians, have not been pushed to arrive at an openness. But in Syria, Lebanon, in Jordan, and so forth, we have lived together for the longest time. In those countries it is hard to imagine Muslims living without Christians or vice versa.

There are occasional reports of Muslims coming to the aid of their Christian neigbors.

It happens the other way around as well. For example, Sunni families fled Aleppo and came to my iocese. Religious sisters came to their aid, and where told by their guests;
“we are busy killing you, but you are giving us food to eat. We will not forget you.“ That was the first time these Muslims had met Christians and they discovered that these  believers were not what they expected. We cannot let such experiences not bear fruit. This is extraordinary. We can live together. When Christians and Muslims live together in a particular region, it is not Christians who close up but Muslims who open up. It is
ignorance that makes us afraid of the “other.“

Our religion is one of mission—it is not a religion that closes in on itself. We cannot accept the logic of uniformity; we stand for openness; that is the genius of Christianity.

Aid to the  Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more
than 140 countries.

Posted in General