MEETING WITH HIS BEATITUDE, PATRIARCH IGNATIUS IV; Visit to St. Gregory Orphanage and Nursing Home, Damascus, Syria - 11/15/10

Damascus, Syria

The delegation had the awesome privilege of an audience with His Beatitude, the Most Blessed Patriarch IGNATIUS IV. Sayidna JOSEPH especially waited in great anticipation to greet him and when he did, it was like he flashed back to his childhood. Sayidna is a spiritual son of the Patriarch, who nurtured him as a young student at the Balamand Seminary and Monastery starting in the early 1960s. His Grace is usually accustomed to receiving help from his subdeacons, deacons and priests, but he became the servant again as he walked the grounds with his “father.” The delegates also greeted His Beatitude and received his blessing one-by-one in the very room in which the Holy Synod of Antioch meets. The walls are adorned not just with icons, but with large portraits of the holy men who once served Antioch as its Patriarch.

Sayidna JOSEPH told His Beatitude of the wonderful trip that this delegation has experienced, full of spiritual uplifting, amazement and even tears. He said it was always his dream to lead a voyage like this, and now it came true. His Grace then said the delegates now have a better understanding of the life and role of the Church in the Middle East, and even of the complicated political situations. Sayidna JOSEPH said that he was honored to be their bishop and thankful for the ministry he leads on the West Coast.

“Even though I am your last stop,” His Beatitude said to the group, “I am so happy to see you. I am also always happy to see one of ‘my boys’ come home.” The Patriarch then carefully explained his perspective on the role of the Patriarchate in the Middle East, which especially includes the University of Balamand in Lebanon. He says that it is open to educate students of all religious or ethnic backgrounds to foster understanding and peace among them. “What we are doing is by the grace of God,” he said. “We are not second-rate, nor infallible, but we are still working very seriously. We are servants—we are open to all people, especially those who want intellectual and spiritual quality in their lives.”

His Beatitude then moved to relations between the Churches in the Middle East and the Americas. “Society here recognizes us as the first church, which means so much. Yet, we do not hear Antioch’s voice in America. We offer intellectualism in Christ that Americans crave, and we are not second-rate morally.” The Patriarch stressed that he and the bishops throughout the worldwide Antiochian communion need each other and must communicate better so that they can properly lead their flocks. His Beatitude took time to answer our questions on a wide variety of topics, from improving our spiritual lives to explaining what life was like at the Balamand in the early 1960s. Sayidna JOSEPH chimed in for that one, saying the Patriarch lived poorly as the students did (even though His Beatitude was a bishop at the time), and that His Beatitude never took a salary, choosing instead to feed his students and build dormitories and classrooms.

His Beatitude then posed for a group picture at one of his favorite places: the steps leading up to Holy Dormition Cathedral (al-Mariamiyeh). He left us to continue our tour of the Patriarchal grounds, and Sayidna JOSEPH took us to the final resting place of the Antiochian Patriarchs. Since the turn of the twentieth century, they have been entombed underneath the Cathedral altar and behind marble walls, still sitting on their thrones. This reminds the Church that these holy men are still Patriarchs, though they now serve in the Eternal Kingdom.

Later that night, we visited the St. Gregory Orphanage and Nursing Home, where we were met by its directors and supervisors. The orphans range in age from early childhood to adolescence, and dormitories house the elderly. The facility, as one can see in the photos, comes complete with modern amenities, and sits just outside the Damascus Old City walls adjacent to Holy Cross Church. The Orphanage is always looking for volunteers, especially from America, to give basic care and interaction, as well as helping to build their English skills.