Patriarch’s 2016 Lenten Letter

Letter of His Beatitude
Patriarch Gregorios III
On the Occasion of Great and Holy Lent
8 February 2016
From Gregorios, Servant of Jesus Christ
By the mercy of Almighty God
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
To my brother bishops, members of the Holy Synod
And my sons and daughters in Christ Jesus, clergy and people
Called to be saints, with all those who call upon the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ,
“Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:3)

Divine and Human Mercy
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
(Matthew 5:7)

We are contemplating an early fast for this year. And I must, as is customary for me, address a personal letter to you to accompany this annual spiritual journey, which we call the Great Lent Fast.

I want this message to echo the sentiments expressed by his Holiness Pope Francis recently in the Bull of Indiction entitled The Face of Mercy, assigned to the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, and also in his Message issued on 1 January, 2016 to celebrate the XLIX World Day of Peace.

Mercy in the liturgical services

In every prayer of the liturgical services, we are knocking at the door of Divine Mercy, singing, “Lord, have mercy!” This moving chant is common to East and West, as the Greek Kyrie eleison is to be found in all rites: Byzantine, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, Armenian, Assyrian and Aramaean. Not surprisingly, the mercy of God is inexhaustible because God is love and mercy!

As the Byzantine or Antiochian rite is characterized by urgency in requesting divine mercy, both in the Divine Liturgy (or Mass), and in the liturgical services day and night, the term Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) occurs in our prayers about 500 times a day!

Many prayers are for help, the most notable of which include the popular, beloved anthem of mercy which is sung every day in Lent and consists of three sections: the first and second we address to the Lord:

  1. “Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us; for we sinners, lacking all defence, offer to thee, as our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us.”
  2. “Lord, have mercy on us, for in thee we have put our trust. Do not be very angry with us, nor remember our iniquities. But look on us now, as thou art compassionate, and rescue us from our enemies. For thou art our God, we are thy people, all the work of thy hands, and we call upon thy name.”
  3. The third section is devoted to a petition to the heavenly Mother, the Mother of God, which could worthily be called an anthem for the Jubilee of Mercy: “Open the gate of compassion to us, blessed Mother of God; hoping in thee, may we not fail. Through thee may we be delivered from adversities, for thou art the salvation of all Christians.”

It is well-known that the Psalms, the cornerstone of our liturgical prayers, are overflowing with references to the mercy of God. One such is the so-called Polyeleos or psalm of many mercies, due to its refrain which is sung after each verse, “For his mercy endures forever. Alleluia.” The other psalm of mercy, which is characterized by a profound appeal from the repentant soul, is the familiar fiftieth psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.”

Yes, the mercy of Almighty God is immeasurable. And the papal message appeals to us urgently to open our hearts to God’s mercy, so that it fills our being and makes us merciful as God is, as required by our Lord Jesus, “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Our hope is that the world may hear the call, turning petrified, disgruntled, hateful hearts into compassionate, forgiving, peaceful human hearts of flesh and blood.

We have so much need of the mercy of God, who blessed the merciful, the pure in heart, and philanthropists: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy!” (Matthew 5:7) “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) “Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called the children of God!” (Matthew 5:9) Compassion, in all its dimensions, sums up the Sermon on the Mount and expresses the will of God, who says, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13)

Mercy the message of all religions

Manifestations of faith in all religions highlight the mercy of God to man, and appeal to humans to deal mercifully with their fellows. The basic message of mercy is not limited to any one religion. The Pope has confirmed this fact, saying, “There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the Church. It relates us to Judaism and Islam, both of which consider mercy to be one of God’s most important attributes…The pages of the Old Testament are steeped in mercy. Among the privileged names that Islam attributes to the Creator are “Merciful and Kind”. This invocation is often on the lips of faithful Muslims who feel themselves accompanied and sustained by mercy in their daily weakness. They too believe that no one can place a limit on divine mercy because its doors are always open.” (Misericordiae Vultus No. 23)

His Holiness says, “I trust that this Jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions; may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.” (ibid. No. 23)

New spirituality

The Pope’s message is more than an incitement to exercise mercy. It is an affirmation that a new spirituality should characterize the Church – pastors and people – in its relations with the world, its communication between its children, in the life of ecclesial and monastic communities, in parishes, in the family, in civil society … so that mercy is to be the watchword, the roadmap, the key to dialogue with others, the vision of a new world, the panacea for all ills. The objective of the Encyclical, then, is for the mercy of God the Creator to permeate human relationships, man’s relations to his fellow-man.

