Friday, March 28, 2014

Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas: The equinox on which the church rode three decades.

The Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, H.H. Moran Mor Iganatius Zakka I Iwas is no more. The Holy Father who lead his sheep for 34 years is now a memory. As funeral service dates and the place of the funeral have been fixed and as people are waiting to be a part of the funeral, in person and online, one must bring grief, loss and confusion into perspective to come to terms with what has happened.

The patriarch did have health issues which were also linked with age but no one expected an end now. So much that many faithful in India are still waking up to the fact that their spiritual leader won’t be coming to India again to meet them and share his love with them. His passing away is a loss in definite terms to everyone who knew him personally, those who saw him from far and those who read and heard about him.

Grief has to have a way of being dealt with and when a national or church leader dies we try to deal with the grief that we have. The Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas is and was seen as a spiritual father to all the faithful in the church. The grief we are trying to deal with today is the grief of having lost a father. Seeing pictures of the patriarch in church and even in houses has been a constant for these 34 years. It was the feeling that when you entered the two common and most warm places in your life, your Holy Father was there to greet you. That was a constant and this removal of the constant becomes one of the significant aspects of the grief felt. It is like saying that wherever we went and whatever we did, we could come back to our house and to our church and see this familiar face which would put us at ease.

The loss felt at this point of time is of having lost the person who stood as the symbol of leadership for everyone. He was the sublime face of what is and what isn’t. Losing out on this face and the memories which come with it, make us feel that we have lost something so deep, committed and fixated in our hearts and minds that we cannot replace this with anything else. One has only one father and somehow another face cannot replace this immediately. The throne of the patriarch and the authority of the patriarch go beyond the personality of the patriarch but never the less the personality touches us in more ways than the throne or the authority can.

The confusion for the people is what happens next? Who will be the next patriarch and will that person be able to fulfill all that the Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas has been to all? This confusion adds to the grief of having lost our father. It is the pain of uncertainty coupled with loss that makes grief even so much more hurtful. Many of us have already experienced this with the passing away of our parent/s. This puts us back in time to a place when we lost many things and it took time to get back to our normal lives. This time our mind tells us that we are repeating this feeling in our lives.

There are several things that give us solace and hope at this time though. The patriarch was born in an ordinary family and had an ordinary life style. He joined the seminary like any other youngster who wanted to serve the church. Iraq where he was born and Syria where he then lived went through severe strife and violence. The violence in Syria continues till date. He has had to deal with Muslim Christian tensions which come with living in the same place and having a shared culture but different belief. He had to bear witness to the migration that people in his church had to undertake from their own land. He has watched the schism that affected his church in India. In essence, the patriarch watched not just the best of what happened in the church but the worst of what happened. His enthronement and period as Patriarch went through suffering and violence. But he withstood all of this with utmost sincerity and passion for service. At this time of grief this gives us constant solace and hope. The Patriarch stood his ground no matter what and so will we, because we are after all his followers.

Such problems in his own church did not deter him from being ecumenical. He fostered good relationships with other churches and set forth a great precedent in church relations by coming together with Pope John Paul II to sign a historic agreement of acknowledging the misunderstandings that crept into the churches and looking at the way forward. His straight and up right relationship with various sister churches and with member churches in the WCC showed time and again that he was as ecumenical as a Patriarch could be and one should be proud of that.

His scholarship and academic interest lead him to pen several articles and a study of these articles exposes the openness and just theology of the Patriarch. His article on women in the church is a reminder to the people in the church that God does not take sides and if at all takes sides with the weak in society. His articles therefore become a good resource for further research and study. Perhaps his basic seminary education in Syria and his further education in the U.S. together with his experience as an observer in the Second Vatican Council and his association with the World Council of Churches as one of its president’s gave him the openness to see theology and doctrine as it is instead of seeing it as how he wanted to see it. His wish to have a place of education and research lead him to build the seminary in Syria called the Mor Ephrem Seminary and Monastery at Ma’arrat Saydanaya in Syria, where incidentally he will be buried. It further made him remark that seminary and theological education in the church was very important and hence the church needed theologically educated priests. His love for the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Theological Seminary is well known and his penchant for a system and a framework made him do things in the way that the Indian church wanted it at times. Scholarships in the Patriarch’s name were made available not just to Syrian Orthodox candidates but also to Orthodox Syrian, Marthoma and other Syrian church denominations. I think it wouldn’t be far fetched to say that other sister church denominations made use of foreign scholarships in comparison to our own church members. But we can see this as a good approach that the Patriarch followed in which he chose to give away a scholarship instead of seeing it go waste. The gloominess and vacuum of his departure can be made up to an extend by encouraging theological education and research in the Syrian Orthodox Church in India. We would be honouring the Holy Father by such a distinguished decision and move.

The Patriarch’s passing away on March 21 also signifies a special day, when usually on the 20th or 21st , night and day are almost on equal terms. It is also a day used to calculate the Easter date every year. The Easter date is calculated as the first Sunday after the full moon occurring on or after the Vernical Equinox or Spring Equinox, that is, after March 21. The Spring Equinox signifies that the son is betrayed, dies and is resurrected to attain eternal life. March 21 is seen as important by many religions. The Parsis commemorate it as the beginning of spring and the beginning of the New Year. It is also seen as the time of the fight between good and evil and of good emerging victorious. His passing away at a well placed time could suggest something hope filled to the church suffering from civil war in Syria.

A leader is a leader not just by the position he or she occupies but of what the leader makes of that position. The Patriarch vociferously expressed his expression for his flock. His four visits to India and his numerous visits around the world to meet people in the church were moments of the leader reaching out to his people. This was despite his flailing health and weak knees. Anyone who visited him felt the warmth and hospitality of a human being more than a leader. This raised his stature among the people and attracted people to him. One church member grieved the passing away of the patriarch and reminisced of his experience with the Patriarch saying that he felt a positive energy when he stood next to the Patriarch. His sadness was not just of the passing away but of the thought that he could not experience this positive energy anymore. This positive energy can make people attracted to a leader to the point that they feel assured and confident in the presence of such a leader. The Patriarch managed time and again to become a soothing presence to his people and to those who met him.

The Patriarch managed to bring more people to the church by seeing the change in times. Within the traditional understanding of the church he understood that when ordinary people want to come to the church, the doors of the church cannot be closed completely to them. This may have prompted the Patriarch to accept two churches from South America into the Syrian Orthodox fold. The first number about 100,000 and are from Brazil and the second number a whopping 800,000 and are from Guatemala. Such openness may also provide hope for many others all over the world. Whatever was the reason for the Patriarch to do this, the positive ramifications of this will provide more vigour to the church and prove that the church is much beyond specific race and tradition.

To sum up, the Patriarch Ignatius Zakka Iwas has managed to be a Patriarch and a true Holy Father for all the faithful. His spirituality, theology, and above all humanity have been something which the coming generations can emulate. Even as we grieve, the Holy Father has given us the hope of spring and resurrection. He has made us look forward to the rest of lent with renewed vigour, faith and hope. More than grief, he has reminded us of a new beginning and a fresh start. This is centred on the faith in the resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace our Holy Father and keep praying for us.

(The author is the small boy in between the then Patriarch Ignatius Yacoub III and the present Catholicose Baselios Thomas I.)

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