Pleading for peace in Syria

Vigils worldwide seek end to Syrian violence

As politicians in Washington continue to debate a U.S. military strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Catholic voices in Denver and abroad grew louder about the dire consequences, culminating in a global vigil for peace.

Pope Francis called a military solution to Syria “futile” and petitioned faithful to a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world. He led a vigil Sept. 7 before some 100,000 in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

In Denver, Archbishop Samuel Aquila led a five-hour prayer vigil amid an accelerating tempo of pressure toward military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is accused of using sarin gas to kill more than 1,400 people in August.

The archbishop echoed the pope in condemning the use of chemical weapons and the importance of seeking peace first.

“Should a strike take place against Syria, it will be very easy for the entire tinderbox of the Middle East go up in flames, creating perhaps another world war,” he told faithful gathered for the vigil at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. “It is important for us to understand the complexity of the situation, but more important yet is our prayer, joining our hearts and minds with all Catholics throughout the world.”

The vigil was punctuated with Benediction, song, reciting the rosary and periods of silence. Parishioners came from across the diocese and filled the 800-seat Cathedral Basilica to dedicate an hour to prayer. Others, like Regis University and St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Denver, held their own vigils.

Alex and Elisabeth Kilates of the Cathedral Basilica said they came to pray for Syrians.

“We’re part of the mystical body of Christ,” Alex said. “It’s not about whether or not we’re going to go as a country to attack the Syrian government.

It’s really about the people and their suffering and praying for them.”

Shirley Montoya of the Cathedral Basilica said it’s important for Christians to pray, fast and “just keep love in our hearts.”

Engulfed in strife

Debate on a response to Syria arose as confl ict in the country escalated.

Tensions in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the two major denominations of Islam, were amplified under the Syrian regime of President Assad and his family. Assad, a part of the minority Alawite clan of Shia Muslims, faced rebellions from disgruntled Sunnis and other Syrians. Some are religiously opposed to his regime, others want political change.

Then civil war erupted in 2011. Some 100,000 people were killed, 4 million were driven from their homes and 2 million fled. Recent evidence of chemical weapons caused the world to take notice. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called its use crossing a “red line for the world.”

U.S. bishops joined to condemn the violence in a letter to Congress Sept. 5. They wrote their concern is on the “humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria and on saving lives by ending the conflict, not fueling it.”

Locally, experts say it’s the alliances in the Middle East that make a strike risky. If Syria is hit, its allies Iran and the Hezbollah, a terrorist Shiite organization in south Lebanon, are expected to come to their aid. These allies also threaten to strike Israel.

“The problem is that we could have a domino effect,” said André Villeneuve, a professor of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, who lived in Israel for 12 years. “Syria is saying they’re going to attack Israel if the U.S. attacks them. The threat of a third world war is not exaggerated. That’s why we need a lot of prudence and certainly a lot of prayer.”

Spreading peace In solidarity with the pontiff, churches and dioceses worldwide held vigils for peace. Before the vigil in Rome, Catholic leaders met to draft a letter titled “People for peace in Syria” addressed to Congress.

Father Andre Mahanna of St. Rafka Maronite Church in Lakewood was among the writers. He said the letter urges a full understanding of Syria and peaceable solutions.

“The government should always take into consideration the perspective of the Church for it communicates closely with people, and it knows the reality of their problems and does offer solutions,” he said.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash