Letter to the friends of Deir Mar Musa December 2005


with an article of F. Paolo: « We are all cardinals »


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Dear friends, at the end of 2005, a year in no way insignificant from all points of view, the monastic Community of Khalil (Abraham, the friend of God) would like to wish you with all its heart a happy and peaceful Christmas and a 2006 which will for a long time be known as a good year. We have recently celebrated with our Muslim friends the feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and probably, this letter will reach you in time to wish you a happy celebration at the feast of the sacrifice of Abraham (the Muslim’s feast of Ada) that concludes the great pilgrimage to Mecca.


The Community

At the level of the monastic Community, it is important to note various things. The constitution of the Community is waiting in Rome for the approval of the Holy See after the first round of observations and responses. This dossier in effect is all one with that of the theological discussion of this ideas of Father Paolo regarding the Islamic-Christian dialog The big changes in Rome in spring 2005 have held things up but we are pleased with the enormous advantages of having a pope who is personally informed in our matters. We ask for the prayers of all our friends for the deepening of our way in the Church in its commitment and clarity. It may become necessary to have your witness, especially of believers, in a relation to the role that our Community has been able to play in your journey of faith in today’s world. In effect, we are at a special stage of discernment that will lead with the help of God to the consolidated foundation of our Community.

Charles de Foucauld

The beatification on November 13th in Rome of Father Charles de Foucauld was a very important sign since we considered him one of the sources of our spiritual identity. Louis Massignon, the great researcher in a field of mystic Islam, is recognized as the most direct heir of Brother Charles of Jesus and he is indeed for us a great teacher and true source of inspiration. For the beatification, Brother Jack and Boutros made the journey to Rome where they joined the group of our theology students at the Gregorian University – Huda, Jens and Jihad. Meanwhile here at Deir Mar Musa, a good group of friends including two Little Brothers of Jesus (a congregation directly inspired by the spirituality of Foucauld) met together to pray on this occasion. Thus we also inaugurated the satellite antenna to follow the ceremony live on the big screen in the new hall (named after Mary Khalil) at Deir el-Hayek. The following week the Little Sisters of Jesus brought together all those interested at Seydnaya, not far from Damascus, for a vigil of celebration. Our Community was well represented and we all felt that Brother Charles was caring for us.

The monks and companions on the path

A young person of Damascus, Khouloud, 27, from a Byzantine family tradition and who has spend long periods with us over two years, joined the novitiate in September 2005. We wish her well.

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A young farmer, Youssef, 31, from the Aramaic village of Maaloula, not far from here, is with us for six months as a postulant.

Recently we have received two more postulants, Rita, a Byzantine Syrian, 25, and Daniel who has just finished his military service, a Maronite, 23, he has wanted to join the Community for several years.

Other people from other parts of the world take a serious interest in our life. Pray for all of us.

Our Frederic has left the novitiate after three years at Deir Mar Musa. We thank him for all that he has so generously done, for our common mission (and not only the bees). We hope to stay the best of friends and to collaborate with the family that it seems he will form with our friend Stephanie, an American researcher in the field a Islamic-Christian relations and who in her turn has not been indifferent to the fascination of Mar Musa.

Tim, an English man, 40, PhD in sociology, spen nine months in a cave renewing the local hermit tradition, he would come down on Sunday for mass and to pass the day with us and to restock provisions. He finished his hermit period at Christmas and left at New Year for England. We are grateful to him for his witness of the spiritual value of solitude and the efficacy of prayer of intercession.

An American, about 30, would like to take his place, in a hermitage. We shall see!

Izmi, a Japanese musician left after several weeks with us to visit her family, but she left her violin in the church.

Four French’s speakers have just finished their month of spiritual exercises, Raphael 24, was baptized on Christmas night, Diane, continues her stay as a volunteer agrarian engineer, Raymond, used well the hermitage on the mountains where he helped a lot in agriculture work, and Tiphaine, is giving us a hand for six months before going on to India.

Our friend, Guyonne, who followed the month of the exercises three years ago was here the whole of June to record conversations with Father Paolo about both his personal story and that of the Community and the principal ideas of his commitments. All this has become a book which we worked on together at the beginning of October and which will be published by Albin Michel, Paris, in March. Good reading, for those who know French.


The stay of the family of Claude, Mathilde and Iona at Qaryatayn, has come to an end. This in no way to prevents us from considering this experience of the closeness of a young family to our Community as positive. It has made us reflect more on the role of monastic life and of the laity, and on a ways of possible collaboration between people committed to the same priorities.

In 2006, the successful collaboration of two French volunteers will come to an end, Diane (agriculture, environment, sustainable development) and Eglantine (library and international secretariat). This two-year experience has been shown as positive and we hope to have others candidates to follow on.

In this period, in which the majority of our Community is engaged in study, we literally cannot manage without the presence of volunteers and locally workers. We must add that this develops in us the wish and awareness to associate, religious and lay together, in a relationship of authentic participation centered on common objectives.

On August the 30th, Abdo was born, son of Mehyar, our informatics expert. It is with great joy that he has taken on the name of Abou Abdo, father of Abdo.

The question of the distribution of our forces is uppermost for us, since, on one hand, the flow of visitors to Deir Mar Musa, which risks becoming exponential, represents a real problem of hospitality and guidance. Yet, on the other hand, we are not putting aside plans for a new foundation in other Muslim country. Brother Jens will be in Iran for the month of July to study the language. Father Paolo dreams of a sabbatical year also to apply himself to Persian.


At Qaryatayn, the archaeological excavations are at a bit of a standstill but we hope to restart with enthusiasm in summer. In the meantime we have been able to carry out the essentials for the East wing of the new construction. This has a pleasant look and it harmonizes well with the more ancient part. In September 2005, we started the reconstruction of the church of 932 which we had previously taken down during the archaeological program of 2004. The stones, carefully numbered, found their places again. Marwan Qassis, who is dealing with this, had already acquired good experience at Deir Mar Musa.

From the agriculture point of view, there has been a practical work of planting medicinal and aromatic herbs. The boutique of Deir Mar Musa will have to see to their sale… Also the olives program is proceeding better. Father Jack maintains that not enough has been done yet for the economic development of the town. An important state organization in the fight against desertification is collaborating with the parish in various ways in the improvement of pasture-land in the vast land of the monastery of Mar Elian.

The evolution of such matters leads us to imagine that in the long term, the monastery of Mar Elian can have a more incisive role in relation to monastic life where the apostolic service of hospitality is very present. Without knowing precisely where this is taking us, up to now our responsibility to Deir Mar Elian is growing and the dialog with our bishop, Mons. Georges Kassab, is developing in this way.

Deir Mar Musa

The library

In the architectural program of the ancient part of the monastery, the building has just finished of the new reading room of the library with internal access. The bookshelves are still to be built. Here we must thank the Foundation Giorgio Orsieri for its help. The French Institute of Arabic Studies in Damascus also deserves our thanks for their offer of prestigious publications.

The library today is an institution in crisis. Informatics makes out that the importance of the book as a paper object is no longer what it was in the past. Opinions on the future of the book go in many directions. Is it possible that ours is the last generation to need paper? In fact, we print our emails to read them at our leisure but the younger generation do not do this. I discuss this with Eglantine, our French volunteer librarian. In effect, keeping paper documents which concern our priority issues, ordered in a way that makes consultation easy, greatly assists research. Moreover, a society in which every one has his own lap-top (there are also those who think of implanting one as an extra organ) and thus in connection with Internet night and day, is not, I believe, something that will happen tomorrow and certainly not for everyone. It is true that the paper book increasingly becomes an emotional object, a symbol, at times a work of art, a way of making contact with an other person and his world. In this sense, when a book passes through your hands, that you think might say something to us, tell us about it or, even better, bring it with you on your next visit. Not just a few have already done this and thus our library becomes a testament of friendship and also a vast and diversified field, as much semantic as relational. This in no way stops us from developing the informatics dimension and, when we have more telephone lines, the research by Internet will proceed side by side with research on the bookshelves.

Deir el-Hayek, the new goat farm and the boutique.

The big project of the new monastery el-Hayek is developing slowly because our work force also gets engaged on other fronts.

Following the declaration of the Park, we have had to move our flock of goats to a new farmhouse built on the site of the old garage two kilometers west of the monastery, not far from the hermitage. A second floor has been added to the garage; there is a new sheepfold and a beautiful gate in wrought iron from the Jesuit convent at Homs. We have bought some new goats of a milking breed typical of Mount Hermon, and we hope to see an improved dairy production.

Above the new garage to the East of the monastery, next to the car park, a new boutique is under construction. Its role will first be to receive visitors especially in a period when the tourist flow is very heavy.

At Deir el-Hayek, we are at the level of the ancient hermit cave and this floor will be the chapel of this building. There is a wide terrace with a beautiful portico that will be a great joy to contemplatives because of its magnificent view of the valley. Practically all the rooms already built, about ten, are almost constantly occupied. Therefore the construction of the individual rooms is of paramount importance to the project, once the work of tiling the kitchen and big hall is completed. According to our program, this construction, in addition to providing space suitable for the female members of the monastic Community, will provide space for spiritual activity, as for example, the spiritual exercises, the biblical and theological courses, and seminars of more developed dialog

Deir al-Hayek2005:07:07


At Cori, the residence of our students, south of Rome, the big news is that Sister Huda has moved from the annex house to the church of San Salvatore. Very heartfelt thanks must be given here to Father Don Ottaviano and all the parish Community who have accepted us with a remarkable evangelical spirit. Some of our neighbours in Cori have visited us here in Syria and our friendship grows. Our hope is that the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome, may set up a didactic site in a church of San Salvatore to carry out the restoration of the interior and the decoration. Meanwhile little by little, we are restoring the house and Sister Huda is very happy to be able to receive her women friends at home.

In February, the novice Dima will join her for the study of Italian until the summer. After her vows (God willing in September at Deir Mar Musa) she will begin her course of study at the Gregorian University. Her last year of novitiate has been intense, with a pilgrimage of discovery of other dimensions of the Muslim world and the Church of Islam (the expression is not mine but of the Melchite Patriarch Georges Laham at the last synod of bishops in Rome) with Eglantine in Iran and in Turkey. In Damascus, Dima spent one month in the l’Arche Community, dedicated to the service of persons with mental handicap. Her service was much appreciated.

Brother Jihad left Syria for Rome at the end of the summer vacation with some concern because his father had just undergone an important surgical operation. He is the only son and this does not simplify matters. Thanks to God and to his uncle, the situation was resolved and Jihad was able to apply himself more calmly to his exam preparation.

Us and our neighbours: the Near-East

The year that is ending has given us little respite. Humanity, in addition to suffering various natural disasters, is also undergoing various conflict, of varying levels of bloodshed. In our Middle Eastern region, we are still afflicted by the Iraqi conflict, our neighbours to the East, and by the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In relation to Iraq, we share in the anxiety of a large number of refugees who look to Syria for a little safety, especially for the children. The Christians refugees are also more numerous than the others, because the country seems to be orientating itself toward a stronger confessionalism and a fragmentation in which Christians are having difficulties in finding their space and role. They are therefore tempted to join their relatives and neighbours who have emigrated before them to the four quarters of the Earth. This is not always easy since the West is obsessed, not without reason, with the phobia of invasion and of loss of identity, in addition to that of insecurity and unemployment.

Not all the news, however, is bad. The democratic process in Iraq seems, notwithstanding everything, to be underway and in a way rather dynamic. What risks to ruin everything, on one side as much as on the other, is the logic over cruel conflict between civilization and a perverse game in which each one wants to profit from the great moment of change… not in a logic of justice but in a logic of profit.

Certainly there are big new events. The Arab Shiites find in the Iraqi crisis a great opportunity for self-affirmation and promotion. The risk of civil war is real and already present. For now, it is the American forces who, paradoxically, prevent the general “inferno” ; even if, in a certain sense they anticipate it and prepare it.

It is interesting to note that the question which has been posed to the international collective since the nineties, regarding the genocide regime and Iraqi tortures, is still intact up to today. It is the international collective that must take the responsibility of liberating people from regimes that threaten liberty with the active and inventive participation of the people concerned.

It is not the job of a superpower because, that provokes a situation in which resistance becomes a necessity and a historical duty. And thus, thanks especially to God for having liberated us from Saddam by means of the Americans, we must take on the responsibility of limiting the damage caused by irrepressible imperialist appetites (there is certainly an enormous question regarding the choice of the means of resistance that can range from a political nonviolence to the most horrible strategy of suicide). It is still true that the evolution of Iraqi Shiism is of very great importance because it can determine also that of the Lebanese Hezbollah (like all the Lebanese Shiite society) together with the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran by offering an alternative model.

For this it is necessary to begin (but who…? The diplomats, the politicians, the men of good intention?) to favor an evolution of Iraqi Sunnism different from its present drift. It would be necessary to recuperate, in the face of the particularistic fragmentation, the Arab national discourse, which is a fundamental element of the unity of the country, correlated to an identity of Muslim civilization characterized by an “ecumenical” attitude.

The Kurds, evidently see their dreams realized, with the risk that they can imagine doing the same thing in Turkey, Syria and Iran. It is not easy to ask a people to give up trying to make itself a nation, but would there not be a way other than that of bloodshed and ethnic separation to achieve it?

The international collective has the tendency to refuse, in the name of the status quo, projects of destabilization and upheaval of an entire regime. There are many who maintain that the acquisition on the part of the Kurds of their rights could make them, according to a federal logistic, amongst the four interested countries. This will not prevent the creation of an intense interaction between the four regions of Kurdish majority. Such a project has the enormous advantage of not pushing, in the face of national claim, the various societies concerned to confront each other violently against the Kurdish claim, until it reaches a genocidal attitude as has been the case in Turkey and in the Iraq of Saddam.

The entrance of Turkey into Europe, the agreement of an Euro-Syrian association, the pacification of Iraq in a federal program accompanied by a pluralist evolution in Iranian society (and there, for the moment, we are still at the level of dreams and wishes) could at last offer the plan of a lasting and positive resolution to this Kurdish question. Naturally there can be Atlantic attempts in the sense of the creation of a big western-phile Kurdistan, to interrupt the Asiatic pan-Turkish axis. In any case, this would be brought about in an enormous bloodbath and it is not a “given” that this Kurdistan will stay western-phile… Also there would be the risk of a reprise of Turkish nationalism but this time, according to an anti-western and probably radically Islamic attitude.

The Lebanese situation has evolved rapidly after the departure of the Syrian army from the territory of the Land of the Cedars. Seen from here, Lebanon seems to distance itself. The geographical and cultural proximity is such that our destines remain profoundly connected. The strategy of cantonization of villages of the region, favorable to the Zionist program could only be achieved by a chronic balkanization and a cultural sterilization of Arabism, which by definition would be poisonous. The Arab Christians would lose almost everything in this situation, with the exception of perhaps a Maronite canton. That said, I would not want to put myself in opposition to any federal project. Once the community ownership particularities are recognized and are found in some way satisfied, it becomes easier to find again larger ways of expression of unity of civilization. This is valid for Lebanon and in a different way also for Syria, and still more clearly for all the region. Also there, it is opportune to continue to follow the evolution of Lebanese Shiisme and in a particular way of the Hezbollah movement.


