Bulletins from the Episcopal Synod, October 2008, The Vatican

Reflections of

His Beatitude

Patriarch Gregorios III


First Bulletin – Rome October 10, 2008

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God,…to all …beloved, … called to be saints: grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:17)

Beloved sons and daughters of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church, clergy and faithful, I am sending you from Rome these joyful greetings, in the opening words of Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, to share with you the work of the twelfth Episcopal Synod, whose theme is: The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. This is the fourth time that I am taking part in such a Synod. It is as well to remember that it was my predecessor of blessed memory, Maximos IV, during the second Vatican Council, who first put forward the idea of holding these Synods, to act as a council around the Pope. The First Synod was held in 1967.

I am taking part in this Synod in the name of our Holy Synod. H.E. Mgr Cyril Salim Bustros and his proxy H.E. Mgr Joseph El-Absi have excused themselves from attending. However, taking part in the Synod is Rev. Archimandrite Nicolas Antiba, our Patriarchal Exarch in Paris, appointed as an expert by His Holiness on my recommendation. This is the seventh time that he is taking part.

I am very impressed by the universal, global “Catholic” character of this meeting, gathered around His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, the Synod’s President: 253 bishops, (Patriarchs and Cardinals), Fathers-general, Mothers-general, men and women theologians, including clergy- and lay-experts…, who are praying together, meditating together, thinking together and experiencing together a Pentecostal atmosphere, resembling that of the life of the first Christian community, focused on the Word of God.

The Holy Father led the celebration for the Opening of the Synod with a Pontifical Liturgy on Sunday, May 10, 2008 in the Basilica of St Paul-without-the-Walls during this Year dedicated to Saint Paul. The Synod began with a talk by the Holy Father.

The Fathers of the Synod have been meeting every day for five and a half hours at a time. The first day was dedicated to listening to the Holy Father (who has been taking part in nearly every meeting.)

The Synod’s working sessions are made up of plenaria, during which the Fathers may speak in turn (each contribution is just 5 minutes long), while in the evening the Synod devotes an hour to free discussion, during which the maximum time allowed for each speech is just 2 minutes.

In order to go into greater depth on the Synod’s different themes, the Fathers divide up into small groups, no bigger than 15 strong, each group corresponding to one of twelve languages.

All the work and contributions to the Synod, both during the plenaria and the workshops, go towards the final recommendations to be drafted and referred to the Holy Father. The different texts will be studied by the Holy Father, in collaboration with a committee derived from the Synod and elected by the Fathers and the final recommendations will be published in about a year’s time.

The 253 Fathers participating this year in the Episcopal Synod represent the 13 Eastern Churches, the 113 Episcopal Conferences and the 25 Roman dicasteries, to which may be added the Fathers-general of the various religious orders and the Mothers-general of the women’s religious orders, besides representatives and experts of ten non-Catholic Churches.

Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain

Second Bulletin – Rome, October 10, 2008

The aim of this Synodal Bulletin is to share with the readers of the patriarchal website some aspects of the Synod’s work and the main events that are taking place on the Synod’s fringe.

In this second bulletin I am bringing you some “little flowers” that I have gathered from listening to the speeches of the Fathers of the Synod. They have been emphasizing the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, or rather, between the first and second Testament. The two are related, complementary and mutually influential. However, Christianity goes beyond every kind of “Testament,” for it is “in Christ Jesus … a new creation,” as Saint Paul said. (Galatians 6:15) Indeed, the Gospel sheds light on every page of the Old Testament, which cannot be understood without the New, as the old Latin tag from Saint Augustine so well expresses: Novum in Vetere latet: Vetus in Novo patet, meaning, The New in the Old lies concealed: the Old in the New is revealed.

Hence the importance of interaction between theological studies and the exegesis of Holy Scripture: the latter tells us what happened and how it came about, but with the aim of enabling us to absorb Scripture until it becomes part of our lives.

Reading the Bible is difficult, for its teachings require us to change our behavior and reveal to us a challenging new road that will sorely try us.

