My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Often we ask: what must we do to follow Christ? Last Sunday, Christ told us: “If anyone wishes to follow me he must deny himself and take up his cross.” Today our Lord tells us: “Put out into the deep and lower your nets.” These two commands show us the path to true discipleship.
Peter, James, and John encounter our Lord Jesus and everything in their lives changed…everything. After their encounter with the Lord, they are new men, experiencing Our Lord’s miraculous power. Peter fell down upon his knees and begged Him: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Our Lord tells Peter not to fear and that henceforth he shall catch—not fish, but—men.
Then, the most astonishing thing happens: in stunning simplicity “they left all and followed Him!” In an instant, Jesus came into their lives with His power, and their lives were changed. They became different men; their concerns and priorities were transformed; they encountered Christ and could not resist Him. They left all and followed Him.
In this Gospel passage, we see the true encounter with Our Lord Jesus, repeated again and again through the centuries in various settings and circumstances—even today. An encounter with Christ our God always produces the certain realization of one’s own sinful unworthiness—“Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” At the same time, Christ’s presence radiates a powerful magnetism that pulls us to Him in faith.
My dear friends, our Lord Jesus desires to encounter each one of us in the depths of our hearts. His Holy Spirit dwells within us through baptism as His power in our lives. Just as He called the Apostles, He calls each us to leave ALL to follow Him, so that He may fill us with all Godliness. We encounter Christ within the Church. In the Sacred Mysteries, He comes to us personally with His power and glory to fill our hearts. Yet, Christ’s power and glory can only be effective in our lives if we, like Simon Peter, fall to our knees in humility and experience our own unworthiness. For the miraculous catch of today’s Gospel occurs only when Peter is willing to give up his own ego, and does Christ’s bidding. For, on his own, with all his sweat and toil, Peter caught nothing…nothing!
How often do we experience this in our lives? Many times our own self-centered efforts often hit dead-ends, and leave us unsatisfied. But when we give our will over to do Christ’s bidding, miracles can happen in our lives. And then Our Lord speaks this command to each of us: “Put out into the deep and lower your nets!” He bids us not to fear, our mission is the same as St. Peter’s, to gather souls for the Lord in the nets of the Church. This is the mission of every disciple of Christ. This is the mission of our Melkite Church. This is the mission of you and of me.
My brothers and sisters, in January our Melkite Church will begin our Jubilee Year—celebrating the 50th anniversary of the official establishment of our Melkite jurisdiction in America in 1966, with the appointment of our first Melkite bishop and the naming of our eparchial cathedral of the Annunciation. This historic moment marks a significant milestone in the life of our Melkite Church, and it reminds us that our Church in America has always been a refuge for the suffering and persecuted who came to our shores in search of the freedom to practice their faith and to make a better life for their families. Our ancestors came to America from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt to escape situations similar to those which endure today in the homelands of our Church. Thank God for our Church! Now, once again, the Lord is calling us to put out into the deep of our secular culture and lower our nets for the catch.
Fifty years ago when our Melkite jurisdiction was established we had 23 parishes, today we have some 45 parishes and missions—almost double. But now, as we prepare to begin our second fifty years in America, Christ is calling our Church to begin a new dynamic impetus of growth and increase. We are no longer an immigrant Church, or an ethnic club, dependent upon the “old country” for our sustenance and survival. No, we are an evangelizing Church! We are called to proclaim our beautiful, ancient Faith here in the USA—to reach out in hospitality to welcome all who desire to follow the Lord Jesus “in spirit and in truth” and to live our life-giving tradition. We must continue to grow!
Now, the harassed churches of our homelands are coming to depend upon us! It was very moving for me to receive the humble gratitude of His Beatitude, our Holy Patriarch Gregorios, and so many of our Melkite Bishops at our Melkite Synod last June when I gave them the relief funds to support their suffering faithful which came from you and your generous donations to last year’s Bishop’s Appeal. These funds continue to be needed now as the evils of war and persecution continue unabated. But this is only one of the compelling reasons why the annual Bishop’s Appeal is so very important for our Church.
Just last month, we had the honor of inaugurating the Church of St. Anne in North Hollywood, California, as our West Coast Cathedral. May God grant that in ten years’ time this Co-Cathedral may become the cathedral of a new and thriving Eparchy of the West–a second Melkite eparchy in the USA! I will be looking toward the possibility of creating future missions in the West that can one day become parishes of a new eparchy. At the same time, we must continue to increase and grow in the southern regions of the USA, as well as in the Northeast and the Mid-West, adding new missions and parishes.
Especially in this day and time, when our society is so ego-centric and materialistic, our Church and your parish must cast its nets into these depths and fill our churches with people seeking Christ. We must help them to come to know the power and glory of Our Lord through the sacred and ancient beauty of our Divine Liturgy properly celebrated. By receiving the Precious and Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord we become one body with our all-powerful Lord! Truly, this is what the human heart yearns for; this is what Christ wants us to bring to our world.
And so, dear friends in Christ, as we begin the annual Bishop’s Appeal this year, I ask you to reflect upon the great mission Christ gave to our Melkite Church in America in 1966, namely to implant our ancient faith in American soil. Now that our Eparchy has taken root here for fifty years, let us heed the urgent mission Christ is giving us today, namely, go out into the depths of this culture that does not know God and that lives as if God does not exist and cast our nets far and wide–to bring in all those who need the riches of Christ’s love and mercy. Let our parishes show the vitality of truly Christian family life, especially now in this time when the family is under attack in our society. This is the mission the Lord gives us today, and this mission requires ever increasing financial support.
I thank you for the generosity you have shown in the past. By the grace of God and the generosity of so many of you, the Bishop’s Appeal has become somewhat of a “miraculous catch” in its own right. Last year alone, we raised over $351,000 to meet the vital needs of our Church in America and to assist our suffering brothers and sisters in the Middle East. Thank God!
This money is used very carefully and prudently: it supports the publication and distribution of SOPHIA magazine; it funds the training for religious education for our children and adults; it makes possible that our candidates for the Diaconate and Priesthood pursue their studies so that we will have clergy to serve our people. And when there are needs in our struggling missions, your gifts provide for them, and also help to support our elderly priest in their golden years. Plus, last year, over $66,000 was returned to 18 parishes who surpassed their Appeal goals. Finally, please know that, again this year, we will tithe, or give ten percent, of all monies collected in the Bishop’s Appeal to our associated Melkite Charities, with 40% of these funds going to our churches and people in the Middle East and outside the USA who endure dire hardship.
Yet, while we are tremendously grateful and rejoice with all our benefactors, we also realize that only about fourteen percent (14%) of our Melkite families in the USA participate in the support of our Church. This is very sad. What wonders we could accomplish if one hundred percent of Melkites in America would join in the duty of supporting our Church financially!
My brothers and sisters, I come to you, today, as your Father and Shepherd to ask for your generous support of our Church. We need every member of our Church family to take financial responsibility for the works of our Church. If you have not given in the past, I ask you: please, please give this year. We need you.
When you receive my appeal letter at home, please be as generous as you possibly can. I ask that every Melkite household in America contribute at least $100-$200 to the Bishop’s Appeal for the needs of our Church. I understand that for some on fixed incomes this may require a sacrifice; however, I know that many of you are able to contribute much more. All I ask is that you give back to the Lord as the Lord has given to you.
Let us do the bidding of Christ, put out into the deep, and lower our nets. Then, trusting in the Lord Jesus, He will bring our unworthy efforts to miraculous fruition, and we will be amazed at what Christ our God can do in our lives!
With my gratitude, prayers, and blessing for you and for our entire Melkite family in America, I remain,
Your Father and Shepherd,
✠ Most Reverend Nicholas J. Samra
Bishop of Newton