The situation in Palestine-Israel touches us as it always has. Palestine, imagined by Mr Sharon and perhaps programmed by the US administration and embattled by the more radical groups of the Zionist movement (clearly tempted to pursue a project of ethnic cleansing by means of the deportation of the Palestinian people beyond the Jordan) is so unlivable that it shows itself unable to build a lasting solution. Nor is there any alternative short term solution. It is also for this reason that even the more radical Palestinian groups (who still pursue a program of eradication of the state of Israel) have become open to truce agreements even if very fragile.

We find ourselves constantly divided between ephemeral hopes under the temptation to be cynical in the face of project so radically opposite and spectacularly incompatible. I maintain the hope of seeing the wall of Sharon fall one day just as I saw the wall of Berlin fall.

Meanwhile it is necessary to work to the point where the Bantustan Palestinians are as open as possible, and that the Arab population of Israel can keep up as far as possible, notwithstanding the wall, their relationship with the rest of their nation.

At the same time, it is essential that everything possible is done to help the Jewish population of Israel-Palestine to come out of the cultural ghetto in which they shut themselves, in order that gradually they can return (here we are taking of fifty or hundred years) to conceive of a one bi-national state on the entire Palestine-Israel territory connected to other larger concepts : an enlarged European Community, the Community of the Arab Nation, the Mediterranean Community…

Hopefully with the minimum bloodshed possible, time should bring about a cultural and dogmatic evolution of different participants (Islam, Arabism, Zionism, Judaism, but also the West, lay or otherwise, and positions of the various Churches in relation to the Holy Land), but of course nothing here is automatic and every development requires a capital of generosity, faith and enormous imagination. This would be required until they can think beyond the present impasse… and here lies the condition to pass from truce to peace.

The relation between Syria and Israel is not unconnected with the evolution described above. No peace negotiation today between the two countries can guarantee its happening, unless it is accompanied by a strong progression of cultural, pluralist and dialogal integration in the region. This will also be the task of theologies in a way that is transversal to religious denominations.


So let us come to speak about Syria and her evolution which is somewhat critical in this moment. We think, along with a majority of Syrians, that it is necessary avoid at any price the bloodbath of Iraq. There is a consensus of citizens who maintain faith in the present presidency of the country, that of Dr Bachar Al-Asad, supported by his wife who is sensitive, just and sincere. Furthermore, the Syrians do not want to renounce their Arab national dignity and the role that they believe they must play in the region in a picture that remains that of an anti-imperialist consensus. Thus the Syrians hope to obtain peacefully and gradually the reform of the system and the regime to reach a mature democracy. The worst thing would be to lose the national autonomy and their regional role without obtaining democracy.

The positive evolution of Syria can only be obtained by putting faith in a wide dialog with and between the different currents of Islam without exclusion or discrimination between so called moderates and supposed fundamentalists.

The question is not so much that of knowing whether it is necessary to give up a commitment to resistance and opposition; because, without resistance, one rapidly becomes vassals of the big petrol companies, of strategic appetites and expansionist objectives; without opposition, the country remains hostage to family interests and corrupt bureaucratic feudalization which is more or less ideologically masked.

The true question is that of choosing what type of resistance or by what means of opposition one can hope to cross the ford without drowning. The principal means is that of working for the creation of a consensus with exclusions. The choice of a transparent and vigorous non violence is recognized by many as the only efficacious means. This is done in dialog with the democrats of the whole world and with what remains of the feeling of internationalist socialist solidarity as much as with resources of universal religious humanism.

Our dreams

Here at Deir Mar Musa we are proposing a study seminar which for the Arab part, will only be brought about in the picture of peace with Israelis and with participation of Palestinians.

This means taking up cultural and mass media arms that are efficacious in lowering the fever of the hostility towards Syria, as much in Israel as in the West. This means working towards a culture of peace here in Syria and the elaboration of concepts necessary for the negotiations or a lasting agreement. The slogan: Frontiers as a space of meeting not of conflict.

Also and along the same line the project is going ahead for the Path of Abraham starting from Urfa and Harran in Turkish Upper Mesopotamia and through Syria (the Euphrates, Aleppo, Hama, Deir Mar Musa, Damascus) across Jordan to Jerusalem and Hebron-Khalil in the Holy Land (www.abrahampath.org). In this context we expect at Deir Mar Musa the passage in the next years (let’s say starting gradually in 2008) of hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. This requires an enormous effort of provision and organization together with a deepening of our theology of hospitality.

The pilgrims will be of Jewish, Christian, and Moslem tradition but also of other traditions and spiritualities in the context of the vast panorama of current transversal movements.

The park

It is easier to understand thus the reason for the big project for a National Park in the valley of the Monastery. The work is launched and the local society is deeply involved. The Ministerial Commission for the project (Deir Mar Musa is member of this) provides already, in the valley at about 500 meters away to the East, for the creation of a large visitor center with a museum of environment and culture, (our Canadian archaeological friends are taking care of this, Inch’ Allah, with success), a hostel, a building for meetings and seminars, artisan workshops; all in a garden concentrated on traditional products of our region. Naturally there will be “bio” (olives, grapes, pistachios, almonds, figs…)

The symbolic heart of the Park 

It is important to state that the park of the Monastery Valley is not the property of the Monastery.

It is the property of the local society and the Syrian State, with whom the Monastery collaborates as a principal partner.

