A pilgrimage to Syria took place from 28 December to 8 January, just weeks before the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria. It was an all-embracing experience that deeply involved 30 motivated young people led by Fr Francesco Cavallini SJ.
The Stages of the journey
The flight landed in Beirut. The Syrian airport does not cater for scheduled flights. Then we travelled by bus to the Bekaa valley and arrived in Damascus. After an initial visit we continued to Hama and Aleppo and then south to the splendid archaeological site of Apamea. On our way we saw the castles on the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. We arrived at Homs, at the monastery of Mar Musa, and back again to Damascus to the archaeological site of Bosra. Finally, we returned to Beirut, passing through Damascus again.
A country in the cradle of civilisation devastated by war.
These stages of the journey are extremely rich in spiritual, cultural, social and political challenges. “Syria is largely a country devastated by war,” explains Fr. Cavallini. ‘The people live in gutters that can neither be demolished nor rebuilt because of the Western embargo. Electricity is rationed. Diesel is expensive. Oil wells are in the hands of foreign powers. Mafias and the corrupt get rich running the black market at the expense of the people. Young people have no prospects of work and sufficient income to support themselves with dignity, and they all try to find their fortune abroad by emigrating in the best way they can.
Testimonies of the existing good
Despite everything, there are many signs of hope. “First of all, there are many Christian Churches: Syro-Catholic, Syro-Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Greek-Orthodox, Maronite, Chaldean, Latin. They are different but capable of peaceful, respectful, and collaborative coexistence. There is also the presence of the Franciscans with their schools and parishes. They collect charity and everyone flocks to them for help.
The Jesuits of Homs, who had one of their companions, Fr Frans Van der Lugt killed by Isis, have resumed their many activities for young people, including those of other Christian Churches and Muslims, in a city strained by war with many deaths and destruction. Particularly significant is the testimony of the Jesuits in Damascus, who have built a beautiful and modern youth centre, the Hurtado Centre, in a poor and overcrowded suburban neighbourhood because of the refugees inside Syria.
There is also the Mar Musa monastery in the desert north of Damascus, founded by Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio together with Fr Jaques Mourad, who was appointed Bishop of Homs for the Syro-Catholic community.
Maalula is a Christian village where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken, in the mountains of anti-Lebanon. The village is devastated by rebel troops. To the question: “how do you deal with grief for dead family members, anger and resentment?” they replied: “the pain of loss will remain forever, but we are children of the Resurrection, and we want to be in the world seeking good and not evil, loving and not hating, rebuilding and not running away”. We concluded with the Lord’s Prayer recited in Aramaic in an atmosphere of deep emotion that we still hold, and which spurs us to carry on.
It was meant to be a spiritual and cultural pilgrimage… it was much more. The initiative is part of a series of pilgrimage proposals in the Biblical Lands offered by the Jesuits to young people in collaboration with Percorsi di Vita e AMO Amici del Medio Oriente (Friends of the Middle East). Not only pilgrimages are being offered but also service experiences and voluntary work, the Spiritual Exercises, and cultural trips.
Francesco Cavallini SJ