What matters is that the teachings of the Bible in both Testaments become words of life spoken to us today. That is what gave us the idea of including in our monthly Pauline bulletin an item called: Epistle of Paul to the Damascenes. This is not an exaggerated “Oriental” transmogrification, since the teachings of Saint Paul really are addressed to us today.

Hence the importance of saying to our parishioners during the Sunday sermon: this word (from the Epistle and Gospel) is yours! That is what Jesus said on the Sabbath in Nazareth. Having finished the lesson from the book of Isaiah, he said to the congregation in the synagogue, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” (Luke 4: 21)

Let us tell the faithful: God is speaking to you! But he is listening to you too!

It is important to prepare the sermon, in such a way that it both meets the expectations of the faithful and that the preacher is the first to pay attention to his own homily!

In the Scriptures, God speaks to us as friends. He told us in his last discourse in the Gospel according to Saint John, “I have loved you…I have called you friends.” (John 15: 12, 15)

Similarly, the word of God in the sermon should be kind, gracious, fresh, enticing, pleasant, attractive…so that the sermon becomes a gospel, good tidings of great joy. Therefore it is important for the preacher to be joyful as he encounters Jesus’ teachings and Jesus himself.

Our faith must not be redolent of dry, arid dogma, but rather an event that affects us, touches us and is for us! So faith appeals not merely to our intellect, but even more to our freewill.

The word of God is powerful, dynamic, fruitful and fecund. The preacher must be adept in expressing these attributes of the Word!

Our respect for the “Book” of the Bible notwithstanding, we do not allow ourselves to be called “People of the Book” or “Religion of the Book,” since Christianity is the religion of the Word, the living and life-giving Word, incarnate for us and for our salvation.

Preaching, spiritual advice and training, pastoral work with brotherhoods, youth, lay apostolate movements in parishes, must all contribute to helping the faithful listening to our sermons feel that Jesus, who walked the roads of Palestine, is still walking to meet wayfarers, the men and women of today; to meet me and walk with me, accompanying me in my daily life.

Christianity does not thrive on religious propaganda; it derives its strength from the fact that it is beautiful and attractive…

Saint Augustine said, “The Holy Spirit speaks from without.” We must respond to Him by hearing Him from within.

A Final Word

I hope that the readers of this bulletin will be able to live the Synod with us!

Well! On Thursday, October 9, 2008 there took place at Saint Peter’s a big pontifical liturgical celebration, at which the Holy Father Benedict XVI presided, for the fiftieth anniversary of the death of his predecessor of blessed and holy memory, Pius XII. Taking part in it were all the Fathers of the Synod and the diplomatic corps.

In his homily, the Pope outlined the main features of the pontificate of Pius XII.

It is noteworthy that in the year of the death of Pius XII (1958), His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III was present as a student, together with other student monks of the Basilian Orders of the Holy Savior and of Aleppo, as well as Maronite. This laudable initiative on the part of the late Cardinal Gabriel-Acace Coussa (Aleppine), (who died relatively young while Pro Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Church) contributed considerably to the formation of an Eastern elite!

Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain

Third Bulletin – Rome, October 17, 2008

In this Third Bulletin, I am speaking especially to my children, the seminarists of Saint Anna ( Rabweh , Lebanon ) and to all seminarists and persons dedicated to the religious life in the eparchies and men’s and women’s congregations of our Melkite Church .

I am happy to put forward for your consideration, my beloved, some reflections drawn together during my participation in the Twelfth Episcopal Synod, whose theme is: The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. I invite you to read the two previous bulletins containing information on the Synod.

In this bulletin addressed especially to you, I bring you some personal reflections, referring to the importance of the Word of God in your life.

Firstly, here are some ideas taken from the speech of His Eminence Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Metropolitan Archbishop of Krakow , Poland , formerly Secretary to the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II of blessed memory.

There is in the world a hunger for the Word of God: preachers must assuage that hunger. The Word needs witnesses: these witnesses are seminarists. They must prepare themselves properly for witnessing effectively to God’s Word. But often seminarists busy themselves with studying the Word of Holy Scripture as though it were an external object of study. They do not take into account its spiritual meaning. The Word fails to become a word of life for them. They do not know how to transform the Word of God into a medium of communion with Him in the Holy Spirit, who guides them to understand the Word. They do not discover in the Word of God that power that can change man and draws him to repentance and transforms him, uniting him to the Church that keeps the Word of God and is tasked with bringing it to the world.

It is very important to pay attention to the Word of God in seminaries. It is equally important for seminarists to learn to engage with the Word of God in spiritual depth. They ought to be educated in the spirituality of Holy Scripture, so as to become passionate for the Word of God and for the service of the people of God. Faithful parishioners need priests who are delighted by the Word of God (Psalm 118 LXX) and by love for service of the parish. Those are the real bases for a new, revitalized, modern evangelization that meets the aspirations of young generations.

Bringing new evangelization is one of the priorities for the preparation of future priests and for pastoral service, for priests must be first and foremost “servants of the Word.” Seminarists must be burning with the inner fire that consumed Saint Paul (the bimillennium of whose birth we are celebrating), Apostle to the Nations who said, “Woe is unto me if I preach not (the Word.)” (I Corinthians 9:16) He said to his disciple Timothy, “Preach the Word … in season, out of season.” (II Timothy 4:2)

The Fathers of the Synod emphasized in their speeches the importance of Bible reading and inner listening to the Word of God and discovering the mystery of Christ, so as to live it during the time of one’s training at the seminary, and then be able to preach it to the people.

One of the Fathers of the Synod said, “A seminarist has to become the ‘disciple of Jesus Christ,’ not just the disciple of some teacher or other.”

Saint Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem and there translated the Bible into a Latin version, called the Vulgate, said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.[1]

Among the proposals of the Fathers to be found in their speeches, we read, “Seminarists should read the Bible every day.” Another states, “The Word must go from the head to the heart.” Hence we see the importance of reading that is not only informed, but also spiritual.

Dear seminarists,

I wish you a holy year in the seminary, a “priestly year!” I pray for you to meet Christ during this year and through every detail of your life in the seminary. May there be in you the thoughts and manners that are in Christ Jesus.

With my prayer, affection and blessing,

+ Gregorios III

Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain

Fourth Bulletin – Rome, 10/ 26/2008

In this Fourth Bulletin, I am happy to be able to communicate a few ideas collected during the Synod.

1. Firstly, there was emphasis on remaining firm in faith. There have always been persecutions since the time of the pagan Roman empire . During the Byzantine empire there was the iconoclastic controversy; in the Ottoman empire, Christians were under Islamic rule; then, more recently there have been difficulties for Christians in South Africa , South America and the Indian subcontinent: it is a part of Church history. We have to keep strong in all these different circumstances.

2. As the subject of the Synod was the Word of God, His Holiness the Pope gave a talk about explaining Holy Scripture. He spoke about the two elements requisite for Biblical hermeneutics: knowing about the facts of salvation history and understanding the tradition of Biblical interpretation. This means we have to combine knowledge of the Scriptures with inspiration.

3. Often, we speak about two Testaments, Old and New: however, God inspired both and he is the warranty of both. Therefore, we should rather say we have One Covenant, which is fulfilled and presented to us in a new form, in Jesus Christ. So although from the perspective of human history it is understandable that we speak of two Covenants, in fact from the perspective of divine revelation there is but one: therefore we should avoid dualism with regard to it.

4. The Word of God is bitter-sweet: bitter because it is requires things which may be hard for us to bear and sweet because it is a consolation for us.

5. Lectio divina is reading and meditating on Holy Scripture: in the Eucharist, Jesus says to us, “Take, eat.” In lectio divina, we are told, “Take, read.” This is indicative of the relationship between the Eucharist and the Word of God.

6. Another way of expressing how the Word of God works in us is to say that the Word must travel from the head to the heart.

7. We can also learn from the Theotokos’ “yes” to the Word of God: her assent enables the Word of God to become incarnate. Our saying “yes” also allows the Word of God to be realized in our life.

8. The miracle at the wedding in Cana illustrates the relationship between the Old and New Testaments: just as the water was changed into wine, so the Word of God is continually made new. Jesus said, “You have heard… but I tell you…”

9. Many Fathers of the Synod stressed the importance of giving their faithful a profound awareness of the obligation upon each one to announce the good news for his or her society.

10. Seminarians and priests study mostly an academic way of reading the Bible, but they should also be taught how to read so as to discover its spiritual and mystical meaning.

11. Lectio divina can be expressed in the Eastern tradition (His Beatitude observed) through liturgical prayers, for example, canons of saints’ days, Dominical and Marian feasts and in the Paraklitike, where there are many apparent repetitions – but these are a way of meditating on the manifold expressions of the Word of God.

12. Saint Paul ‘s discovery of Jesus and the Gospel through his vision on the road to Damascus was certainly rooted in his deep love for the Scriptures, focused as they are on Christ, in whom he found their complete meaning.

13. It is important to use modern methods of communication to bring the Word of God to the world, so seminarians have to be fully acquainted with information and communications technology.

14. It was interesting for me to hear a moving appeal from an Indian bishop for the date of the Feast of Easter to be unified. We Arab Christians also need to be unified in observing it.

15. The bishop’s responsibility for the Word of God is shown through episcopal ordination, in both Eastern and Western rites, as the Gospel is placed face-down on the ordinand’s head. So the Gospel becomes his spiritual director and his special responsibility towards the Word of God is seen. Despite his administrative work, he has to make the Word of God influential in society, preserving the Word from misuse and manipulation.

16. The importance of preparing for preaching the Word of God is evident, as Jesus prepared for thirty years to preach for just three. Yet having spent just two nights in the tomb, he accomplished our salvation on the third day.

17. Many bishops in the synod wanted the Word of God to be a vital force enabling the Church to remain new, young and dynamic.

18. In my speech and in discussion in workshops, I indicated how important it is for everyone to find in the Word of God the best way to conduct dialogue with Islam. It is also important to show that Christians and Muslims are facing the same challenges – concerning ethics, human rights, fundamentalism, terrorism, religious liberty and so forth – and therefore may find answers to them in their scriptures.

19. One father quoted Søren Kierkegaard as saying, “When we read the Word of God, we should read it like a letter from our beloved.” For us Christians, that Word is embodied in the person of Christ. That is why we are not happy to be called merely the “people of the book,” because although we discover Jesus in the book, he surpasses the book, which is just a means for us to discover him.

Gregorios III

His Beatitude with pilgrims from Metz

Notes: on the fringes of the Synod

On Saturday 18th., the Holy Father, with the Patriarch of Constantinople, celebrated Vespers in the Sistine Chapel, showing how the Word of God can be an important factor on the road to Christian unity.

Also wonderful to tell, his Eminence, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, invited all the Patriarchs and heads of Eastern Catholic Churches to two events: on 20th. to a meeting to discuss the present state and current role of Eastern Catholic Churches. On 21st., he also invited them to a lunch in honour of the new Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, thus giving them the opportunity to meet with all the Cardinals and members of the Congregation and presidents of the synod.

RAI took the wonderful initiative of arranging for the whole Bible to be read continuously, day and night, from 5th. to 11th. October. Thousands of people, both Christian clergy and laymen and women, Muslims and Jews, took part in reading the Bible. The readings took place in the Church of the Scala della Croce in Gerusalemme. His Beatitude read Chapter 13 of Proverbs in Italian and Arabic. He also expects to take a similar initiative in Damascus in the Year of Saint Paul.

The Patriarchs and heads of Eastern Catholic Churches for the first time wrote an appeal addressed to the Holy Father and members of Synod about the situation of their faithful in countries of conflict – Israel , Palestine , Iraq , Lebanon and India .

The Patriarch also wrote an invitation to all members of the Synod inviting them to Damascus for the Pauline Year: this was gratefully received.

There was one opportunity for each Father of the Synod to make a five-minute speech, the text of which had to be submitted in writing: His Beatitude took his turn to speak on Friday, 10th. October. Additionally there was a daily hour for “free” or unscripted remarks lasting three minutes: His Beatitude spoke each day on a different topic: such as, Eastern traditions, Eastern Church Fathers and their theological expressions. His remarks were very well received by many, who expressed their wish to hear more from him, stressing that he was saying “good things in a good way,” that is, with good humour and sense. The Patriarch was delighted to have the opportunity to speak frankly in the presence of the Holy Father, but he feels he has yet more to tell him and the other fathers about the spiritual wealth and important role of the Eastern Churches.

On 16th. October, the Patriarch invited all Eastern Patriarchs and heads of Eastern Catholic Churches, with Cardinal Sandri, to a dinner at the Columbus Hotel. That same day, in the Paul VI Hall, all the fathers attended the screening of a film about the life and work of John Paul II, at the initiative of his former secretary, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow.

On 23rd. October, His Beatitude invited all Melkite students, priests and seminarians in Rome to a dinner. He talked to them about the work of the synod and the life of the Church. On 24th., he visited Santa Maria in Cosmedin to praise the wonderful work done by his Apocrisarios, Archimandrite Mtanios Haddad in supervising the restoration of the church and its adjoining residence, both of which will shortly be completed. Father Mtanios organised the whole stay of His Beatitude in Rome .

On 25th. October, the whole synod was concluded by the presentation of 55 proposals to the Holy Father and by the message of the Fathers to the whole Church. These proposals will be studied by the Holy Father, together with a specially elected and appointed Council to produce a final document, in a year’s time.

On the same day, His Holiness gave a lunch in honor of all members and participants in the synod. The whole synod was crowned by a Papal Liturgy on 26th. in St. Peter’s Basilica.

On Sunday afternoon, His Beatitude visited the exhibition about St. Paul , in the Basilica of St. Paul-without-the-Walls. His Beatitude hopes to host the same exhibition later this year in the patriarchal residence in Damascus . A few minutes later, at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, His Beatitude, with Father Mtanios, welcomed a group of pilgrims from Metz , a town twinned with Beit Sahour.

Speech of His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III

This speech has to do mainly with Chapter IV of the Lineamenta (The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church) to which I am adding some considerations concerning our relations with Islam (Chapter VIII of the Lineamenta.)

The Word of God: place of meeting and dialogue

The Word of God is a special place for meeting and dialogue between people, in such a way as really to become a Word for me and a Word for you; it invites me to meet God and my brother or sister. So it is not meant to be a word of war, violence, terror, fundamentalism, isolation, exclusion of the other, since it includes and enlightens every human being (cf. John 1:9); it is a Word for all mankind’s situations, for the future of humanity, present in every sphere of human life.

Attributes of the Word of God

The attributes of the Word of God are many and express its strength and the influence that it has on the faithful in society. “The Word of God is not bound.” (II Timothy 2:9) It is “profitable for doctrine, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (II Timothy 3:16) It is “faithful.” (Titus 3: 8) “For the Word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even unto the dividing asunder of the joints and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

The faithful person must act on the Word and not just hear it. “But be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” (James 1:22) It is a Word of life. “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”(John 6:68)

In his First Epistle, the Holy Apostle John writes, “That which was from the beginning (the Word), which we have heard (the Gospel), which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; … we … declare unto you.” (I John 1:1 and 3a)

A Word for all nations

On the day of Pentecost, the apostles spoke to the surrounding crowd, proclaiming the Word of God, speaking just one language, probably Aramaic. However, although those present were of different nationalities and countries, speaking different languages, as Saint Luke tells us, each one heard the apostles speaking in his own language. So the Word of God is one, though for all people, reaching each person in his own civilization, language and culture.

It is truly the Word of God, because it really can reach all mankind and become a Word for people. That is the great challenge for those who must preach with conviction, write pastoral texts and work out the official documents of the Church. The challenge is how to make the Word of God understood and bring it to people in such a way that it remains really his Word, without trickery, confusion or alteration, while meeting with people’s words, and with their understanding, mindset and way of thinking. Yet it must elevate their thoughts and change their mentality, so that their words should be really in contact and harmony with the Word of God. Then may be realized what Saint Paul said. “…we have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16)

The Word of God speaks to us all. It has however need of an epiclesis, so that it may become the Word for others, for society and for the world. The Holy Spirit changes everything. The epiclesis is really the mystery of Christianity.

The Word of God answers all our questions

It is equally vital to experience by ourselves and in our daily lives how much the words of Holy Scripture speak to each one of us personally and how we find in them the answer to all our questions, suitable to all conditions and circumstances of our personal, family, professional, social, and intellectual life and to our relations with other people of our religion or of other confessions, concerning different problems of a moral and behavioral kind.

The Word in the Eastern tradition

The Eastern Christian lives his faith primarily through the Liturgy; now, our liturgical texts, centered on the Eucharist or directed towards it, have an essentially scriptural content and are woven from Biblical references. The table of the Word of God and the Eucharistic table are inseparable. Customarily, in our Churches, the Liturgy of the Word of God and the Liturgy of the Eucharist make up one and the same celebration, for the scriptural texts are the preparation for the Eucharist and the Eucharist is the fulfillment of Holy Scripture in time and eternity. It is the Word of God, become spiritual food for the everyday life of the faithful as preparation for their life to come. This then is the relationship between the present Synod and the previous one.

Prayer, especially liturgical prayer, is always linked to the Word of God. In fact, the prayers of the first Christians were concentrated principally on the Psalms and on readings from the Old Testament. Then there were added readings from the Holy Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles. In the course of the services, especially in the Divine Liturgy, the priest explained and commented upon the Word of God.

The Word of God: read, meditated upon, preached and celebrated

The Church Fathers, having read, meditated on and digested the Word of God, commented on and preached it for the people in their sermons. Later, hymnographers composed texts which are sung meditations on the Word of God. These hymnographers, generally monks, taking passages of Scripture and sermons of the Fathers, composed a whole corpus of hymns celebrating the events of salvation for the Feasts of the Lord and of the Mother of God, or in praise of the saints for their feast days. So it was that the Christmas Canon, composed by Saint John of Damascus, was based on a sermon of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus.

Word of God and liturgical texts

Indexing liturgical texts’ scriptural sources shows clearly the relationship between the prayers of the faithful and the Word of God. In our Church’s rites, moreover, the Epistle and the Gospel must be chanted, not simply read, since music is requisite for harmonization of the words, so that the Word of God may be better understood and its beauty meditated upon. Indeed, our faithful very much like this sung proclamation of the Word of God.

It should be mentioned that the Akathist Hymn, which is a description of the economy of salvation, shows us the Mother of God teaching Christians how to hear the Word of God, “The Archangel Gabriel cried to thee as the living Book of Christ, sealed by the seal of the Spirit… Rejoice, thou who drawest us from the depths of ignorance: rejoice, thou who enlightenest many with knowledge…rejoice, thou pure one, volume in which the Word of the Father has been inscribed by his finger…rejoice, tabernacle of God the Word.1”

Veneration of the Word of God in the Evangelion2

In our Byzantine liturgical tradition, the first ritual gesture of the priest, when he enters the sanctuary, is to kiss the Evangelion which is always on the altar and the table of the altar itself; if a bishop visits a church without there being a liturgical celebration, the royal doors in the iconostasis are opened for him to venerate the altar and the Evangelion on the altar, then to bless those present with the Holy Book.

Every Sunday, the faithful venerate the Gospel Book in Matins (Orthros) preceding the Divine Liturgy. Then, in the context of the Divine Liturgy itself, during the singing of the hymn to the “Only begotten Son and Word of God” (whose composition is attributed to Emperor Justinian), there is the Gospel procession, during which the Gospel is carried aloft by the deacon or priest, so as to be visible to all, preceded by the cross, candles, fans and incense, while the faithful, wherever in church they are standing, turn towards the Gospel Book throughout the procession, doing so with a gesture of love and veneration – a kiss sent from afar or a deep bow – when it passes by them.

Likewise, the proclamation of the Gospel, always sung, is very solemn. During this proclamation, any men, even clergymen, whose heads may be covered, bare them. Children and any who are suffering or sick come and put their heads beneath the Evangelion to ask for the grace they need; then, the celebrant, having kissed it, blesses all the faithful with the Evangelion (a rite which was introduced into the Papal Mass by the Servant of God, John Paul II.)

It also happens that any elderly arriving late to church, after the proclamation of the Gospel, may request that it be read to them once the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is over.

During Great and Holy Week, the four Gospels are read in their entirety, up to the story of the Passion from Holy Monday up to Wednesday, then from the Passion narrative during the triduum, so that the Gospel is sung in its entirety during the Holy Week celebrations.

The Evangelion, with the cross and the icons (which are also “written” expressions of the Word of God), is present in all our solemn processions and is the object of great veneration by the faithful.

The Holy Book used in liturgical celebrations is housed in a very ornate binding of embossed metal, carved wood or tooled leather, with the cross on one side and on the other an icon of the Resurrection surrounded by the four Evangelists.

On the day of Pascha, the faithful venerate the Gospel Book and the icon of the Resurrection and then embrace one another, as the Word of God is a Word of reconciliation.

The faithful often ask the priest to bless them by placing the Evangelion upon their head and chanting a passage from the Gospel. At the end of the Sacrament for the Sick or the Service of Anointing (Great and Holy Thursday), the celebrant and concelebrants place the open Gospel Book over the heads of those who have received the anointing with Holy Oil.

In the final prayer, the following formula is read, “O holy King… who desirest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live: I lay not my sinful hand upon the head of those who come unto thee in iniquities and ask of thee through us, the remission of their sins, but thy strong and mighty hand in this, thy Holy Gospel, that is now held by my fellow ministers upon the head of thy servants.”

A new custom is growing among our families when there are visits of condolence following a death: the chanting of the Gospel or Psalms as background music during these visits (this is perhaps due to the Islamic custom of having passages from the Qur’an recited by an imam on such occasions.)

For the central section of the rite of episcopal ordination, the rubric of the Byzantine Arkhieratikon (Pontifical) indicates that when the ordinand is kneeling on the altar step, having placed his crossed hands on the altar and rested his forehead on his hands, “the first hierarch places his omophorion over the head of the elect, then taking the sacred Evangelion, opens it and places it face-down over the head and neck of the elect, while the other two hierarchs hold the book on either side” while the prayer of ordination “The divine grace…” and two other consecratory prayers are recited, with a litany between the second and third. The second prayer in particular asks God to strengthen “this elect, whom (he has) graciously enabled to come under the yoke of the Gospel,” while the third wishes that he may “receive the great reward” prepared by the Lord “for those who have contended valiantly for the preaching of (his) Gospel.”

The beauty of the Word of God

We have to emphasize the importance of incarnating the Word of God, so that it becomes close to the faithful, beautiful, attractive, luminous and pleasant. That is the reason why preaching, spiritual advice and animation of youth, women’s and family groups are so vital; they have to be enabled to discover together the Word of God and its role for them through continual reading and meditation, especially through evangelical vigils taking place at the homes of the families concerned, with relatives, friends and neighbors taking part around the priest, who comments on a passage from the Gospel, then opens up a discussion with everyone present.

The priest, guide of the Word of God

We discover here the very important role of the priest as spiritual father and guide for the conscience of the faithful, but also and at the same time companion, brother and friend, capable of taking the faithful by the hand and leading them towards the paradise of the Word of God.

