Praying and fasting for Syria

Praying for Syria and the countries of the Middle East,
Syriac Catholic Church, Ottawa
Photo: LOR
This past Friday, in the Gospel, we are presented with the scene where the scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus, "The disciples of John the Baptist fast often and offer prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same ; but yours eat and drink." Jesus answers them, "Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days."

This text paved the way for pilgrims throughout the world to carry out the invitation of Pope Francis to pray and fast this day for peace in Syria and the countries of the Middle East. The last time a Pope called for a similar day of prayer and fasting was in 2003, when Pope John Paul II did the same before the Iraq war. The Vatican strongly opposed the US-led military actions in Iraq, and now, a decade later, Pope Francis continues to speak out against a potential military strike in the war-torn region. But why fast and pray? When we fast, we are suddenly aware once again of what is good and evil. We have a heightened awareness not only of God's goodness and of God's commandments, but of the evil that abounds in the world around us. Fasting calls us to redivert our attention back to the things of God and His commandments.

I found this image very helpful to understand why we must fast: "It seems that when I fast the world seems much more black and white, at least for a period of time. I see right and wrong much more clearly. I see good and bad, blessings and cursings, benefits and negative consequences, what is godly and what is ungodly. I am much more discerning about what lines up with God's commandments and what falls into the category of 'man's commands.' And then when I stop fasting, I am still very clear on these things, but there's also a time after I end fasting that the whole world seems more vivid and more colourful than ever before. I can distinguish tastes again. The sky seems bluer than before. The air seems crisper in the mountains. All of my senses seem to be heightened toward what is God's creation-which is always good- and what is man's invention-which very often has an element of evil to it." 

Yes, evil presents itself in so many ways and one of them is in seeping into the minds and hearts of people to convince them that war is the answer. As a sign of solidarity with the Syrian people and especially with one of our Canon Law classmates who is from Syria and ministers here in Ottawa, this evening some of us from Deschatelets went along to a time of prayer which was organised at Saint Paul Apostle Syriac Catholic Church. The Syriac Catholic Church follows a similar tradition to other Eastern Catholic Churches who use the West Syrian Rite, such as the Maronites and Syro-Malankara Christians. This rite is clearly distinct from the Greek Byzantine rite of Antioch of the Melkite Catholics and their Orthodox counterparts. It was such a blessing to be there present with our brothers and sisters from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries of the Middle East.

Before the celebration of the Divine Liturgy we prayed the decades of the Rosary in various Middle East languages as well as in English. We stayed on then for the celebration  of Qurbana Qadisha ,also  known as the “Holy Offering" or "Holy Sacrifice", referring to the Eucharist as celebrated according to the East Syrian and West Syrian traditions of Syriac Christianity. It was evident that the community appreciated our presence and made us feel very welcome, inviting us to join them afterwards for some refreshments which included lovely homemade Middle East snacks and desserts. Speaking to some of the parishioners after Divine Liturgy, I was struck with how many prevailed from Iraq and had to flee their country because of the war back in the 90’s. Their solidarity with their Syrian brothers and sisters was all the more genuine because, in the words of one man, ‘they are going through hell, and we as Iraqi people, know what that is like’.

Pope Francis at prayer during the Vigil this evening
It was estimated that 100,000 people joined the Holy Father this evening for the vigil in St. Peter’s Square, which was the main event of the day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria that he called for last Sunday, and which included recitation of the Rosary, readings from Scripture, and Eucharistic adoration. He strongly challenged us, saying: "This evening, in reflection, fasting and prayer, each of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire? Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts?" The world I desire is not one where grown men even after 20 years still tear up full of emotion as they recount to you how they were forced to leave their homelands because of the ravages of war, how their families were spread to the four corners of the world depending on where they could get a visa. We need to hear the stories of our brothers and sisters, feel their pain, stand with them and with gestures of love and solidarity assure them that we make the journey towards peace together. As the Pope said, "Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation." The full text of the Pope's discourse can be found here at the Vatican website.

The Holy Father continues: “Creation retains its beauty which fills us with awe and it remains a good work. But there is also “violence, division, disagreement, war”. This occurs when man, the summit of creation, stops contemplating beauty and goodness, and withdraws into his own selfishness. When man thinks only of himself, of his own interests and places himself in the centre, when he permits himself to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when he puts himself in God’s place, then all relationships are broken and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference, and conflict.” Sometimes we need to take time out to see the world in black and white, to see the parameters between good and evil very clearly. It is also a transition from that which lies on the surface to that which is more profound. As social media continues to advance at a rapid speed, often our maturity of our conscience does not keep pace. We are slow to express our condemnation of war, terrorism, to stand up in the name of truth and justice. It is not easy but neither was the Cross. To finish with the words of Pope Francis: “On the Cross, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken.” Let us look to the Cross and keep praying that peace will be the gift given to so many peoples who long for it.