It is very interesting to note that the Ministerial Park Commission has to entrust the responsibility for the direction of the hospitality activity to the monastic community with its collaborators. This said, the fact remains that the principal center of hospitality is and will remain a public space that belongs to everyone.

It follows on that, on our advice, this space must be organized on the basis of shared cultural values (it is known that in our local society the cultural is strongly characterized religiously). This does not take away from what is done through an extensive process of dialog that gives recognition to the Monastery, the local Church and the Christian population, its rite, its specificity, its capacity for positive and constructive interaction with the largely Muslim context.

Many of our neighbours and visitors have expressed to us their wish to have a Moslem place of prayer in the context of this social reality, the Park. Let us say frankly that this could be easily achieved on private land, relativity near the monastery at the same entrance in the Park, without any concern to consider the feelings of the Christians. Dozens of cases of this kind can be seen in the Christian quarters of our towns and villages without necessarily meeting the approval of our parishioners.

We have been reflecting on this question for many years. It has not always been easy! We are talking about strong symbols that create reactions and equally strong emotions. One solution to such a problem would be that of trying to develop rather lay spaces without any connotation of religions appurtenance. But for a monastery it would not be an easy matter: it represents in fact a sacred space for everybody and poses immediately the question of its religious identity. In Syria, for a large majority of people, this question is not posed in a polemic way but, on the contrary, thank God, in a more realistic way orientated towards reciprocal functional integration: in a word, dialogal.

From there comes our dream of dreams: we have woven together contacts on the local level to bring about a sacred space that constitutes the symbolic heart of the “Environment cultural and religions Park of the Valley of Deir Mar Musa”. We are talking about a garden more beautiful and more cared for than the others with water in the middle. In this space, there would be built both a church and a mosque, two constructions distinct but no distant, joined by an oasis-portico with a fountain, one single architectural project and one single decorative school, the fruit of an in-depth dialog of Syrian artists and with theologians and art historians of this region. We like the simplicity of materials of these mountains, work carried out by local artisans, and, at the same time, we want something made really well with great care, something that can last as witness to the spiritual effort of our epoch. Thus we wish to receive good ideas from all over the world because cultures in an limited contexts no longer exists.

This religious monument will be dedicated to the hospitality of Abraham. We imagine that the same mosaic art could express in the church, iconographically, together with the central mysteries of the Christian faith, the story of Abraham, by means of a strong sensitivity towards the Arab-Christian culture, in dialog with the Moslem context. This same duplex monument would express through colors, forms and letters together with the central mysteries of the Moslem faith, the role of Abraham and the universal meaning of this vocation.

Some years ago, there was an enormous international question about a project for building a mosque in front of the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth. It was a political project fed by equivocal motivations and with many elements which were not clear on either side. That project was not carried out even though the respect and devotion of Moslems for the Virgin of Nazareth are sincere and generous.

Here, in the valley of the Monastery, we dream of the contrary. We would like to bear witness to a common life imposed on the commensality, of a public space where the sacred is recognized in its plurality and is accepted cordially and expressed harmoniously. It is important to give the right value to the belonging to different religions, in their plurality, without trying to mix them together in one equivocal syncretism unconsidered and ''kitsch''.

At the same time, neither the Christian faith nor the Moslem faith can surrender to the idea of a reciprocal impermeability; and neither can they give up the temptation of a simplified absorption of ''otherness'' and of the puerile wish of a future without ''otherness''. We are looking for a dynamic harmony in our ''belonging-ness'' of today charismatically open to a future always more interactive and inter-functional, in which the experiences of the Universal Spiritual Absolute, carried through our traditions, are not diluted in a symbolic swamp, but on the contrary, work together through the dialog of life and work in common, in view of that meta-historic moment which attracts us all and that arrives to bridge the temporal and that makes itself present, though veiled, to our religious existences, where it incarnates in our poor faithfulness.

At the same time, we want to make ourselves available for a great and sincere reception, even through conflict, of that growing cultural space of spiritual experiences (I think of the New Age galaxy and different mysticisms of Indian roots in global post capitalism) that wants to be simply human and that, sometimes, aspiring ingeniously to represent a meta religious instance, falls into involuntary sectarianism, not always innocent.

Publishing house

At Deir Mar Musa, we are working towards the creation of a small publishing house that would like to take part in an national and regional debate, especially profiting from texts of the conferences and debates of our seminars. Adib Khury, an old friend, mathematics professor at the lyceum and gifted with a beautiful cultural curiosity came to live at Nebek immediately after his marriage. He will be the motor and director of this project. We have published together, in Arabic, in Damascus, with our comment, articles of Louis Massignon on the problems of the Holy Land.

His wife Huda, also a friend of many years is here with us as accountant and secretary. With her, we want to launch the sales point planned at the car park in the valley

Your help and our thanks.

The help that you send us serves to develop these different projects that enable us to continue to welcome freely, to respond to the needs of the poor who come to the Monastery and to help the families in need, both in Nebek and in Qaryatyan. On behalf of us and them, we thank you here in writing, and n the named of Lord through prayers.

Some organizations that have helped us have been remembered in other parts of the letter. A particular thank you is necessary here to the German Foundation Hanns Zeidel, dedicated to the service of development and peace, and which has helped us for many years for activities of cultural formation.

The Senate of the French Republic has donated a new generator of more powerful current and silent: an immense help to all our activities.

Also the Society Total-Damascus gives us a hand, especially for the activities connected with ecology, and it is hoped that more can be done in future in the field of the park and the biodiversity.

Two Dutch foundations are financing a research doctorate for a Syrian researcher in the field of vegetation of local pastures and of the creation of pasture land. Obviously greatly to the advantage of our own activity and that of the whole region.

Other organizations which are ecumenical in nature, in various parts of the world, help us both on a regular and periodic basis. We do not consider it appropriate to publish a list here. But it is certainly always appropriate to express our profound gratitude for a solidarity of the multiform Church, that is loving, motivated and efficacious.


''We are all cardinals''Translated from the French original

The year 2005 has been characterized by the death of pope John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. The enormous worldwide participation in this sacred passage of power shows us how great the thirst is, and not only of practicing Catholics, for a spiritual authority well-rooted in tradition, in dialog with contemporary society and able to interpret the aspirations and anxieties of a great number of people. This does not take away from the fact that the immense charisma of John Paul II leaves open an enormous ecclesiological building site that his successor falls heir to. This person, known to be a great theologian and expression of the neo-traditionalist Catholic coagulation is probably the man of the Church most capable of taking on an updating of the structure of the Catholic Church in dialog with the additions of the contemporaneous democratic culture. This is so much more necessary since rightly, so many people today look to St Peter’s Square with hope.

The past year has been for all of us an occasion to reflect on this service of universal spirituality unity that the Catholic Church feels itself as a duty to offer. The past year has also been a moment in which it has been possible to reflect on the structure of the Church, asking oneself where this structure comes from and to what point it is capable of change or development, reform on the basis of new elements of criticism by anthropologists, theologians and others. In particular, the present speed of information allows a system of continuous and detailed consultation that could in actual fact favor the development of communion in the catholic Church and the relationship with the other religious traditions listening deeply to the people and their needs, regardless of what they “belong to”.

I would like here to draw attention to the institution of the cardinalate (cf. ''Cardinal'' in The Catholic Encyclopediawww.newadvent.org ). All the world press is concerned about this, identifying there an impressive knot of power. The structure is basically simple: the pope makes (''creates'') the cardinals, the cardinals make (''elect'') the pope, and this does all the rest. Described in this way, it appears as a definable structure that is closed or not very open. Where does it come from? In the New Testament and the first centuries of the Church, there was nothing of this. But yes, there was a Bishop of Rome, successor to Peter, who died as a martyr in the capital of the Roman Empire. The bishop was conscious, along with his Church, of having a role of presidency in the unity of faith and charity in the whole ecumene, that is, in the universal Church (for the catholic this means universal but with a more theological than organizational connotation). And the universal Church, plural and rich in rites and traditions, recognized this service in him.

Church and democracy

Normally every particular or local Church was given its own structures, synodal instances through which the service of authority was organized and through which the succession was assured to different Episcopal or eparchial seats. Rome was not an exception. There were however and always will be common elements which denote an idea of the Church and a common practice.

Some say that the Church never has been nor ever will be a democracy. This is less true than some may think. A great majority of Christians recognize in the faith that the source of authority in the Church is Christ and Jesus entrusted that to his disciples who in their turn entrust it to their successors. This is the meaning of what is called the sacramental Apostolic Succession and this is the sacrament of ordination. This does not mean that the bishop (successor of the apostles) of a local Church, of a diocese, can be elected or that he can govern without a true and responsible participation both of presbyteries and deacons who assist him in government, and of the Christian population, the lay people, including the consecrated who with him form the authentic mystical body of Christ, his Church. The role of the synods, of the assemblies of the local Church has always been decisive and deserves respect for the efficacy of an election and government that comes from it. In concrete terms, the method of election could vary from one place to another but two elements are always present , albeit in a different forms. We are talking in particular about apostolic succession, guaranteed in the apostolic collegiate and for this reason the new bishop will be ordained in the name of the Good Shepherd. The second element is a consensus, an adhesion that comes and can only come from the base, from the Christian assembly.

This ecclesiastic exercise of discernment is carried out in time as we have said, in various ways. Sometimes it is an assembly who chooses a new bishop, but more often after a consultation with priests, deacons and influential lay people, listening with care to the Spirit (which also speaks through simple believers and through the local society, especially the poor people). Normally a delegation of bishops consecrate him to the Episcopal ministry in his diocese and therefore in a consensus of approval and reception in assembly of his Church. Other times it is rather an assembly of the local Church, priests, deacons and people, who will propose a candidate for Episcopal ordination. He will therefore ask to be consecrated by the bishop of the region, who often participates or assists in the election.

Election of the pope and participation of the believing population.

However much it may appear strange, the election of the bishop of Rome, the pope, the president of the universal communions, is in origin more of the second type, clearly more democratic. In his quality of Patriarch of West, it might be expected that he was elected by a large synod of bishops, as is the case for the Patriarch of the East. For a long time, the lay people of the city of Rome participated in the election. In the second millennium of the Church, the electors were both priests and deacons of Rome and bishops from both curia and the surroundings of the city... and it is these electors we call cardinals. Moreover, up to today, the cardinals, in remembrance of this fact, are distributed in three orders: deacons, priests and bishops. When someone today is ''made'' cardinal, in whatever part of the world he may be, he receives the title of one of the Churches of the Roman parishes or of a cathedral Church of the outlying dioceses.

In effect, this institution so central in the Church has never stopped evolving up to the point of becoming a cardinal college formed by those who have for a long time been called the Princes of the Church. The analogy with kingdoms in this world is a obvious. No wonder, in fact, the pope was also for many centuries up to 1870, the king of a vast state in Central Italy. On the other hand, it is the epoch in which the authority of the state was organized, in the majority of European countries, in a totalitarian way that the cardinal institution resembled an oligarchy that assured continuity and independence of the pontificate power, and in effect participated widely in that power. It is not surprising to see that in the Church, because of jealousy of its original role and because of the zeal for its universal mission, the preoccupation with independence of secular powers and interests, and therefore necessarily of the laity, led to a sort of institutional separation between hierarchy and believing population. One had to want for the Vatican Council II (1962) to start to turn round the tendency in a way of new participation.

Little by little as the means of communication and transparency improved, the college of cardinals was enlarged, including the heads of Churches of large European capitals. Following the fall of the Papal States in the nineteenth century, the cardinal structure, with all the Church, tended towards a more progressive and deeper universalization and consequently to a progressive loss of power on the part of the Italians that finished with the permitted election of a Polish pope, followed by a German pope... but it could have been an Argentinian or Nigerian or Chinese. The fact that today in the Latin Church – which constitutes the greater part of the Catholic Church (one must remember that the Oriental Catholic Churches maintain a synod patriarchal structure) – all the bishops are nominated for their dioceses directly by the pope, in a way similar to that of prefects in the French departments, indicates that it is no longer possible to see the difference between the college of cardinals and the synod of bishops... the one difference that remains is that the cardinals make the pope!

It is interesting to note that the cardinal institution finds itself in a condition that is not clear theologically. In none of the documents of the Vatican Council II can one find a reflection that explains the specificity of this institution, and the same thing is true of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, adapted largely by Cardinal Ratzinger.

This fact is even more amazing given that, in the practice of the life of the Church, not only do cardinals precede archbishops from any part of the world but also (always contested and rightly, by the Orientals) the patriarchs of the oriental apostolic Churches.

Two hypotheses: one is that we find ourselves facing a consolidated ecclesiological state that shows that by the very fact of being electors of the pope, the cardinals are of the order of bishops, priests and deacons and therefore must pass in front of them all: this poses the important question because the most orthodox ecclesiology tells us that the Pope is not an autocrat but that he guides the Church, at he head of a College that is of bishops, his brothers. Or, and this is the second hypothesis, in this cardinal institution there is hidden an ecclesiological reality that must be uncovered, made explicit and explained.

The Cardinals and the Episcopal Collegiate

When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, he explicitly stated that he had been elected by a college of one hundred forty bishops of the whole Church. He thus implicitly underlined the synod and Episcopal dimension of his election. Many theologians think that the pope, as president of the universal communion, should be elected by an ecumenical counsel of bishops of the universal Church or by a college, a synod, of their representatives. It is not so. The fact that today the cardinals are all, with a few possible exceptions, bishops, and nearly all of important seats, changes nothing of essential issue of this question. In fact at the beginning, and even symbolically to the present day, it is the assembly of the Roman Church, with priests, deacons of the city parishes and bishops of surrounding dioceses that elect the pope. This means that an essential aspect of the ecclesiological specification of the cardinalate comes from original representation of the Christian population, men and women, of the local Church. In this way one understands better that the first title of the pope, the original, was that of Bishop of Rome.

This does not mean in any way, especially nowadays, that the assembly dimension of the universal Church and of the Collegiate of Episcopal service could not or should not play a central role in the election of the Shepherd of the entire Flock of Christ.

The apostolate and the laity

Since my childhood, based on the teaching of Vatican Council II, I have heard speak of the apostolate of the laity, of the authentic participation on the part of every Christian in the mystery of Christ, with this Church seat to save the world. The Church, the People of God, is apostolic; and if the bishops are the successors of the apostles, that takes away nothing from the apostolicity of the Christian people. It is said in catechism classes: you are all authentic deacons, people able to serve in charity and justice, you are all, in a sacred way, employed in the sanctification and consecration to God of their context of life, you are all apostles, shepherds, responsible and “on watch” and therefore “bishops”, each one in his family, at home and in the workplace, in his mission.

Participate actively and inventively in the life of your ecclesiastic community and in the single community of the catholic Church…Well then, why not say to them: “You are all cardinals”, people able to carry out a service of listening and representation, and also collaboration with the person elected to preside over the unity of doctrine and charity. The cardinals should be, and they often are, thanks be to God, models for every good catholic. It is for this reason that they are dressed in purple, in memory of the men and women martyrs of the Church of Rome.

Local commitment and universal concern

I believe that, at the root, the cardinal institution synthesizes an idea of the Church that, respecting the role and the value of the sacramental ministerial priesthood, knows how to express (or rather has known since the beginning) the profound value of the participation of the entire clergy in synodality, in the dimension of the assembly, in the local Church, representing in this way the responsibility and the efficacious communion with the people of God.

