A Farewell to Patriarch Ignatius IV: A Personal View


What follows is to be considered a diary/stream-of consciousness and not an objective report. I have included thoughts, opinions and, from time to time, what might be considered a value judgment. It was written mostly on the return trip from Beirut so that there might be a record of fresh memories concerning a milestone event in the continuing life of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

Upon hearing that Patriarch Ignatius IV had passed into eternity, I called Metropolitan Philip who agreed that I attend the funeral. That same day, Thursday December 6, 2012, passport and Lebanese Visa in hand, I left for Beirut.

Since 1979, Ignatius IV achieved many milestones during his tenure as Patriarch and earlier as a Patriarchal Vicar. The revival of St. John of Damascus School of Theology at Balamand and the building of the University of Balamand have impacted many beyond the borders of the local Church in the Middle East.

It is poignant that His Beatitude was only recently in North America for a meeting concerning the Balamand University and to award Issam Fares the highest award of the Patriarchate, The Order of Sts. Peter and Paul. I imagine the trip alone must have been tiring for the aged patriarch inasmuch as, when he returned to Lebanon, he was immediately hospitalized. Metropolitan Elias wanted His Beatitude to remain in the hospital for several weeks, as did his physicians, but His Beatitude wanting to get back to work insisted on leaving sooner. Finally, one day in defiance of his doctors, he dressed himself in his clerical garb, lay on the bed and said he wanted to leave. He was told this was against medical advice, but he asserted that he could rest better at the Balamand, the center of his heart. The Sunday following his release, he celebrated Liturgy and gave a sermon on the dangers of “wagging tongues” that can cause harm to others. As reported to me, it was a most relevant sermon.

He later retreated to his apartment at the Balamand where he collapsed (most likely hitting his head on some hard object). When the sound was heard, it was assumed that he had fallen, and in his fragile condition, the situation looked grave. He was immediately air lifted to St. George hospital, where he remained in a coma. Two days later he died.

Upon his death, his body was vested by Bishop Ghattas (Hazim) and Metropolitan George of Homs. Six clergy bore his body to St. Nicholas Church. During the course of the day scores of people poured into the Church and later went to the Grand Salon to express condolences to Metropolitan Elias Audi and members of the Holy Synod.

Metropolitan Saba Esper was elected Locum Tenens and the committee for logistics was formed, headed by Metropolitan Elias, Rt. Rev. Alexis Mufarrej and Fathers, George Dimas, Paul Whibey and other members. His Beatitude led a life that was complex and yet quite simple. As an example of this, when the Locum Tenens took the customary inventory of the Patriarch’s belongings, the bishop discovered that the Patriarch literally had only a few shirts and a cassock. Similarly, it was well known that he never carried any money on his person.

The likely candidate to fill the (then) vacant Chair of Antioch was Metropolitan Philip. While Metropolitan Philip would have brought the Patriarchate to new heights, the move to Damascus would have been an impossible one for him.

Arriving late Friday, I was received by Jacques Sarraf at the VIP lounge. I was then taken directly to the Hotel Phoenicia, where I had last stayed with Metropolitan Philip in 1969, before the war. Around the same time, Archbishop Joseph (Los Angeles), Bishop Alexander (Montreal) and Mr. Fawaz El Khoury, Vice Chairman of the Archdiocese Board of Trustees arrived and, we represented His Eminence and the Archdiocese at this sad occasion. Metropolitan Philip was unable to attend at his physician’s recommendation, though I am sure many memories flowed through the heart and mind of Sayidna Philip.

On Saturday morning, we drove to St. Nicholas Church, a sprawling complex, where His Beatitude was lying in state. The drive alone was an experience. Traffic in Beirut is like that in no other city. Upon entering the large Church, I saw that Ignatius IV had been laid in a glass case. (His Beatitude was the first deceased Patriarch to not be seated on a throne for the wake and services). St. Nicholas Church is a beautiful Church with the Byzantine Iconography and Frescoes. The altar is huge with a multitude of rooms behind the altar, as well as, large meeting rooms, chapels on the lower floor and a dining room; it was all really quite amazing.

Aside from seminarians of the Balamand reading the Scriptures, the Church was completely empty. We went looking for Sayidna Elias Audi in the chancery, only to be told he was at the church. We soon discovered that he was in the lower reception hall of St. Nicholas, so we rushed back. No one explained to us that this Grand Reception Hall was used for official purposes. The Grand Salon was crowded with politicians, religious leaders and the faithful extending condolences to His Eminence, and members of the Holy Synod.

Metropolitan Elias, whom I have known for years, warmly greeted me with a strong, warm hug and wide welcoming smile. I didn’t realize at that time that I would be spending a great deal of time with him during this trip. I also saw many laymen who once resided in Montreal, including, Elias Abou Chahine, Nicolas Chahine, Rafoul Boutros, Mike Mufarrij, the Chayas, and many others. I was excited to see the sweet nuns of the Convent of the Presentation of the Virgin (Ashrafieh), where my relatives Mother Mary Jo and Belagia Tibshirani had established their venerable site. Those same sweet sisters held a lovely luncheon for me later in the week presenting me with a priestly stole and chalice cover. I found my old friend, Rt. Rev. Alexis Mufarrej, the Pastor of St. Nicholas, assisted by Father Constantine Nassar (another old friend) and Father Basilios Kneisar (whose sister is my parishioner). So warm was the hospitality it seemed like coming home. They were all, among others, receiving condolences. Metropolitan Elias was at the centre of the receiving line, as St. Nicholas is one of his Churches. Archbishop Joseph, Bishop Alexander and Fawaz El Khoury, having arrived earlier had celebrated Liturgy and were in the receiving line.

It was encouraging to see many old friends, former parishioners and young people who had spent time in Montreal and returned to Lebanon after the “uncivil war” had ended. Both clergy and laymen thanked us for the care that their families and children received at St. George during those terrible days. Their warm acknowledgements were most touching.

The entire day Saturday was one of sorrow mixed with the exchange of greetings, much as we do in North America. All the while there was a display of profound respect for His Beatitude. Many considered his death untimely, especially considering the unfolding events in Syria and the air of uncertainty.

While it was wonderful being reunited with many old friends, it was also very strange to think of the Patriarch alone, upstairs in the Church, while throngs of people were mingling in the Grand Salon, exchanging embraces and small talk, even speculating on a successor. Unfortunately, one of the Lebanese newspapers, Al Akhbar, wrote an article highly critical of the proceedings, implying that the funeral was not worthy of His Beatitude and that friction in the Holy Synod was responsible.

The Funeral

The day began with the celebration of the Orthros and Liturgy presided by Rt. Rev. Protosyngelos Alexis Mufarrej, Fathers Constantine Nassar and Basilios Kneisar, Deacon Prophyrios Georgi and myself and was televised on Middle East TV (Lebanon). It seemed strange that it was not a Hierarchal Liturgy. Members of the Holy Synod sat surrounding the huge altar. The body had now been placed in a coffin, opened during the services.

While distributing the Eucharist, we were stopped to empty the Church for security reasons. President, Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister, Najeeb Meekati, Patriarch Beshara (Rai) of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Gregorios (Laham) of the Melchite Church, the Papal Nuncio, former first ladies several ministers from Syria, and many other dignitaries were arriving.

This sudden dismissal created some mayhem, with many not receiving Communion. One elderly lady sat there, saying, “I cannot walk and I am not a threat to anyone!” Even still, the authorities demanded that the Church be emptied prior to the funeral service for a security check. The Funeral Service at St. Nicholas was ultimately closed to the public on Sunday for the sake of the large delegation of dignitaries. Many people left.

The actual funeral, which followed the interrupted Liturgy, was presided by The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, with Metropolitans Elias Audi and Saba Esber flanking him on each side. The remaining Metropolitans stood in order of ordination on the altar steps. The steps were so that some retreated into the altar. The exclamation, “For thou art the Resurrection, the life and the repose of our departed Father, Ignatius IV, O Christ Our God, and unto thee do we ascribe Glory together with thy Father who is from Everlasting and thine all Holy and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages, amen,” was repeated over and over in various languages represented by the hierarchs of various autocephalous Churches.

The service was a mix of the regular funeral service (abridged) and some parts of the Easter Liturgy. The Gospel was read in Greek by His All-Holiness, Bartholomew I, followed by another reading in Arabic, by Metropolitan Elias. The funeral service concluded with verses from the Paschal Matins service ending with, “Today is the Day of the Resurrection!” The Liturgy and the funeral responses – which were strikingly beautiful – were chanted under the direction of Father Romanos Joubron. Everyone rose during the chanting of “Christ is Risen.” A Eulogy was delivered by the Ecumenical Patriarch, who gave an extensive account of the ministry of the late Patriarch which was translated by Metropolitan Paul (Yazigi) of Aleppo.

Metropolitan George (Khodr) – lifelong friend of His Beatitude and classmate from St. Sergius in Paris – delivered his reflections followed by Patriarch Kiril I of Moscow which was translated by Archbishop Niphon, the Antiochian Patriarchal Vicar in Moscow. The Russian leader’s sermon expressed his admiration of our beloved Ignatius IV, saying, “He was one of the most influential church Leaders in the world. Today we pay our respects and give honor to the oldest among us in the Orthodox Church.” Other representatives of the various autocephalous Churches eulogized the late Patriarch, as did the Papal Nuncio. This observation was important, since the late Patriarch championed dialogue among coreligionists. During the ceremony the President of Lebanon, Michel Sleiman, presented the National Medal of the Cedar to His Beatitude posthumously and stated, “Lebanon bids you farewell with pain because the faithful of this country will miss your wisdom and love. On this day, I place the National Symbol on your coffin. You will remain deeply rooted in our hearts and minds forever.”

Just prior to our leaving the Church, I could not restrain myself from hugging His Beatitude’s brother, Dr. Yousef Hazim, who was weeping uncontrollably, as were his sisters. I knew Dr. Yousef from prior visits with His Beatitude and brother. His nephew, Bishop Ghattas, who had been stoic throughout the ordeal, was also grief stricken and it was obvious he was suffering greatly at his personal loss. When the ceremony was concluded, all the dignitaries rushed to the steps of the altar to give their condolences to the Hierarchs. It was an unusual scene to say the least.

Six priests suddenly appeared to lift and carry the coffin on their shoulders in a procession preceded by scouts and altar boys. They took the coffin to the hearse where some of the Metropolitans were waiting. They left along with caravans of soldiers to make their way to Damascus for the final funeral rites.

The choir was chanting and the scouts saluting the coffin made the exit from St. Nicholas Church very emotional. It was there that I said a personal farewell and said goodbye to, “ . . . Sayidna, our Father and friend since 1961. Enter into the joy of the Lord you served all these years.”

Damascus

I was unable to join the procession to Damascus, as I did not have the time to obtain a visa to Syria, which was quite troubling, inasmuch as, I wanted to be there until the conclusion of the service for His Beatitude. Having experienced the loss of Archbishop Antony (Bashir) and the many tears it brought, I felt it happening once again when I witnessed on Syrian television, the broadcasts of the services in Damascus. Men, women and children were gathered by the thousands. Parents were lifting their children to kiss the Gospel and the hand of His Beatitude. Faces were etched in sorrow at the loss of their Bishop (the Patriarch is considered to be the Bishop of Damascus), heightening their suffering under the current conflict in Syria.

(I must add in terms of security, I found the Canadian and United States borders much more security conscious than at the airport in Beirut, where I entered and left with no sense of any possible danger.)