That is why I have chosen to summarise in this letter the relational aspects of the Jubilee of Mercy Bull.

The medicine of mercy

“Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity… The old story of the Good Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the [Second Vatican] Council… Errors were condemned, indeed, because charity demanded this no less than did truth, but for individuals themselves there was only admonition, respect and love.”

Jesus’ example of compassion

The Pope invites us to contemplate the face of Jesus Christ the Merciful, and meditate on the nature of God, as expressed in John the Beloved’s finest expression, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

“Jesus, seeing the crowds of people who followed him, realized that they were tired and exhausted, lost and without a guide, and he felt deep compassion for them (cf. Matthew 9:36). On the basis of this compassionate love he healed the sick who were presented to him (cf. Matthew 14:14), and with just a few loaves of bread and fish he satisfied the enormous crowd (cf. Matthew 15:37). What moved Jesus in all of these situations was nothing other than mercy, with which he read the hearts of those he encountered and responded to their deepest need.” (ibid. No. 8)

“When he came upon the widow of Nain taking her son out for burial, he felt great compassion for the immense suffering of this grieving mother, and he gave back her son by raising him from the dead (cf. Luke 7:15). After freeing the demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus transformed him into an apostle of the Gospel.

In the parables devoted to mercy, Jesus reveals the nature of God as that of a Father who never gives up until he has forgiven the wrong and overcome rejection with compassion and mercy. We know these parables well, three in particular: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the father with two sons (cf. Luke 15:1-32, popularly known as the Prodigal Son). In these parables, God is always presented as full of joy, especially when he pardons. In them we find the core of the Gospel and of our faith, because mercy is presented as a force that overcomes everything, filling the heart with love and bringing consolation through pardon.) (ibid. No. 9)

Forgiveness in the Jubilee

The Pope continues to refer to compassion in the Gospel, such as the hard-hearted servant whose master had forgiven him a large debt, but who almost choked his companion because he had failed to repay a small debt. And the Pope dwells in wonderful words on the concept of pardon and forgiveness, and its concomitant peace and serenity for man.

“This parable contains a profound teaching for all of us. Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father; it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully. Let us therefore heed the Apostle’s exhortation: `Do not let the sun go down on your anger.´ (Ephesians 4:26) Above all, let us listen to the words of Jesus who made mercy an ideal of life and a criterion for the credibility of our faith: `Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy´ (Matthew 5:7): the Beatitude to which we should particularly aspire in this Holy Year.” (ibid. No. 9)

The Church, servant of mercy
Then the pope addresses the pastors of the Church and says that they must have, not just great- but unlimited – compassion in their dealings with the faithful, and with other people. Thus the Church shows itself through its bishops as the servant of compassion and an example of the divine master, the Merciful God, who loves human beings.

Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy.” Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” (ibid. No. 10)

Corporal and spiritual works of mercy

The Holy Father reminds believers of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty… Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead… Let us not forget the words of Saint John of the Cross, `As we prepare to leave this life, we will be judged on the basis of love.´” (ibid. No. 15)

Fasting and works of mercy

Liturgical prayers in the fasting season of Great Lent are replete with the call to practise acts of compassion. Here are some of the sections, including:

“Brethren, while fasting bodily, let us also fast spiritually. Let us loosen every bond of injustice. Let us destroy the strong fetters of violence. Let us tear up every unjust contract. Let us give bread to the hungry and let us welcome the homeless poor into our houses, that from Christ our God we may receive the great mercy.” (Wednesday of the First Week of Great Lent)

“Come, O faithful! Let us perform the works of God in the light. Let us walk honestly as in the day. Let us rid ourselves of unjust accusations against our neighbours: let us not place stumbling blocks in their way. Let us put aside the pleasures of the flesh so that we may increase the gifts to our souls. Let us give bread to those in need. Let us draw near to Christ in repentance and say, O our God, have mercy upon us.” (First Friday of Lent, “Lord, I call…” Tone 5)

Isaiah’s prophecy: a call for works of mercy

These prayers are an echo of calls made in the book of Isaiah the Prophet which are, as the Pope said, a road map of mercy: “The pages of the prophet Isaiah can also be meditated upon concretely during this season of prayer, fasting, and works of charity: `Is not this the fast that I choose: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.´ [Isaiah 58: 6-11]” (ibid. No. 17)

Initiatives for the Year of Mercy

This was indicated in my letter to my brother bishops on the message of his Holiness the Pope (Protocol 610/2015D 28/11/2015), concerning practical initiatives to animate the Year of Mercy, including:

  1. Pilgrimage to popular shrines in a spirit of repentance and a desire to amend one’s conduct.
  2. Practice of corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
  3. The celebration of a service of collective repentance. We have developed for this purpose an Akathist of petitions for divine mercy, to be recited in the context of repentance, throughout the Jubilee Year.
  4. Instruct the faithful to accept the sacrament of reconciliation (confession), train faithful parish priests to carry out this sacred mystery, and inform believers of the times devoted to hearing confessions during the Divine Liturgy and other liturgical services, and at other times.
  5. The Pope will give exceptional powers for the absolution even of serious sins normally reserved to the Holy See, to priests who have been chosen to be “Missionaries of mercy.” They may move around in all dioceses and parishes for the service of the faithful.
  6. The Pontiff called on us to organise “a mission to the people” for one week in each parish, and to develop a special programme of spiritual retreats, talks, prayers and repentance, to incite the faithful to repent and return to God and the values of the Holy Gospel.

Mercy, rather than indifference

The Pope addresses a kind of neglect of works of mercy, terming it “indifference”. Often this word is contained in his sermons and messages. He asks everyone not to close their eyes to people’s tragedies, especially those who are poor, physically and spiritually, and the marginalized, and neglected … He has treated the subject of indifference in an open letter entitled “The Joy of the Gospel” and the message issued on the occasion of the celebration of the World Day of Peace at the beginning of the New Year 2016.

“How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich! During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. Let us not fall into humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new! Let us ward off destructive cynicism! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!” (ibid. No. 15)

Indifference is the antithesis of mercy

The Pope continues the subject of compassion in a message for the XLIX World Day of Peace entitled “Overcome indifference and win peace.” It is a call to awareness and doing one’s duty in the fight against cynicism. Compassion is indeed one of the most beautiful expressions of responsibility towards others: the poor, the environment, nature, society…
Anyone who is callous enslaves others, and exploits nature, authority, and governance … he does not sympathize with those who are suffering … But the merciful person feels that he is responsible for other people. As is stated in the document of the Second Vatican Council, entitled Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.” (XLIX World Day of Peace No. 2)

The Pope earlier reviews some of the tragedies of the year 2015, saying: “war and terrorism, accompanied by kidnapping, ethnic or religious persecution and the misuse of power, marked the past year from start to finish. In many parts of the world, these have become so common as to constitute a real `third world war fought piecemeal.´” (ibid.)

Despite this bleak picture, the Holy Father calls us to stick with hope and the ability of humans, by the grace of God, to overcome evil and refuse to give in to despair and apathy, reject irresponsibility, but stand by common responsibility and solidarity.

Mercy a collective responsibility

“This attitude of mutual responsibility is rooted in our fundamental vocation to fraternity and a life in common. Personal dignity and interpersonal relationships are what constitute us as human beings whom God willed to create in his own image and likeness. As creatures endowed with inalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human. We see, then, how indifference represents a menace to the human family. As we approach a new year, I would ask everyone to take stock of this reality, in order to overcome indifference and to win peace.” (ibid.)

Some forms of indifference

His Holiness describes certain forms of apathy, saying, “indifference is [when] people…close their hearts to the needs of others, …close their eyes to what is happening around them, [and] turn aside to avoid encountering other people’s problems.´ He indicates that indifference is not new, but “in our day, indifference has ceased to be a purely personal matter and has taken on broader dimensions, producing a certain `globalization of indifference.´.…The first kind of indifference in human society is indifference to God, which then leads to indifference to one’s neighbour and to the environment. This is one of the grave consequences of a false humanism and practical materialism allied to relativism and nihilism.” (ibid. No. 3)

“In other cases, indifference shows itself in lack of concern for what is happening around us, especially if it does not touch us directly. Some people prefer not to ask questions or seek answers; they lead lives of comfort, deaf to the cry of those who suffer. Almost imperceptibly, we grow incapable of feeling compassion for others and for their problems; we have no interest in caring for them, as if their troubles were their own responsibility, and none of our business. `When we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others (something God the Father never does): we are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure… Our heart grows cold. As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable, I don’t think about those less well off.´” (ibid.)

The Pope reaffirms that peace is in danger due to global indifference. “On the institutional level, indifference to others and to their dignity, their fundamental rights and their freedom, when it is part of a culture shaped by the pursuit of profit and hedonism, can foster and even justify actions and policies which ultimately represent threats to peace. Indifference can even lead to justifying deplorable economic policies which breed injustice, division and violence for the sake of ensuring the wellbeing of individuals or nations.” (ibid. No. 4)

Mercy in the heart of God

In the face of widespread indifference, the Pope calls for compassion to inspire the heart. “Mercy is the heart of God. It must also be the heart of the members of the one great family of his children… [God] he sees, hears, knows, comes down and delivers. God does not remain indifferent. He is attentive and he acts… [Jesus] touched people’s lives, he spoke to them, helped them and showed kindness to those in need. Not only this, but he felt strong emotions and he wept (cf. John 11:33-44).” His Holiness gives these examples inviting people to “stop and to help alleviate the sufferings of this world and the pain of our brothers and sisters, using whatever means are at hand, beginning with our own time, however busy we may be. Indifference often seeks excuses: observing ritual prescriptions, looking to all the things needing to be done, hiding behind hostilities and prejudices which keep us apart.” (ibid. No. 5)

Mercy in the heart of the Church

The Pope calls for the Church, and especially its members, to exercise compassion, saying,
“The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ. The Church makes herself a servant of this love and mediates it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of oneself. Consequently, wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident. In our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy. We too, then, are called to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity a true way of life, a rule of conduct in our relationships with one another. This requires the conversion of our hearts: the grace of God has to turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (cf. Ezekiel 36:26), open to others in authentic solidarity. (ibid.)

The logo of the Year of Mercy

The drawing, which figures in this Lenten Letter, is the emblem of the Year of Mercy, which carries in it a message of symbolic meaning, summing up the concepts of the Year of Mercy. In this image, we find Jesus the Merciful God who loves mankind carrying on his shoulders a wounded, sick, errant human being, – and we find in our Eastern rite a beautiful reference to this in the omophorion. It is an item of the bishop’s vestments, covering his shoulders and hanging down on his breast. The bishop says as he dons it, “When thou didst take upon thy shoulders human nature which had gone astray, O Christ, thou didst bear it to heaven unto thy God and Father.” As we say in the Great Doxology of Jesus Christ, “Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

This is what we find also in Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The most profound symbol of the graphic is that the figures are side by side, united by a strong sense of compassion, mercy, and love. It is noticeable that there are three, not four eyes: the eye of Jesus and the human eye, and then a central one combining Jesus, the God-Man, Adam and every human being … Jesus the Son of Man looks at the child of Adam and Adam considers the human Jesus.

Lent a walk towards Mercy

That is the Christian vision, God uniting with man and humans with their fellows! This is the Christian faith, and this is the meaning of the mystery of the divine incarnation, in which the famous theological dictum is realised, “God became man so that man might become god.” God looks towards man and becomes human, humans look towards God and become like him.

This Great and Holy Lent is a short walk. It is a walk along the way of the cross and pain, suffering, solidarity, compassion and tenderness, all the way to the euphoria of the victory of the resurrection.

But this is a brief for the progress of humans on this earth: that they be merciful toward one another, and love one another, coexisting and co-operating harmoniously. Paul the Apostle said, “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” (Romans 12:15) He also said in this connection: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ! …And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12,26)

Conclusion: Blessed Fast!

In conclusion, we congratulate their graces, our beloved fellow-bishops, reverend father and mother superiors, and all our children walking on the way of the Fast.

Fasting is an acceptable time. It is a time of salvation. It is indeed a school of compassion and responsibility, and a school of Christian virtues. This is what our liturgical prayers say about the beneficial process of fasting, which is in the eyes of the Holy Fathers, “the spring of the soul.” Let us hear what our Mother Church says, speaking in the words of our holy fathers:

“Let us brightly begin the all-honourable abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love, the splendour of prayer, the purity of chastity, and the strength of good courage to reach [Christ’s] holy resurrection on the third day, which shines incorruption throughout the inhabited world.” (Prayer from Clean Monday)

With my love and apostolic blessing
+ Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
For the Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Appendix: Works of corporal and spiritual mercy

The traditional enumeration of the corporal works of mercy is as follows:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbour the harbourless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

The spiritual works of mercy are:

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

Appendix: Pope Francis’ Prayer for the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy

Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father, and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him. Show us your face and we will be saved. Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money; the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things; made Peter weep after his betrayal, and assured Paradise to the repentant thief. Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman: “If you knew the gift of God!”

You are the visible face of the invisible Father, of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy: let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified. You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error: let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God. Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing, so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord, and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed, and restore sight to the blind.

We ask this of you, Lord Jesus, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Mercy; you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever.