EL CAJON — Our Mother of Perpetual Help Syriac Rite Catholic Church welcomed a distinguished guest on a recent Sunday.
Ignatius Youssef III Younan, patriarch of Antioch for the Syriac Catholic Church, celebrated Mass inside the packed church on July 16.
Patriarch Younan is the global leader of the Syriac Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church that has been in full communion with the pope since 1781. His Patriarchal See is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon.
The See of Antioch dates back to the apostolic era, when St. Peter led the Church there before becoming the bishop of Rome. The Acts of the Apostles (11:26) says, “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”
Patriarch Younan’s visit to Our Mother of Perpetual Help Parish, his first since 2019, was part of a larger pastoral visit to the Syriac Catholic Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance, which encompasses the entire United States and includes 10 parishes, one mission church, and about 3,500 families.
The bishop of the Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance, Barnaba Yousif Habash, joined the patriarch on his visit. It began in Michigan, where the patriarch spoke at the diocese’s national youth conference, and included stops in California, Arizona, New Jersey and Florida.
In an interview with The Southern Cross on July 19, Patriarch Younan recounted how political unrest and economic woes in their homelands of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have led an increasing number of Syriac Catholics to seek better lives abroad.
He recalled the “massacre” on Oct. 31, 2010, at Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad, where over a period of three hours, terrorists killed 48 people who had gathered for Sunday Mass, including two young priests, and wounded more than 80 others.
“After that very horrendous massacre, Christians began … to emigrate much more than before,” the patriarch said.
He also mentioned the ISIS attack on the Christian settlements of the Nineveh Plain in Iraq on Aug. 6, 2014, which led to more than 150,000 Christians fleeing to neighboring Kurdistan. More than two years later, they were able to return and begin rebuilding, he said, but the experience created “an atmosphere of fear and of despair for the future.”
“(Young people) are very much inclined to emigrate and to find life outside (the Middle East), especially in the Western countries (in) North America, Western Europe, Australia,” Patriarch Younan said.
He said the “phenomenon of emptying the Middle Eastern countries of their Christian population” has been exacerbated by the actions of Western nations, including the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In his view, Western leaders have shown little concern for the impact that their decisions have on minority populations in the affected countries.
Patriarch Younan said the Syriac Catholic Church is the smallest of the Eastern Catholic Churches, with about 200,000 members worldwide.
The Church’s main liturgical language is Syriac-Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, the Blessed Mother and the Apostles. However, the patriarch said, the local language is typically incorporated into the liturgy as well; this means Arabic in Middle Eastern countries, French in Quebec, and English in the United States.
The liturgy that Patriarch Younan celebrated July 16 at Our Mother of Perpetual Help Parish included Syriac-Aramaic, Arabic and some English. Following the traditional practice of the Syriac Catholic Church, Communion was distributed by intinction, with the priest dipping the host into the Precious Blood and then placing it on the tongue of the communicant.
Born in Syria, Patriarch Younan has long ties to Our Mother of Perpetual Help Parish, which he helped to establish as a mission in 1994. For a time, he said, he came to the San Diego area once a month and then twice a month to celebrate Masses for the community, while the parish’s current pastor, Msgr. Emad Hanna Al-Shaikh, was in priestly formation.
In late 1995, Pope St. John Paul II created the Syriac Catholic Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance and appointed Father Younan as its first bishop. He was consecrated a bishop in January 1996. In early 2009, he was elected patriarch.
Our Mother of Perpetual Help’s current parish property, which is located at 1101 S. Mollison Ave. in El Cajon, was purchased in 2011. Previously, the community had gathered at Santa Sophia Church in Spring Valley.
The parish currently has between 400 and 450 families.
On July 16, as he concluded his homily, Patriarch Younan encouraged gratitude to God for allowing the parishioners to live in safety in the United States. He also urged gratitude to “this wonderful country,” where they have “the human dignity and the Christian freedom.” But, at the same time, he also counseled them “always … to remember our brothers and sisters who are back at home in the Middle Eastern countries, where … there is no peace, there is no stability, and (there are) a lot of problems.”
“Please keep your brothers and sisters in your prayer and be generous whenever you can to help them survive, with the help of God and the Church,” the patriarch said, concluding with an appeal to the intercession of the Blessed Mother, under the title of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.