Want to help Mideast Christians?

Then don’t forget to pray, says bishop

Christians in the western world sat helpless as they watched 21 Egyptian Christians beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “Their blood confesses Christ,” Pope Francis said in response to the atrocity in February.

Calling the murdered “martyrs,” the pope urged that the deaths stir ecumenical unity, saying, “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians!”

On May 15, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver and Maronite Catholic Bishop A. Elias Zaidan of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, 30 other clergy and 200 laity heeded the pope’s call with an ecumenical prayer breakfast to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians and rally aid.

The event was organized by Maronite Father Andre Mahanna, director of ecumenism for Our Lady of Lebanon Eparchy and pastor of St. Rafka Church in Lakewood, where the service was held.

It included a procession—with Orthodox and Lutheran bishops and pastors, a Mormon stake (deanery) president and a Baptist minister—and testimony about the plight of victimized Christians.

“Lebanon is a land of 4 million people, and over 2 million refugees,” Bishop Zaidan said about his birthplace, which borders Syria, adding that the need is overwhelming both the government and the Church.

Christian casualties in Syria, which has a population of 22.9 million, according to the United Nations, include 1.5 million displaced, more than 6,400 killed and 10,000 abductions. Entire villages have been destroyed, countless numbers of children orphaned and Christian women taken as sex slaves as ISIS expands it’s self-declared Islamic state.

Archbishop Aquila exhorted the audience to build awareness of the atrocities.

“The fact that (Christians) put their faith in Jesus Christ is the only reason (they) are being killed (by ISIS),” he said. “It’s especially important for people in the United States to speak out against this.”

Among the suggestions speakers offered is urging elected officials to take action and donating to humanitarian relief efforts.

“Never forget your (persecuted Christian) brothers and sisters,” Bishop Zaidan emphasized. “Never forget to pray for them. We underestimate the importance and power of prayer.”

The program also highlighted the heartening reunification of two refugee children from Iraq who were close friends but separated when they were uprooted from their homes. One of them, Miryam, said she forgave her aggressors the same way she and her friend, Sandra, forgive each other.

“This is the greatest story,” Father Mahanna said, translating for refugee workers Skyping from Lebanon. He said he aims to reunite the friends in person and bring them to the United States to serve as ambassadors for peace.

Carmelite Brother David Johnson, 34, a native Denverite who is a monk at St. James the Persian Monastery in Qara, Syria, shared an uplifting experience of God’s providence amidst the terrorism.

He told of being abducted from the monastery, which is surrounded by mountains filled with ISIS fighters, on Easter Monday three years ago by Syrian militia who thought he might be a spy. While being held hostage, Brother Johnson told his captors that although he is American, Jesus taught that one’s true home is with God the Father in heaven, and he sang an Easter hymn to them in Arabic.

“‘I’ve never heard that before, why don’t you sing that again,’” Brother Johnson recalled one of the soldiers saying. “So I sang again, ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’”

Drawing laughter, he added: “The guy said, ‘Let’s turn around the car. We’re taking him back to the monastery.’”

Fellow monk, Carmelite Father Daniel Maes, a 50-year priest from Belgium, stressed the importance of protecting Christianity in the lands where it started, noting that its disappearance there would bode ill for all Christians.

“When the roots of the tree are cut off,” he warned, “then the tree outside will die also.”

TO HELP

Donate: Make check payable to St. Rafka Church, mail to 2301 Wadsworth Blvd., Lakewood, CO 80214; indicate in the memo line: Middle East Refugee Aid

 

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.