Sermon on the Closure of the Year of St. Paul

Icon of Saint Paul
Sermon of His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregorios III

June 29th 2009

On the Closure of the Year of Saint Paul

At the Melkite Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Dormition

Damascus, Syria

Your Eminence Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela,

Personal Delegate of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop of Madrid, President of the Spanish Episcopal Conference,

Your Eminences, Your Beatitudes, Right Reverend Bishops,

Your Grace, Archbishop Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria,

Dear concelebrant bishops, priests and deacons of our Patriarchal Eparchy of Damascus,

Dear priests, monks and nuns,

Your Excellencies the Ambassadors,

Dear brothers and sisters,

To all of you:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

(Romans 1: 7)


At the end of this Year of Saint Paul dedicated to the Bimillennium of his birth, we are meeting in the context of a celebration of the Divine Liturgy to pray together – faithful of East and West, Church Pastors coming from eparchies of about twenty countries and Pastors of Damascus’ Churches with their faithful from Catholic and Orthodox parishes.

We thank the Holy Saviour for the grace of this jubilee. We thank the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI who decided that this jubilee should be celebrated throughout the world. For his part, he decided to delegate our dear brother, His Eminence Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid, President of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, to take part in the Closure of this Pauline Year. We say to you, Ahlan wa sahlan, welcome, with our affection and gratitude.

In connection with your visit, His Holiness, Pope Benedict wrote, and I quote,

As the Year dedicated to Saint Paul is drawing to an end, we are pleased to send Cardinals to those places where that admirable herald of the Gospel of Christ lived and worked and which rightly deserve to be called Pauline Places. Among them, Syria has a special importance, since the Apostle, being near Damascus, saw the Lord, and then in that same city, preached Jesus for some days. (cf. Acts 9:5 and 19-20)

We thought of you, Venerable Brother, who head the Metropolitan Church of Madrid, and by these letters we appoint you Our Envoy Extraordinary to the celebrations of the Closure of the Year of Saint Paul which are to take place in Syria on 29 June next, during the solemn celebrations for the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. …

When in the presence of religious and civil authorities, you will take care to show them both the importance of the person and teaching of the Apostle to the Gentiles and his concern for the salvation of the whole human race.

In our name, you will greet all the Pastors of Syria and the other Hierarchs gathered there, the priests, monks and nuns and faithful lay-persons, encouraging them towards greater spiritual unity and convey to them our kind thoughts.

We thank their Eminences, Beatitudes, Right Reverend Bishops and reverend clergy who have kindly accepted our invitation. They represent the Episcopal Conferences of the following countries: Austria, Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Maghreb ( Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara), Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Scotland, Spain and Ukraine.

We thank our brothers, their Excellencies the Pastors and bishops who head the Church in Damascus and Syria, in the unity of faith and the plurality of communities, languages and traditions: His Excellency, representative of His Beatitude Ignatius IV (Hazim), Greek Orthodox Patriarch, His Excellency, representative of His Holiness Zakka I (Iwas) Syriac Orthodox Patriarch and Their Excellencies, representatives of the Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean, and Latin Churches; their Excellencies from the Armenian Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church – the latter representing our brothers and sisters from Iraq, numbering about one and a half million, whom Syria has welcomed, as have Churches in Damascus and Syria, which have done much to assist them in their tragic circumstances.

Thanks to all their Excellencies, their countries’ Ambassadors present amongst us!

Our great gratitude goes to His Excellency, Doctor Bashar al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic. Thanks to his guidance this Jubilee of Saint Paul became a most remarkable, unique celebration for State and Church. I can say with great pride that the Syrian State has done more than any other to contribute to the success of this jubilee. Thanks to His Excellency, our beloved President and to his collaborators, especially from the Ministry of Tourism.

All that is but a part of the debt we owe to Saint Paul, spiritual son of Damascus. In fact there are three cities which are among the most important for keeping the memory of Saint Paul : Tarsus, Rome and Damascus.

Tarsus was his birthplace two thousand years ago, Rome the place of his martyrdom or blood baptism and Damascus the place of his encounter with Christ, risen from the dead, place of his conversion, baptism and election for his unique mission.

The Church sings this hymn in honour of Saints Peter and Paul: “What prison did not hold thee as prisoner? What Church does not have thee as preacher? Damascus takes pride in thee, Paul, for it saw thee cast to earth by light, Rome received thy blood and it too is filled with pride; but Tarsus rejoices more than all for it honours thy swaddling clothes. O Peter, rock of faith and thou, Paul, glory of the whole world, come forth together from Rome and strengthen us.” (Hypakoë, Tone 8, of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June)

From Damascus, Paul went out into the world and preached his “gospel,” that is to say, his letters (fourteen of them) through which he illustrated the richness of the proclamation of the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory. So Saint Paul became the Apostle to the Nations, the Apostle to the whole world.

Today the world is coming to Damascus to venerate Saint Paul in Damascus, which is the only place outside Palestine that the risen Lord appeared after his resurrection. In Damascus the first sizeable community was founded as early as the year 36 A.D. That is what enabled our Syrian President, Doctor Bashar al-Assad, to declare during the visit of His Holiness John Paul II to Syria in 2001, ” Syria is the cradle of Christianity and the meeting place of civilisations.” Saint Paul is the character who best integrated in himself those civilisations and cultures of the East.

Dear brothers and sisters!

Today the Church of Damascus welcomes you. Today your hosts are the descendants of Saint Paul ‘s godparents at his baptism by Saint Ananias, first Bishop of Damascus! You are welcomed today by the descendants of the first Christian community. Today, you are hosted by the Church of Antioch, Eastern capital of the Roman Empire and heir of the great riches of the Church, Greek, Syriac, Aramaic, Armenian and Arab. In fact we have present here today, pastors and faithful who still today in part pray and speak in various languages: Greek, Syriac, Aramean, Assyrian, Armenian and especially Arabic, which is the language of our Christian and Muslim culture and civilisation in Arab countries. That is the language and culture of approximately three hundred and forty million Christians and Muslims who together largely make up our countries in which they have been living together for fourteen hundred and thirty years – and that despite wars, invasions, tensions, crises and even persecutions.

You heard the faithful sing and pray their faith in different languages (some of them Saint Paul ‘s) on the evening of the twenty-seventh at the Opera. Those choirs are participating in our Closure Liturgy today, as we celebrate together our common faith that has been our ancestral possession from the time of Saint Paul, Apostle to the Nations!

I would like to mention especially the Hauran and the village of Mismiyeh where Saint Paul stayed, not just for some days but for three years, as he tells us himself. (See Acts p.1450 note d and Epistle to the Galatians 1:17-18 p.1537 of the Jerusalem Bible.)

Those three years were Saint Paul ‘s monastic novitiate of ascesis, meditation and prayer, like that of the prophets who preceded him and the monks who founded after him in Syria many monasteries, of which the remains still exist to this day.

During those three years of solitude in the Hauran, Paul succeeded, by the grace of the Lord Jesus who appeared to him on the road, in unifying everything in Christ: he unified both Testaments, the Old and the New, making them one, breaking down the “wall of partition[1].” Saint Paul enabled Christianity to breathe with both lungs – the Old and the New Testaments which form the great heritage of Christianity and of humanity unified in Jesus Christ.

Today the Eastern and Western Church is breathing together in these holy celebrations. Yes, indeed, the Church breathes with both Eastern and Western lungs, because of your presence with us, dear brothers representing the different Episcopal Conferences of the Christian world, alongside the Pastors of the Church of Damascus and Syria, Church of the Christian East.

Dear brothers!

Allow me to show you the following points forming a fragrant bouquet of Damascus jasmine for the Closure of the Year of Saint Paul:

  1. Paul loved Jesus more than any lover could. Jesus became the center of his whole life and teaching. May we love the Lord as Paul did!
  2. Paul changed from Saul the persecutor to the chosen Apostle. He accomplished the passing over (Pesach or Pascha) from the Old to the New. Am I, c contemporary Christian from Damascus, capable of accomplishing this passing over? Am I capable of putting off the old garment of sin, so as to clothe myself in the new garment of baptism? Can I lay aside the old man, to put on the new man, created in the image and likeness of God, in righteousness and holiness?
  3. The world needs Paul, so as to become that beautiful world of Paul’s thought, which is the mind of Christ. May everyone in the world tread the road to Damascus, so that the world may change and people move from shadows to light, from night to day, sin to righteousness, persecution to love, violence to kindness, selfishness to altruism, terrorism to solidarity, fundamentalism to openness, the spirit of vengeance to such feelings as Saint Paul expresses when he exhorts the faithful to have among themselves the thoughts and manners that are in Christ Jesus, and reminds them that the fruits of the Spirit are “love.. gentleness, temperance.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
  4. Paul boasts of the cross of Christ, “I am crucified with Christ.” (Galatians 2:20) The cross is the symbol of Christianity and is to be found everywhere in our churches and homes. The symbol of the cross is a call to solidarity with our brothers and sisters in humanity, to lighten the suffering of the cross. The cross is everywhere present, reminding us that there is a fellowman or woman, a brother or sister somewhere, nailed to the cross. It is up to me as a Christian to take that person down from the cross.
  5. Paul is the great apostle of the resurrection. He saw the risen Christ on the Damascus road and then the living Christ gave him the mission of the resurrection and life to the world, after the example of his Master, who said, “I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly,” (John 10:10) and without distinction. Christianity is the religion of the cross and resurrection, of solidarity and life. Hence, the name for the first Christians in Syria, children of the resurrection. {Insert from Pascha on rising with Christ.}
  6. Paul, the great Apostle needs collaborators to spread the gospel message. In the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Paul can be found a hundred names of men and women who were with Paul preaching. Paul described them in glowing terms: in his Epistles, his fellow-workers are “brethren,” “dear,” “sisters,” “parents,” “fellow-labourers in Christ Jesus,” “beloved,” “first-fruits” of those risen in Christ and elect of Christ, especially in the Epistle to the Romans. (16: 1-16) Today more than ever, we need collaborators, lay-people who are faithful, keen, courageous, active, strong, who are highly capable, be it in business, politics or higher education, who are influential, prudent, wise, loving and selfless, experienced and, as the Psalmist says, “as arrows are in the hand of a mighty man.” (Psalm 127: 4)
  7. Christians, children of the resurrection, who follow the “new way,” the Damascus road, Paul’s way, the way of Christ who said, “I am the way,” must be united so as to help one another to carry Jesus’ message to the world, so that Jesus may be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14: 6) and the “light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1: 9) United, Christians are capable of bearing Jesus’ message to the world in the language of people today. We need a new Pentecost, a new epiclesis in the Church. That is what we sing in the kontakion of Pentecost, “When the Most High …dispensed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity.”
  8. We Arab Eastern Christians have a special role, excellent for bearing the message of Christ in the world. However, two great dangers threaten that presence and mission: emigration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has lasted for more than sixty years. We ask you brothers coming from all over the world to pray and work for peace in Palestine and in the Middle East. Palestine ‘s and Jerusalem ‘s peace is peace for the Middle East, for Arabs and for the whole world. Pray for us to remain here where Jesus, the Apostles, Paul and the saints lived and for us to continue to be “a sweet savior of Christ.” (II Corinthians 2:15)
  9. Yes! Let us stay together, Christians of East and West, of all Churches, sons and daughters of the one Church of Christ ! Let us stay together to bring about the Kingdom of Jesus Christ upon earth.
  10. Yes! Let us stay together, all Children of Faith, Christians and Muslims, faithful believers of East and West, to work together and build together the civilization of Peace, Love and Life in our world. Damascus will remain faithful to Saint Paul : Syria will always maintain the broad outlook of Saint Paul ‘s teachings. All we Syrian citizens, both Christian and Muslim, will continue together along the Damascus road in the steps of Saint Paul towards our encounter with Jesus. Damascus will continue to speak to the world, as does Saint Paul from Damascus.


Dear brothers and sisters,

Jesus entrusts his apostolate, his mission, to us. Saint Paul calls us today, at this closure of the celebration of his birth in Tarsus, as he once called his numerous fellow-workers, to continue the mission of Jesus risen from the dead. Jesus calls us, entrusting to each one of us the same mission that he confided to Paul on the road to Damascus, ordaining Saint Ananias, first Bishop of Damascus, to baptize Saul the persecutor, who would change into Paul and be the chosen vessel of God. “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel : for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” (Acts 9: 15-16)

Dear brothers and sisters, dear friends,

Saint Paul recommends his Epistles to us, as he did to the hearts, souls and minds of the faithful of the first Christian communities, so that his teaching may remain in your hearts. He speaks to us as he did to the faithful of Corinth when he wrote,

“Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” (II Corinthians 3: 2-3)

With the Apostle, we speak to you, at the end of this Year of Saint Paul …, who had Jesus’ heart, as Saint John Chrysostom said. Again with the Apostle, we say to you, (Philippians 4: 7-9)

“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.”

And also:

“Greet one another with an holy kiss. All the saints salute you.” (II Corinthians 13: 12-13)

And finally,

“The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand. If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema. Maranatha. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.” (I Corinthians 16: 21-24)

Gregorios III,

Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,

of Alexandria and of Jerusalem

Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain