SELECTED ARTICLES OF H.H. IGNATIUS ZAKKA I IWAS
"Identity of the Syrian Orthodox Church"
It would be most helpful to remind you of the identity of our Holy Church: The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the apostolic see of which was established in AD 37 by St. Peter, the chief of apostles in Antioch, the ancient capital of Syria. It is therefore, a Syrian Church. The faithful of this church are called Syrians after the name of Syria. At the dawn of Christianity members of this church were the people who had settled in upper and lower Mesopotamia and were either Jews or pagans who spoke Aramaic Syriac which was the vernacular language of ancient Syria. They were converted to Christianity through the ministry of the apostles and disciples who scattered after the martyrdom of Archdeacon St. Stephen in Jerusalem. Many of them came to Antioch to preach the Holy Gospel, and multitudes of Jews and pagans were converted to Christianity by their efforts. St. Peter consecrated two bishops for them: St. Evodios for the conversion of Gentiles and Pagans, and St. Ignatius the Illuminator for the conversion of Jews into Christianity. St. Ignatius united the two groups after St. Evodios had departed to his heavenly reward. He was the one who called the church ‘universal’ being the first to use the term as an attribute of the Church.
The Vernacular of the Syrian Church
Our venerable Syrian Fathers used their Aramaic-Syriac in preaching the Holy Gospel and were capable of ministering the Gospel of salvation in the Middle East, India, China, Ethiopia and other countries of the world using their Syriac language clearly and simply. They used this language in writing hymns, prayers and liturgical books. They also translated universal cultures into Syriac and afterwards into other various languages. Syriac has been the official and liturgical language of our church up to the present day. It is, therefore, our sacred duty to maintain it and teach it to our children. It is the holy language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ, His blessed mother the Virgin Mary and His holy apostles.
Jurisdiction of the Apostolic See of Antioch
The apostolic see of Antioch occupies a highly esteemed position in Christendom. Throughout our study of Church history over the ages, we can see that the geographical content of our church jurisdiction, as specified by the Council of Nicea (325), has gone beyond the ancient geographic borders as Syrians spread throughout the world, coming under the jurisdiction of the apostolic see of Antioch, wherever they settled or dwelled.
Active Members in the Syrian Church
An active member in the body of the Syrian Church is one who adheres to the true orthodox faith, received from our Holy Fathers and to the just doctrine specified in the three Ecumenical Councils convened in Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). He is that member who is well committed to the Syrian Orthodox tradition and loyal to the legitimate spiritual leadership of the Church.
Dear brethren, in my capacity as successor to St. Peter, the chief of the apostles, I do address you using the same words with which St. Peter addressed the strangers: "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father through sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied" (I Peter 1:2).
We, the Syrian Orthodox, are all one in our Lord Jesus Christ, one in our church which is the mystical body of Christ and one in our holy apostolic see of Antioch which represents the supreme spiritual authority in the Church. No matter how varied we are as people and as nationalities, how different the civilizations we belong to and the languages we speak, we are one in our apostolic patrimony, our religious doctrine, our Syriac language and supreme spiritual leadership. Our forefathers shed their blood for the sake of preserving these principles and securing liberty in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Meaning of Freedom
Our spiritual concept of real freedom is to live according to God's law and abide by His judgment. In other words, we follow the orthodox path by being righteous, holy and God-fearing, meanwhile adhering to the true faith and abiding by the constitution, laws and rules of the Church. We thus set a good example for the citizens in the countries wherever we live.
Church Hierarchy and the Faithful
Our Church comprises of the hierarchy and the faithful. Authority in the Church is purely religious and restricted to the hierarchy who are in charge of the Church at the authoritative, teaching and judicial levels. It is the Church that Jesus Christ referred to when addressing the apostles: "He who hears you, hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me" (Luke 10:16). It is also the Church that He referred to when addressing the person whose brother trespassed against him commending him to go and tell him his fault: “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church”. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).
The laity, on the other hand, have their role to play in the life of the Church. However, the Church is not a secular, mundane institution nor a charitable association, but a spiritual institution whose authority is derived from heaven. It is the authority of the clergy only that governs the Church on the religious, spiritual and social levels.
All the institutions within the Church must obtain their legitimacy and their right to function from the clerical authority, otherwise they shall be deemed as alien to the body of the Church and shall, therefore, be rejected, whatever purposes they might have been established for in the first place and regardless of the objectives they are trying to fulfill. They would still be considered as alien to the Church, no matter how good their means are, unless they derive their legitimacy from the spiritual leadership. Hence beware of those who attempt to break the ranks in the Church under the false pretext of unifying it.
A crucial point in the life of the Church
Our church today is at crossroads: either to go back to its pure original sources, adhere to its honorable and ancient traditions, keep pursuing its great values as characteristic of our great Fathers, or follow new theories that attempt to destroy the pillars of God's kingdom, thus creating chaos in the divine Church management.
Thanks to God Almighty for helping us reject every weird theory that is foreign to our patrimony and our glorious Church history. We do absolutely repudiate any distortion of our identity or any corruption of our precious civilized heritage. We have deep convictions that the Church established by the Lord Jesus on the solid rock of faith shall never be shaken and the gates of hell shall never subdue it. We must look forward to a better future for our Holy Church, depending on adequate and detailed studies that might serve as scheduled plans for the spiritual functioning of the Church. We must, moreover, have practical application of these plans.
Church Constitution and Enforcement
Every institution has a constitution, rules and regulations of its own. They are considered to be binding. Every constitution and every law has three basic elements: firstly, the party establishing the constitution; secondly, the party declaring it; thirdly, the party abiding by it. The constitution of our Church has been set up by the Holy Synod presided over by the Patriarch, who retains the right to amend the constitution and revise it. The Patriarch is also entitled to have it declared to all the faithful in the Church so that it becomes binding. All the faithful must obey the constitution of the Church, its laws, regulations and pronounced judgments.
Obedience to the decisions of the Holy General and Local Synods convened and presided over by the Patriarch has been inherited from our Holy Fathers. Decisions of these synods are considered as binding on the part of the Church in general. Each diocese has a board consisting of the bishop and clergy and another composed of trustees of the laity. The latter has its own by-laws, set up by the Holy Synod and confirmed by His Holiness the Patriarch for the government of its members and the regulation of its affairs. Both the board of clergy and the board of trustees have the power to set up by-laws that do not conflict with the constitution of the Church, its general law and judgments, nor with the decisions of the Holy Synods or the laws of the country where the diocese is established.
Prayer and Sacrifice
Our Lord Jesus Christ has given us the example of giving and sacrificing. It is therefore mandatory that we, in our turn, sacrifice our leisure time or rather the time we consider as greatly valuable, devoting it to the worship of God Almighty, spiritually and truthfully, never complaining of lack of time for participation in prayer with the congregation. We shall never be able to have adequate sacrifices to God Almighty if we are incapable of being generous in devoting time for prayer to God and for the Church.
It is the duty of all the hierarchy to celebrate the daily offices in the morning and evening according to the tradition of our Holy Church. They must devote their time to the glorification of God, seeking mercy from him for themselves and for the community, entrusted to them so that the Church may enjoy success, progress and prosperity.
We shall not be considered as generous and benefactors before God unless we devote our time and offer our finances and possessions as the widow did, donating the two brass pennies which were all she possessed to the temple. Likewise, local churches will not be considered as loyal to the diocese unless they fulfill their duties towards it as a whole. The dioceses, in their turn, must fulfill their duties towards the Holy Patriarchal See. As such, they will set a good example for Church unity. As true believers, we are bound to feel that we are one unified body, as tree and its branches are.
Obedience is better than Sacrifice
All followers of Jesus Christ shall endeavor to have Jesus Christ, glory be to Him, as their ideal in His obedience to His heavenly Father. Bearing in mind that the motto of the Church is the statement: "to obey is better than sacrifice" (I Samuel 15:22). It is also the duty of the local spiritual authorities to have mutual recognition according to Church laws; and the laity shall have to pay due respect to Church hierarchies so that order shall prevail everywhere in the Church.
Jesus Christ is our Ideal
Our Lord Jesus Christ is our ideal in life in His humbleness and His sympathy for people's sufferings, His sharing in their hopes, their joys and grievances, His love for little children, His discourses with young people and His forgiveness of sinners. He commanded us that we follow in His footsteps saying: "Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:29-30).
Dear brethren, you, as members of your local churches, do constitute the local congregations. You are brothers and sisters who have been called upon to follow in the Lord Jesus' footsteps wherever you are, in church, at home or at work. This would imply that each one of you shall have to work for the glory of God in proportion with the charisma God has endowed you with, making use of this gift for the benefit of the community in which you live. Each one shall have to feel committed to have those sublime virtues consolidated in their thoughts, minds and hearts in order that their life be in harmony with God's will.
Congregation and the Priest
We do urge you in our sermons to interact in your spiritual life within the congregation in which you are the living members. Share this spiritual life with your brothers and sisters so that you all become one heart and one thought with your priest whom you call "our father".
It is worth noting that what distinguishes our Holy Church from other Churches is the spiritual role to be played by the priest in the congregation. He is the spiritual father of every member of the family that belongs to this congregation. His relationship with each person must be deep and strong. The ties you maintained in your home country must be kept in the diaspora, and you must desire to preserve this spiritual bond between the priest and members of the congregation whether young or old, male or female. The Church hierarchy shall have to render their spiritual services to their spiritual children enthusiastically and zealously because these faithful are the articulate foundation stones upon which the spiritual edifice of the Church is constructed.
The Sacrament of Matrimony
In the context of our discourse about families, we are bound to say something about the sacrament of matrimony which is one of the seven holy sacraments of the Church. We are obliged to respect this sacrament whether at home or in the diaspora. We are called upon to follow the example set by our fathers in our mother countries. Our fathers observed and honored this sacrament with solemnity throughout the ages.
Bringing Children Up
The first and most important objective of the sacrament of matrimony is giving birth to children. Parents are bound to be not only the biological parents of their children, but their spiritual ones as well so that these children be born to God by grace and be heirs of His heavenly kingdom.
It is the responsibility of Church patrons and parents to cooperate in bringing these children up in a good Christian manner. For Jesus Christ highly regards children in the community, saying: "Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me" (Mark 9:37).
Youth in the Church
Young people are so dear to the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus, glory be to Him, became man, assuming thus our human nature except sin, He performed all His declared divine economy in the flesh on earth as an adult. Now Christ has keen interest in working through young people for the salvation of people. Hence, we do urge our young spiritual children to get involved in the spiritual and social activities of the Church. Solomon's words: "The first step towards wisdom is the fear of God" could serve as a reminder. Furthermore, God fearing is, in our opinion, the ultimate goal.
Women in the Church
Our Syrian Orthodox Church has granted women their religious and social rights, recognizing their merit and honoring them in the person of the Virgin Mary who conceived God incarnate in her womb and gave birth to Christ miraculously. Thus she was called Theotokos (Mother of God). It was Jesus Christ's will to reveal Himself after resurrection to women first. Some women served Him and His disciples when He was in the flesh, traveling and doing good.
It is clear that women in the Syrian Church occupy a highly elevated position as deaconesses, nuns, mothers of holy fathers and women dedicating their lives to chastity and celibacy. When women are good members in the Church of God, their children will consequently be good and virtuous. It is absolutely true that women can lend a hand for the progress of the Church and the community. They are capable of training choirs in the church and conducting Bible studies in community centers or Sunday schools, as they might be called by some in the Diaspora. They are capable of starting charitable societies to serve the orphans, widows and the poor. They can also give good advice for the progress and development of the Church community. Therefore, we urge our spiritual daughters to do their best to fulfill their duties towards serving the Church.
A World in need of Peace
One unequivocal and bitter truth is the imbalanced and unstable world of today.
Admittance of such a truth is little more than a confession that the world is nothing but the reflection of human conscience. This is not restricted to our generation, but applies
to all previous generations and those to come.
The problems encountering us, materially and spiritually, are more complicated than those faced by previous generations. In short, technology in highly civilized countries
is advancing rapidly on all levels and in different settings. The aftermath of this progress, however, is man's transformation into a dumb machine and his grave spiritual loss, thus increasing human misery on earth. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ is the remedy and the solution for our complicated problems and those created by changes imposed by modem civilization depriving man of happiness. The role of the church is to present Jesus, the King of peace, to the world. This would have a great impact on the life of modern man through this spiritual peace bestowed on him in his daily life by Christ.
What we are presently in need of is true repentance; that is spiritual renewal which would be the best impetus that might encourage us to work with full responsibility and extreme courage for creating a new world full of peace as peace is the most significant need today. We do exhort you, dear faithful, to share in our prayer to God Almighty to enlighten the minds and hearts of world leaders to work on enhancing social Justice and universal peace throughout the world.
We live in an age of ecumenical movements. The majority of Christians believe that Christian unity is the main objective, the ultimate goal and the most exalted end leading to the fulfillment of the Lord Jesus' desire in His last prayer, "that you may be one".
Needless to say, our divisions have become a stumbling block since the basis of Christian unity is the love of God and neighbor. Therefore, if we, as Christians, are incapable of loving one another, how could we be faithful witnesses to our Lord Jesus Christ? How could the fruitful real love be manifested in our daily life? In relevance to this, the Apostle Paul says: "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; ... Love never fails." (I Corinthians 13:4-8). Let us keep praying that we may love one another as members in the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church, and to love all people. Our top priority must first be the improvement of mutual relations between churches and then between believers of good will of other religions, as well as the improvement of our relations with other international communities.
Excerpts of interest from the speech delivered by His Holiness at the twenty-fifth annual Convention of the dioceses of USA and Canada, held in Los Angeles, California, 1986. Published in The Patriarchal Magazine, (January 1987).