Despite the horrendous loss of the Catholic youth population in the Middle East, due to death, kidnapping and other persecution leading them to emigrate abroad, the highest authority of the small Syriac Catholic Church has no doubt:
“For us, the young are the treasure, the shining present and promising future,” the Syriac-Catholic patriarch of Antioch and all the East of the Syriacs said in an interview with the Register from the Vatican, where he is attending the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.”
As a patriarch of one of the Eastern Catholic Churches, Ignace Youssif III Younan, based in Beirut, Lebanon, is an “ex officio” synodal father. He represents all the Syriac Catholic communities dispersed in different countries: Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, being the largest, followed by Turkey, the United States, Canada, France, Sweden, Venezuela, Brazil and Australia.
On Sept. 9, before traveling to Rome, he celebrated Mass at the restored Our Lady of the Assumption Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Aleppo, which was damaged by the civil war in Syria. “We will always be people of hope and life,” he said on that occasion. “Unfortunately,” he declared at the synod, “we have been forgotten, as Christians; but in spite of everything, even if Syria has undergone this unjust war for eight years, we try to give hope to all our young people. We try to make them understand that we are witnesses of Jesus even in these difficult times.”
Patriarch Younan, what are your feelings about the synod so far? How is the climate?
A synod is a time of grace, a revived Pentecost, since Jesus promised his Church a presence, “an accompaniment” till the end of time. The synod fathers are well aware and deeply concerned about the religious indifference of many young people, especially in secularized Western countries. It is a priority for the Church to go out, evangelize them and accompany them to Jesus.
Many contributions to the synod have underlined that the young generations, in many countries, have turned their back on the Church and the faith. What have you seen or heard in this synod that gives you hope about the future of the Church?
The young generations, striving at one point to know Jesus as their best friend and Savior, need spiritual guidance from the Church mater and magistra. This mission should be done by priests, as mentors and educators, who are authentic and happy, to reveal the true face of Christ. The synod recognizes, however, there is a lot to do in order to reach such a goal “... Pray, therefore, the Lord of the harvest, to send laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38).
What “voice” are you giving to your young people? And what best practices have you seen here, from other fellow bishops, which you will bring back with you?
The bishops must listen to understand the young generations, to be able to interpret their grievances and aspirations. They should recognize, as well, their failures and ask forgiveness for abuses and marginalization. It is time that the whole Church acts to inspire courage, hope and self-confidence in the youth. Personal encounters with the youth, forums that gather them at diocesan and national levels and other educational and spiritual means would help the young people to be witnesses of Jesus’ salvation to the postmodern time of ours.
You come from the Middle East, where very often it is not easy for young people to be Christian: wars, persecution, discrimination, being a small minority. … Many young people are tempted to migrate to other countries, with the risk of losing their cultural and religious identity. What message do you hope this synod will bring them?
Because of religious persecutions targeting Christian minorities in various Middle-Eastern countries and the ongoing violent upheavals in Syria and Iraq, our Churches lost hundreds of thousands in the past few years. The losses among our young population are horrendous ones: death, kidnapping and, most of all, the uprooting with the resulting exodus to seek religious freedom and human dignity across seas and oceans. Our biggest challenge is how we can convince the remaining young people to keep rooted in the homeland, witnessing love to Our Lord, Jesus, despite all of the horrifying situations that spread chaos and hatred in the region.
We will focus on apostolic movements that are suitable to the young generation’s nature, needs and aspirations. For that goal, we will invest all we can, to accompany them at the parish, diocesan and regional level, as we did for organizing the Syriac International Youth Convention (SIYC) last July in Lebanon. For us, the youth are the treasure, the shining present and promising future.
Register correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.