This does not concern only the Church of Rome, the Church of cardinals and the Pope. On the contrary, there is here expressed, in a clearer way, a dimension of the life and constitution of every local Church of the People of God. Vatican Council II underlined the importance and the role of this. It uncovered and reproposed this to all Christians while the oriental Churches that remain institutionally synodal, have mainly maintained this original constitution throughout their history. A Christian who has discovered his “cardinal” dimension will be someone who will know how to unite in his life in the Church, a full assumption of responsibility, both institutional and charismatic-prophetic, with an acute theological sense of belonging to the assembly of the People of God, where each other is heard, and paradoxically the most heard voice of the Kingdom is that of the little ones, the poor and the marginalized (as for example the widows to whom great attention is directed in the primitive Church of the Acts of the Apostles).

Dreams for the Church

Dream of a universal Church in this sense truly “cardinalized”. In effect, it is in a rather paradoxical way that I express myself like this starting from the analogy with the apostolacy of the whole Church. I use this expression without in any way aspiring to propose it as a candidate in a lexical consecration. In a certain way I would like, on the contrary, to demystify a probably excessive sacralization of the cardinalate in order to go beyond it in a rediscovery of the synergy between apostolate tradition (carried by the ministerial priesthood, the collegial service of the authority of the Church and the deaconny of Peter and of the pope) and the dimension of assembly and of responsibility on the part of the Christian population.

I dream of a Church in which the role of the clergy will always be in service of the spring flowering of prophetic charisma, sacred and regal (where today, “regal” is to be translated with the democratic concept of participation and political, cultural and social responsibility) of the People of God forever together around the table of the Eucharist.

I dream that the choice of deacons and priests is truly the expression of the relationship of communion, fully adult and responsible, between the parish assembly and the Bishop of the diocese who represents the service of the authority of Christ.

I dream of Episcopal elections, in every part of the world, where there is efficacious participation of the believing population and the presbytery. The expression of a leadership of a diocese will thus be in obedience to the spirit that speaks also in the intercultural and inter-religious environment in which the Churches live and to which they are sent. This must be in harmony with the role of the regional or parochial Church and in the final instance represented by the Holy Roman See which will always be, God willing, a guarantee of independence, faithfulness and universality of the local Churches.

I dream that this will be true in all the life of the Church, I believe it to be possible for all, from the most local to the most universal. I think that the cardinals could be, in most part, the presidents of the great Episcopal assemblies, national and continental, chosen through the practice of the communion between local authority and the universal without ever forgetting the agreement of the voice of the people and the cry of the oppressed.

I dream that the next pope is chosen by patriarchs and cardinals who, before setting out on their journey, have known how to take up an attitude of service to the spirit which speaks in their people, because it is here that the specific of the evangelic attitude is found. They would come to Rome and yet again they would take up an attitude of listening to the people of their parishes and the quarters of the city whose titles they bear, because it is these people who choose the bishop; in fact, it is the vocation of these people to be in solidarity with the spiritual service of their spiritual leader.

Perhaps they are only dreams. Some people maintain that the Church today takes again a paternalistic attitude, a clerical concern to keep the laity, and therefore fundamentally the women well outside decision-making. In addition – and even if the recent history of catholic theology has underlined strongly the value of collegiate, of communion – there is the fear of a radicalization of the Roman centralization facilitated by the speed and globalist of communication means: in the past it was said that Rome was far away, meaning that it maintained a certain autonomy…Today, Rome is everywhere! The next pope will probably be elected once again by a college of priests, together with the bishops of the People of God.

There are many who see in the election of pope Benedict XVII “ the theologian Pope” one of the catholic intellectuals who took part in the setting up of Vatican Council II – the man who will be able to make the truly decisive steps in the updating of the Church structure, in an authentically theological opening to the needs, the difficulties, the aspirations and the richness of mankind today. Perhaps he will be the man who will know how to call a new ecumenical council!

Let us hold the hope, because the times of God are not ours. It depends on the responsibility of each one to make sure that the Catholic Church does not fall again into sectarian sickness. There is always a suffering of the Son of God in his body, a kenosis of the divine spirit in our present day. Let us recognize this in our lacks and in our personal and collective efforts. At the end, we believe in the resurrection; it is our destiny as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth to start our story today.


I imagine that some are surprised that I have put together like this the Middle Eastern geo-politic situation with family information and with an adventurous ecclesiological reflection. We have tried to find in the “cardinal” a model of the believer who, internally rooted in his local historical community, in the depth of his tradition and fully united with that, is capable of a generous and committed vision. It will therefore be easier to see the relationship between our vision, that originates from the mission of the universal Church, and our local commitment in all its dimensions.

Here I would like to express the gratitude of our Community to our bishop Georges Kassab, the members of his presbytery and the people of the Syrian Catholic parishes of Homs, Hama and Nebek. With them, we have an experience of listening communion and co-responsibility that gives hope.

I apologize that this letter has become too long and too personal to be the letter of the friends of our monastic community. It is me, Paolo, who has written it with the help of Eglantine but it is the affection of all our Community members that I want to express to you, asking for each one in this Christmas festival, a personal and authentic experience of the tenderness of God.