“Let us work together to replace despair with HOPE, fear with human SECURITY and humiliation with DIGNITY”

Pastoral Letter of His Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah

“the time of my departure has come… I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”. (2 Tim 4:6.7)

“the time of my departure has come…
I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”. (2 Tim 4:6.7)


To my Brothers Bishops, to the Priests,
To the Men and Women Religious, to the Deacons,
and all the beloved Faithful

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1:3)

I am writing this letter to you as I am approaching the end of my patriarchal ministry and as we approach Easter together. Lent is always an opportunity for renewal and return to God, and Easter invites us to die in Christ in order to live again in him. I wish you all a Lent of graces and of new life before God, for your own good and for the good of all whom you serve. I wish you an Easter that will make each of you “the new man”, redeemed and reconciled with God and with human beings.
I am writing you this last pastoral letter in order to give thanks to God and to express my gratitude towards all of you. In this letter, I would also like to outline the main characteristics in the life of the believer in this holy land, in the diocese and in all of society.
On March 19, 2008, I shall reach the age of 75, the age of retirement according to the Church’s tradition. I am placing my mission into the hands of the Holy Father, who entrusted me with it 20 years ago, with a feeling of gratitude for the trust I was given. I thank the Lord for all the graces that he granted me during the whole time of my ministry as patriarch and as priest. With Saint Paul, I can say that “the time of my departure has come… I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:6.7), even though my race is not yet entirely finished and the end remains in God’s time. By retiring, I am freed of the administrative responsibilities, but I shall continue my prayer and my journey in God’s mystery in this holy land. I shall continue to accompany the sufferings and the hopes of the men and women of this land, of all the believers, of all religions, who dwell in it.
I thank the Lord for every human person whom I have encountered during this time, those from this Holy Land and those who came from many Churches throughout the world. Because the Church of Jerusalem is the Mother Church, because she is small and faces many difficulties, and because she is always on the Cross, the number of messages of solidarity, as well as pilgrims from all the Churches, were countless, and first of all from the Church of Rome and the Holy Father, who in many circumstances expressed his love, his solidarity, and his steadfast positions, where this land, its Churches and its two peoples are concerned. The pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II in the year 2000 was the crowning of the Catholic Churches’ presence among us. We hope that the next pilgrimage of H.H. Pope Benedict XVI will renew hope in this land and will give the Churches, all the believers of all religions, as well as the political leaders in this land, a new vision of forgiveness, justice, reconciliation, and peace. There were also many delegations and ecumenical pilgrimages from various countries, and at their head the World Council of Churches. They came to be informed as regards our news, to listen to us, and by means of their faith and love, to strengthen our faith.
Since 1998, with the approval of the Holy See, an annual meeting during the month of January brought together the Presidents of the world’s Bishops Conferences or their representatives, who came to pray and to reflect in Jerusalem, together with the whole Church of Jerusalem, on all the aspects of our Church’s life, its pastoral, political and social life. Today, I want to express my gratitude to all.

A Look at my Patriarchal Ministry

1. I thank all the men and women who gave themselves in the service of the diocese, first of all the Apostolic Delegates and Nuncios who represented the Holy Father, my Coadjutor Bishop, the Auxiliary Bishops and General Vicars in Jerusalem, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, for the Hebrew-speaking Community, and in Cyprus. I thank all the priests and the employees who gave me their direct help in the various curial offices. I thank the parish priests, each one of them for his fidelity and his devotedness towards his parish. Together, we endeavored to work in the Lord’s vineyard which the Church entrusted to us.
I especially thank the group of priests from the Patriarchate and the various religious congregations who for 20 years remained faithful to the meetings of the theological commission, in accompanying the events of public life in this land by their prayer and their reflection, and who contributed towards defining the Church’s position here, above all as regards the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which does not cease to mark the life of the diocese in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. With that commission, I could write my pastoral letters. I thank them and ask God to reward them.
I greet all the faithful in all parts of the diocese. I thank them for their prayer and their love during the time of my ministry. For all I implore the Lord’s abundant graces. I greet the Hebrew-speaking community. I accompany it with my prayers and I wish it growth in the faith God wants for it, so that it might be a witness to Jesus in the Israeli society and that, with the whole Church of the Holy Land in the political conflict that is tearing it apart, it might be an agent of reconciliation based on forgiveness, justice, peace and equality among all.

At the Service of the universal Church
2. I thank all the men and women who, in the Church of Jerusalem and in its name, were able to fulfill the ministry owed to the universal church: the Biblical Institutes, the centers for continuing formation, as well as the seminaries which, alongside of our own patriarchal diocesan seminary, formed priests here for the universal and the local Church.
Welcoming the pilgrims from the Churches of the world is also an important ministry, which a large number of religious houses fulfill. This ministry needs to be developed so that the pilgrimage might be at one and the same time a way of sanctification for the pilgrim when he or she comes into contact with the divine mystery that the Holy Places conserve, and also a time when the pilgrim becomes aware of the human presence in this country, of every religion, and above all of the presence and life of the Christian community that surrounds the holy places with its living faith.

The Custody of the Holy Land
3. From among the religious orders and congregations present, that of the Custody of the Holy Land has been here the longest and is the most meritorious. By their prayer and their daily witness, the Franciscan religious have remained in this land since the 13th century. They served the Holy Places and welcomed the pilgrims throughout the centuries. In 1342, the Holy See formally entrusted them with this task. From the beginning, they have served the local population, created parishes and opened schools that exist to this day. We can only thank them and acknowledge the good they have done for men and women of every religion in this land in the shrines, in the parish churches, in the schools, and in their social work. In that area too, along with the immensely good things that exist, there is a need for renewal, for better insertion in the diocese, and for a dialogue that remains to be carried out with the diocese in order to be better “incarnated” in the Church of God which they serve.

The Men and Women Religious
4. I thank all the religious, men and women. Their presence in our diocese fulfills an important role. Some are directly involved in the parishes, in pastoral activity, in the schools or in social work. Others, by their vocation, are at the service of the universal Church, as was already said: in Jerusalem’s world famous Biblical Institutes, in the centers for ongoing formation, and in welcoming and accompanying pilgrims coming from all the Churches. However, with the universal vocation of all of these institutions, part of their spiritual and intellectual wealth has a local aspect and benefits all the dioceses of the Church of Jerusalem.
The contemplative monasteries for men or women are a blessing for the dioceses and for the country. They are high places of prayer. They must become more and more places of formation to prayer, a prayer that deepens and strengthens the faith of the faithful and teaches them to serve their society better and to be more faithful to it.

The Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher
of Jerusalem
5. I thank the Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, the Grand Master, the Governor General and all the Lieutenants whom I have known during these past twenty years, for their love and support of the Patriarchate, of its clergy and of all its works and its faithful. Pope Pius IX wanted to renew the Order when the Jerusalem Patriarchate was re-established, so that it might give spiritual and material support to the new diocese. In 1848, he entrusted its re-organization to the first Patriarch, Joseph Valerga. Since then, from generation to generation until this day, the Order has never ceased to fulfill its mission for the Patriarchate. I thank all the members and those responsible for the Order, and I implore God’s grace and blessing upon them.

Pastoral Life
6. The pastoral work in our diocese is marked above all by the Holy Places and the Gospel that was revealed and written here. Our catechesis is at one and the same time a continuation and a daily rediscovery of the gospel. We have the grace of living around the holy places and of being permanent pilgrims here. Helping people every day to rediscover the gospel that we have received and to fashion our life according to the teachings of Jesus, that is the evangelization carried out by the priests, the religious, men and women, in this land. It is true that in our land and our parishes, everyone believes. All the Christians know Jesus Christ. But not all know his gospel well enough or feel the need to meditate it and to penetrate their life with it. The parish priests and the religious, men and women, have the obligation to guide the Christians along this way so as to transform their daily life into a living gospel.
During this past period, the diocese’s pastoral life was marked above all by the Synod of the Catholic Churches in the Holy Land, which began in 1993 and ended in the year 2000 with the visit of Pope John Paul II. It was an endeavor towards a new beginning in the Church that was animated above all by the faith, the vision and breath of Mgr. Rafiq Khoury, who was and is still responsible for the pastoral work and catechesis in the diocese. It was not an isolated endeavor but happened rather in collaboration with all the Catholic Churches in the Holy Land. It didn’t bear all the fruit it could have borne, but something new did come about in our dioceses. A common pastoral plan was its fruit, and a Catholic Pastoral Committee including the various rites was created, made up of 72 persons, priests, men and women religious and lay faithful who represented all of our Latin, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian and Chaldean dioceses in the three countries Palestine, Israel and Jordan. They have the task of studying the ways in which the common pastoral plan could be lived in our various dioceses.
We must also note two important facts that came to light with the synod. The first are the committed lay people who, together with the clergy, are able to take on responsibility in the Church; and the second is the new spirit of communion between the Churches together with the desire to continue working together as Church. That is why, in addition to the common Pastoral Plan and the pastoral committee made up of people from the different rites, a presbyteral council, from the various rites, was set up, and we have begun to have an annual spiritual retreat that includes all the rites for all the priests in our dioceses; every year, it takes place during the first week of July. Simultaneously with the Synod, the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land was created. It strengthened the spirit of communion and collaboration among us.
Among the initiatives that also gave new life to the diocese, we must mention the catechetical commissions that were organized with greater efficiency in Jerusalem and Amman. In addition to the liturgical books that had already been published in the diocese, the liturgical commission printed an Arab translation of the daily missal and the breviary. As for Amman, Jordan, special mention must be made of the ReginaPacis Center, set up by Mgr. Selim Sayegh for people with special needs. Around this service, an important Muslim-Christian life dialogue developed in the various cities of Jordan. It is also a center for young people and for spiritual retreats as well as various sessions. Another project is in the process of developing in Jordan: a Catholic university of which the cornerstone will be laid soon, I hope. Of course there were many other pastoral initiatives taken by the parish priests and the bishops, which God supported and will support with his grace.
At the regional level, the CELRA (Conférence des Evêques Latins dans les Régions Arabes)

[Conference of Latin Bishops in the Arab Regions], founded already in 1965 immediately after the Second Vatican Council, continued its work. A new collaboration began with the Council of Catholic Patriarchs in the Orient (CPCO), which in 1991 began to hold an annual meeting, and which has already written nine pastoral letters to the faithful on the main themes concerning Christian life in itself and the relations of Christians with religions and States.

Ecumenical Life
7. Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples. He foresaw the difficulty of the mission he was entrusting to them. That is why he prayed: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (Jn 17:11) A prayer that always accompanies us and that remains a commandment given to the Churches, to the bishops and to the faithful, “so that they may be one as we are one”. A prayer that expresses his will. To be one as he and the Father are one, is an imperative and theologal obligation. That is why, even if our jurisdictions prevent us from uniting, our love for one another can merit us the grace of communicating in truth and through it of becoming a sign and a source of unity for the peoples of the Holy Land.
In Jerusalem, we are 13 different and separate Churches. There were frequent, almost monthly meetings with the Patriarchs and the Bishops of the various Churches of Jerusalem, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, and through these more fraternity and mutual help developed between our communities. In the year 2000, we could live a moment of unity by launching the beginning of the 3rd millennium together on Nativity Square; this was accom-panied by an ecumenical pastoral letter signed by the 13 heads of the Churches of Jerusalem. Among the many documents signed by all of us, and in addition to the common messages sent to our faithful and to the world at Easter and Christmas, the two documents on the status of Jerusalem should also be mentioned; the first was in November 1993 and the second in September 2006.
The goal of our meetings and our common declarations was to act for the good of all the Christians of every rite, above all in the areas of peace and justice, in the difficult circumstances of the conflict that everyone is living. Here, I would like to express my gratitude and my friendship to all my brother Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches of Jerusalem for their friendship and their collaboration during the whole time we spent together since the beginning of my patriarchate.
At the level of the Christian Churches, in 1990 the Catholic Churches in the region became members of the Council of Churches in the Middle East, which never ceases to create a place of fraternity, of encounter and of collaboration among all the heads of Churches in the Middle East and through them, among the 15 million Arab Christians in the region.
Together with the World Council of Churches, the whole Church of Jerusalem with its 13 communities, developed a particular link and a fruitful collaboration in the area of justice and peace in the Holy Land and in the region. It first succeeded in setting up the Accompaniment Program, with volunteers coming from all the Churches of the world to collaborate with the Israelis and the Palestinians in the conflict, and to accompany the Palestinians in places of confrontation and where their freedom was limited. Secondly, it helped to create a permanent bureau in Jerusalem for the development of ecumenical relations between the Christian communities.

The Holy Land’s universal Vocation
8. The Holy Land is a land with a universal vocation. God wanted it thus, since he wanted to manifest himself here not only to one people, but to the whole of humankind. Still today, this land certainly belongs to all its inhabitants, but also to the whole of humankind. This is true at the political level for the two peoples who live in it, Israelis and Palestinians, and for all the believers, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druzes. But this is also true of the pastoral activity of all our patriarchal diocese, which I served over the past years. The pastoral activity and the prayer of the parish priest, the religious, man and woman, and the lay person do not stop at the parish boundaries; rather, each person must always have in mind the whole diocese, the whole country with all its inhabitants, and the whole world, which the Lord wanted to save in our land.

The Christian Vocation in the Holy Land

The small Number
9. The Christians are few in number in this Holy Land and in the Church of Jerusalem. That is not only the result of historical or social circumstances. This reality is linked directly to the mystery of Jesus in this land. 2000 years ago, Jesus came here and with his apostles, his disciples and the small number of faithful who believed in him, he also remained few in number. Today, 2000 years later, Jesus remains in the same situation of “not being recognized” in his land; and Jerusalem, the city of redemption and the source of peace for the world, remains a city that has not yet welcomed redemption and that has not yet found its peace. And in this situation, the Christians are a small number of witnesses to Jesus in his land.
To be small in this land is simply to live as Jesus lived here. That does not mean having a diminished life on the margins or a life made up of fear and perplexity. We know why we are small, and we know what place we should occupy in our society and in the world. We are part of the mystery of Jesus and we remain with him on Calvary, strong and supported by the hope and the joy of the Resurrection, which are to be lived and shared with all. Jesus told us that the mustard seed is small, but it grows and becomes a tree, and “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mt 13:31-32).
To be small, Jerusalem being the city of redemption and of peace for the world, not for itself – this is what determines the vocation of every Christian in this Holy Land: a vocation to be a witness, a vocation to a difficult life, today because of the political conflict, and tomorrow because the Christian’s life will remain a permanent battle in order to be good salt, useful leaven, a light in society and a redemption that is fulfilled day by day in the mystery of God.
Every society counts on the number of its citizens, its soldiers, and on the quantity of its weapons. We Christians, with or without numbers, count first of all on the faith of each one of us. Jesus says: with faith you can move mountains. The State says: with technology, with a quantity of weapons and of men, it can submit the earth, open roads and level mountains, but it remains incapable of finding peace. As for us, we keep meditating on the word of Jesus: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20-21) That is why, while respecting all the useful human means, we try to strengthen and increase our faith in Him in whom we have believed.
The small number of Christians must be compensated first of all by faith, and secondly by the formation that makes each Christian necessary in constructing or reconstructing his and her country; and finally by each Christian becoming aware of his and her responsibility in society and the need for him and her to share all the sacrifices required to construct or reconstruct. This Christian formation is a responsibility of the whole community, not only of those who are the leaders in the Church, for in a community of believers, each person is concerned about each person.
In addition to the formal institutions of formation in the Church – the various institutions for teaching, for religious education, the various apostolic movements for formation and the many lay organizations of a social nature – some faithful, clergy or lay people, have begun to pay particular attention to this formation, which makes the Christian capable of assuming his and her responsibilities in society, in spite of the small numbers. Here, the important work done in this area by the University of Bethlehem in general, and in the department for religious studies in particular, must be mentioned. Along with the university, we should mention various other centers: the Sabeel center, which analyzes and gives a Christian vision of the present political situation, the Al-Liqa’ center for interfaith dialogue, the Laity Committee, which invites lay people to become aware of their responsibility as Christians in public life, the group of young people known as Wusul, which has set itself the goal of establishing a link by electronic means among the Arab Christians scattered throughout the world, the Sunday lay catechetical group in Jordan, and the HCEF, Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, of which the first goal at the time of its foundation was to gather together the emigrants and by their thought, their activity and their means to make them present in the land of the Lord, so that they might remain witnesses to Jesus in his land, in spite of the distances, and that they might contribute to the construction of their homelands.

Christians in Society
10. A Christian must accept himself as Christian. What does that mean? It means to accept the whole gospel of Jesus Christ, the Eternal, Incarnate Word of God, and to live one’s daily life, whether it be easy or difficult, in the light of this mystery, which the society to which we are sent considers to be impossible.
To be a Christian means simply to know one’s faith, one’s holy books, one’s tradition and the Church’s teaching; it is to know in whom and in what one believes. It is to know and to live Christian morality; it is to pray, it is to live the life of the sacraments, above all the Eucharist, and to take care that those prayers and that sacramental life be not only formal acts and nothing but appearances, that they not even be moments of prayer that isolate the Christian from society, but rather to know that those prayers and the life of the sacraments are a source of energy that is always renewed, that “sends” the Christian into society to serve it together with those who are there, whatever their religion might be.
With all that, to be a Christian means to bring a vision of faith to all events. It is to see God’s providence and God’s solicitude for all and to remember the Word of Jesus: “Not a hair of your head will perish without the permission of your Father who is in heaven.” (cf. Lk 21:18) In the light of this vision that unites God and human beings, the Christian defines his or her positions both as service and love and as a claim for rights. A vision that will give the Christian the wisdom and courage to act in the face of difficulties and of the various forms of oppression coming from human beings. The Christian will not become discouraged, but will persevere in resisting every form of oppression and violence, and in every activity in whatever area to which God has called him or her.
To be a Christian is to live the commandment of love in the midst of one’s own community, but also with all human beings. To love is first of all to see the face of God in every human person, no matter what his or her religion or nationality might be, no matter how good or bad the feelings that person bears towards me or towards others. For he or she is the creation of the one and only God. That person is the child of God. He or she carries within him- or herself the glory of God. His and her dignity comes from the dignity of God. That is why love transforms every action with human beings into an action with God, the Creator of all.
That is also why Jesus said: love everyone and do not exclude anyone, not even the enemy. For he did not tell us: love friendship and the friend. On the contrary, where this is concerned he said: “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Mt 5:46) He also did not say: love the evil in the enemy or the oppression that he is imposing on you. Rather, he said: love God in every human person, for that person is God’s creature. It is God whom we love in the friend or the enemy. When we love, we are imitating God in his love for all his creatures. That love strengthens our fidelity to our love of the friend and gives us the strength to face the evil in the enemy and even the strength to end it. Such a love is stronger than violence or any other material means to which the victim has recourse, so that it can drive back the hostility and end the oppression that is exerted over him or her.
As a result of this, love also means to forgive. To forgive is to purify one’s heart of bitterness, of hatred and of the fire of revenge; it does not necessarily mean to abandon one’s rights, especially when these concern the rights of the community, such as freedom, land and sovereignty. These are matters over which the individual does not have the right to decide, for first of all, these rights are a gift of God which we must preserve, and secondly, we have these are rights of all community, and the believer does not betray his or her community when the latter demands its legitimate rights. On the contrary, the believer acts together with the community in order to support it in the defense of its rights or in the necessary effort to regain these.
Finally, love is sharing and communion. In our faith communities up until now, we have been acquainted with charity in the form of alms or even of generous donations. This form is good, but we must go beyond it so that charity becomes sharing and communion. That means that each person in a community of believers is concerned with each person as with his or her own family. That is why the community endeavors to procure for each of its members a life that frees him or her from every need, a life that is dignified at the spiritual and the material level, following the example of the Christians of the first Church in Jerusalem as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:42-46; 4:32-34).
In order to remain, to grow and to act here in this Holy Land, as in all the countries of the Middle East, the Christians must accept themselves as such, that is to say, as believing Christians and not solely as a community that is different from the others or as a separate social group because it is a religious group that is different from the others. And naturally, the Christian’s vocation does not consist in entering into battle with society or in becoming resigned in the face of the injustices or the various forms of oppression. On the other hand, the Christian is not allowed to place him- or herself at the margin of society saying: “The country no longer belongs to me, others look after it and bear responsibility for it.” An authentic Christian knows that he or she is part of society and that he or she has to face the challenges and to bear responsibility for it together with all the members of society.
The Christian who takes part in public life is also not allowed to put his or her faith aside, to become empty of the spiritual energies that God has given him and her as a Christian, claiming to fulfill his or her obligations in the public, economic and social domain more freely. That became apparent during certain periods in the history of the Arab world, during which the Arab Christians made a very important contribution and during which some abandoned their Christian values or even their faith. Still today, that partial or total abandonment has not ceased to be visible among some, with the pretext of avoiding fanaticism and of not arousing religious sensitivities unnecessarily. It is certainly not asked of Christians that they transform their faith into fanatical and provocative attitudes. But the Christian is called to enrich society with the gifts and sources of spiritual energy that he or she has received. Society itself demands this of the Christian; otherwise, why does the Christian remain different, if his and her different faith brings nothing new to society?

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2016-10-24T07:28:16+00:00 March 21st, 2008|Categories: News|