While the funeral cortege was making its way to Damascus, there was a huge mercy meal for all the Hierarchs, guests, family and friends being held in Beirut. Internalizing my grief and in no mood for small talk, it was quite overwhelming for me. There is no age when it is easy to lose a beloved parent, either physical or spiritual. Something changes on the inside. I saw Ann Mackoul, albeit briefly, on her way to the Mercy Meal as I left for a reflective supper with Jacques Sarraf’s family. (I had spent the previous evening with Elias Abou Chahine at the hotel.)

Observations

It seemed to me that what was experienced in Beirut was solemn and simple, appropriate for a famous person who walked the earth, leaving a trace in the sands of time. But on the other hand, the funeral cortege was received in Damascus at Bab Touma (the Christian quarter of Damascus) by a large band that played a funeral dirge with scouts in solemn procession carrying a large portrait of His Beatitude. As the coffin was lifted, the crowd broke out in a loud applause as a gesture of respect for their lamented leader. There were real displays of emotions at the moment they entered the Mariamieh Cathedral, the Seat of His Beatitude. The nuns of Sayednaya were weeping and chanting dirges. Paradoxically, in Achrafieh, the Lebanese bastion of Orthodoxy, all stores had been open on the day of the funeral. The difference between Beirut and Damascus was nearly palpable.

Noursat and a Syrian television station carried the funeral service all day on Monday until the burial in the Crypt of the Patriarchs. During the televised service, they showed a picture at the corner of the screen of Christian and Muslim leaders praising the Patriarch for his humility. The Grand Mufti of Damascus called him “Umm” (uncle), as he always had; the Patriarch had always called him “Ibn Umi” (son of my father). Those were fond and touching words on behalf of both men. Following the liturgy in Damascus, the funeral service of a Patriarch, according to the Euchologion, was celebrated. It was followed by a regular funeral service later in the afternoon where political and religious dignitaries were in attendance including a representative of President Bashar Al Asad. All were among the throngs of the faithful who traveled miles to be at the funeral of their fallen leader. A common theme of the eulogies or speeches centered on his ecumenical vision, his openness to other religions, his philosophical ideals, the building of the University of the Balamand, as well as the resurrection of the St John of Damascus Theological Academy (which is well supported by this Archdiocese). That there were throngs of people who flocked to the Church to pay their love and respect, belies the stories of the State of Syria. No one felt afraid and the government put all its resources at the disposal of the Church to guarantee order and safety to all the people to mourn their father and leader.

The service I watched all day Monday was very orderly and dignified, befitting the quiet serenity of the Patriarch. There was a kind of solemnity I had not seen in Beirut.

The Balamand, itself, received mourners by the thousands paying respects to the clergy in residence, and later, to his nephew Bishop Ghattas (Hazim). The American delegation traveled to the Balamand, the late Patriarch’s second home, where they celebrated a Memorial Liturgy. Archbishop Joseph preached from his heart about his, “ . . . mentor and spiritual father,” and the great loss to the church of his spiritual leadership.

The town of Mehardi in Syria, where His Beatitude was born, held a large memorial service and demonstration to honor their most famous citizen. A portrait of His Beatitude was on display everywhere in sight.

He reiterated several times that Jesus Christ was geographically bound to this area and that the Patriarchate was founded by Sts. Peter, Paul and Barnabas, three witnesses to Christ, not only one. He emphasized many times the unity of the Antiochian Family no matter on which continent they lived, sharing the same Eucharist. He stressed that the Church was not some text or book but the living experience of the faithful in communion with God. He once told the graduating class of the Balamand, “The book that must be read is in the other person whom we encounter in love.”

So I conclude this refl ection as a witness to the passing of an era and a true giant in Antiochian Orthodoxy. We, the faithful who have known His Beatitude during his entire Ministry, certainly cry out with all our hearts: “May His Memory Ever Be Eternal.”

Economos Antony Gabriel