My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
In the last issue of The Tablet for 2014, the questions are always posed to me to look back on the year which has just passed and emphasize the lessons which, perhaps, we have learned.
Like all years, this past year has contained challenges and surprises, joys and sorrows. For the world, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been a horrible event. This has been especially difficult for the people of Syria and Iraq, but most especially for the Christian population of those countries which already had been decimated by the war in Iraq and is now completely displaced from the region because of ISIS. We know that almost half of the Christian population of Iraq fled to Syria for safety during the Iraq war and were accepted by the government of President Assad.
Now, however, the Christians of the region are fleeing again to Kurdistan and some even back into Iraq, trying to find a safe haven.
Earlier this year, I was visited by two Patriarchs of the Middle East. First, by Gregory III (Laham), the Melkite Patriarch who is the spiritual leader of Damascus, Syria. He brought firsthand information of the heart-rending situation of Christians in Syria and the Middle East, many of whom for as a source of safety. Over one million refugees have flooded a country whose prior population was 4.3 million.
Second, Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan is the Syriac Catholic Patriarch. He is a long-time friend of mine of some 30 years, who also pastored the Syriac Catholic population in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Much of the Christian population of Mosul in Iraq, which was completely displaced by ISIS, were Syrian Catholics. The massacre in Baghdad of last year was also one of the churches of Patriarch Younan. He ministered many years here in the United States and understands the U.S. mentality perhaps better than most in the Middle East. The Patriarch was perplexed at the seemingly incomprehensible U.S. policy in the region.
On a brighter note, one of the highlights of 2014 was the dedication of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph. Truly, this was something that as a diocese we needed for Brooklyn and Queens, even if everyone did not agree. Yet, I believe that most have changed their minds seeing, first of all, the beauty of the Co-Cathedral and its strategic location and usefulness to us as a diocese. Just last week, we filled the church for our annual Christmas concert. Many of the attendees had not had an opportunity to be in the Co-Cathedral before that evening.
As always, one can see people looking up at the ceiling, where most of the beauty lies with the 22 national Madonnas and the figure of Christ, the judge, and the angels that surround the altar, as well as the life-size statue of St. Joseph above the baldacchino. Yes, the Co-Cathedral makes us look up, as it is the place of worship where we come into contact with our God. It is for us one of the gates of heaven.
During this past year, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has continued to make his mark on the Catholic Church with his great pastoral openness. He seeks to draw all to Christ without distinction – young and old, those with special needs, the marginalized and especially the poor.
The Holy Father sees all in need of salvation, all in need of a hospital tent on the battle ground. Yes, the world is a battle ground where good and evil constantly confront one another. Only sometimes the difference is hard to see for many people.
The extraordinary Synod on the Family also captured the world’s attention, especially because of the frankness of the discussions regarding family life in all of its forms, with all of its challenges and difficulties of our modern times. The first phase is preparation for the Second Synod on the Family to be held in 2015. Soon we will have an opportunity to comment on the propositions given by this extraordinary Synod in preparation for the major Synod in the year to come. I believe that the publicity given to it will draw keen interest in trying to give input into the final document, but also for an emphasis on support and welcome for families in the Church.
Just most recently, we see how Pope Francis has used his influence to bring about the reconciliation of two long-time enemies: the United States and Cuba. Lacking diplomatic relationships, it is hard for countries truly to engage in dialogue and find a lasting peace. Although this action on the part of President Obama is not without its critics, we see also its usefulness in developing a plan for the eventual reincorporation of Cuba into the family of nations. Cuba’s ideological and practical isolation has been detrimental, especially to its people. Unless there is a true democracy, Cuba will never be able to reach its full potential as a free nation.
Finally, as we put out into the deep of the New Year, our emphasis should be the theme of the Synod to come and the Eighth World Day of Families, to be held in Philadelphia in September 2015, “A Prayer for Our Families.” There is nothing that the world needs more than stable and loving families to deal with the current difficulties in our world.
As St. John Paul II stated, “the history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes byway of the family.” The future vitality of the Church depends upon the health of all our families. It is my hope and prayer that thepreparation for these family Synod events will produce the needed emphasis and support so dearly needed in our world today.