The journey to the Lebanese/Syrian border was uneventful for most of us, but one coach was held up on both sides of the border for about three hours. This was an opportunity to exercise patience and good humor. In spite of the occasional wave of anxiety on board, most people, with God’s help, managed to remain calm and in good spirits. The writer was one of the pilgrims on this bus. One priest from the United States later mentioned jokingly that everything seemed to go wrong around him. Both he and the bus quickly acquired notoriety and visitors to the bus, including Vassula, were warned not to stay too long!
We checked in at the magnificent Hotel Ebla Cham in Damascus. Next morning we departed for Palmyra where we visited the Roman ruins in the burning heat. We had planned to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the impressive amphitheatre but to avoid being baked alive, we retreated to a nearby hotel, where we also ate lunch, and the Liturgy was celebrated with great devotion on the stage of a conference room. The main celebrant was Fr. Eugene Pappas. This was the Orthodox Liturgy without much of the usual ceremonial accompaniments, but still magnificent and profoundly moving.
The next day, Sunday, we visited the old city of Damascus. We began with the chapel, originally a house and then a prison from which St. Paul had escaped by being lowered from a window in a basket. We also visited the Great Umayyad Mosque with its beautiful Roman courtyard and the shrine of the head of St. John the Baptist. The Mosque is a place of prayer. It was interesting to see how people felt relaxed and at home within its walls. It surely reminded us of the description of how Moses and his companions ate and drank in the presence of God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:9-11); the children of Allah, at home in their Father’s house, acknowledged at the door His holiness and the sacredness of the place, again like Moses, by removing their shoes.
Our Sunday Liturgy, Greek Catholic, was at the Melkite Cathedral of the Dormition of Our Lady and the chief celebrant was Bishop Georges Kahhale. Once again, this was a very moving experience, an experience of unity. Surely it will long remain in the memories of the bishops and priests who gathered around the altar. Since the Cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady, we were once again reminded that we were traveling with the Mother of Christ who was like an enthusiastic mother showing her little children some of her favorite places, and some of her favorite people.
We visited the house of Ananias, now a chapel, where St. Paul’s sight was restored after being blinded by the light of the Risen Christ (c.f. Galatians 11: 11-24 and Acts 9: 1-25, 22: 4-16, 26: 9-20).
That evening we were joined by two dinner guests, Bishop Isidore Battika, the Greek Melkite Patriarchal Vicar from Damascus, and the Syrian Catholic Bishop, Monsignor Elias Tobbi. Bishop Isidore’s speech was greeted with enthusiastic applause. He spoke about the wonderful cooperation between the Greek Orthodox and the Greek Catholic communities who chose to build a church to serve both groups. This is the church of St. Peter and Paul at Dumar. He spoke about the importance of Syria, referring to the visit of the late Pope John Paul II. Read more here
"The community of Damascus supports all the history of the Church. In Damascus we have the Greek Orthodox and the Greek Catholic, the Syrian Orthodox and the Syrian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic, Maronite, Chaldean, Protestant, Anglican, Latin. Every Church is represented in Syria. Syria is very important. When Pope John Paul II came to Syria, we called his visit ‘Syria: Beginning of Christianity.’ It is very important...Jesus begins His life between us in Jerusalem, but Christianity like a Church, begins in Syria with Annanias and St. Paul. You know the history from Acts."
Christ is the Founder of His Church, but there is much truth in the idea that Christianity, as it came to be known throughout the world, could not have spread as it did without the conversion and ministry of St. Paul.