This priestly ministry is extended and completed by that of the religious men and women and lay-people involved in catechesis and animation of different evangelical and other groups in the context of the parishes.

Word of God and catechesis

The relationship between the Word of God and catechesis depends on the quality of preparation of the catechists, training which, from the biblical perspective, sometimes leaves something to be desired. However, it is customary, in several of our eparchies, to make a present to children, on the occasion of their “Solemn Communion” (which cannot be a “first” Communion, since the Eastern tradition, sanctioned by the Code promulgated by the Servant of God John Paul II, links the Eucharist to Baptism and Chrismation by Holy Myron) of a book of Gospels; there are also biblical competitions for children; and the book Children’s Bible in Arabic, presented by Kindermissionswerk of Aachen, is very popular.

Memorizing the Word of God

Although it is not fashionable, it is good to learn by heart verses from Holy Scripture, especially from the Gospels and other books of the New Testament, which have to do with our concerns, problems and difficulties in life and enable us to discover their meaning. There is a tendency in catechetical teaching to say that that is not compatible with modern education. But how much trouble do we not take to learn the rules for using computers, mobile phones, the Internet and so forth? We should pay attention to the example set by our Muslim brethren, who have the custom of learning the Qur’an by heart, quote it frequently in their conversation and transcribe several of its verses in calligraphy on the walls of their homes and workplaces. Our Protestant brethren are equally exemplary from the perspective of knowledge of Holy Scripture.

The Word of God and dialogue with Muslims

The Word which has been given to me by God in my Christian faith is really mine, but not only for me; it is also for the society in which I live, for my brothers and sisters in humanity, to whom I must bring it as a light of love, a call to love, a sign of hope for the other so that he may progress in his religion and deepen his knowledge, without, however, my despising him or he despising his own religion.

Jesus calls us to preach our faith, when he says, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15) And Saint Paul encourages us, writing to his disciple Timothy, when he says, “Preach the Word… in season, out of season.” (II Timothy 4:2)

There is no monopoly on the Word of God. It is just as much the other person’s as it is mine. The Muslim world is afraid of our preaching, but it does not stop preaching Islam. That is unreasonable. So we require our Muslim fellow-citizens to acknowledge our freedom to bring the Good News to others, with love and respect for their faith, but we do not oblige them to embrace our faith. It is enough if others can find out about it and come to esteem and love it. Conversion is the work of God. “It is true you will not be able to guide every one, whom you love; but God guides those whom He will.” (Qur’an: Surah 28 Al Qasas, verse 56a3)

We thank God for the many, beautiful relationships between Christians and Muslims that occur especially in everyday living. However, I would like us to share together in the Word of God, since that is what unites us, draws us together and reinforces our faith. Let us not be afraid to love the Word of God in our brothers and sisters. Let us not be afraid of verses from the Qur’an and let our Muslim brethren not be afraid of verses from the Gospel or from the Torah. These are the Word of God for us all, every one according to his own calling. I would like to tell our Muslim brethren not to fear our faith. Let us all rather be afraid of using words of vengeance, criticism, pride and haughtiness. The Word of God does not despise anyone. It is not proud, boastful or puffed up. It does not engage in bad behavior or enjoy retaliation. It does not rejoice in evil, but in good. It rejoices in love and believes all things. (cf. I Corinthians 13:4-7)

It would be good for there to be organized a Forum of the Word of God, within whose framework Christians and Muslims could meet and talk about and meditate together on the Word of God.

Our zeal for the Word of God should be a means of sanctification for us and for deepening our faith. We must not allow our zeal for the Word to become a weapon to exploit others, judging, persecuting and compelling them to embrace our faith, any more than we can allow the Word of God to become the cause of conflicts, disputes and confrontations between our faithful and those holding different religious convictions. Nor should it become an instrument of terrorism and a pretext for one group to claim superiority over another. The Word of God (not we ourselves) is the true judge between us and those who are not of our faith.

Translated from the French by V. Chamberlain