US Catholic Faith in Real Life

"Olive Sunday" in Damascus

Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Now for something completely different from the TEL blog: Instead of the usual contrarian Cones on the church in the world, a bit of travel. Good luck has brought me to Damascus, Syria for a bit more than a week: Holy Week, if you can believe it. And I'm staying on Straight Street, the very one where the Apostle Paul got his sight back thanks to Ananias. Good old Paul was also, according to Acts, dropped from the top of Damascus Roman wall in a basket to save him from people he had disturbed by his preaching. A nice way to end the year of Paul.

For the Christians of Damascus, today is a big day: Olive Sunday! ("Palm" Sunday is of course the Roman celebration, though all the old Roman liturgical texts, for you Latin lovers, refer to olive branches, not palms. Some clever palm dealer must have got in there somehow.)

Anyway, Olive Sunday is a quite a celebration. The many different Catholic churches--Melchite, Chaldean (where I went), Armenian, etc.--have their own parades, complete with marching bands. The Melchites added their bishop with his great crown, and priests with an icon of the entry into Jerusalem and gospel book, which folks came to kiss--including one baby who needed to learn how to kiss the gospel book. Lots of fun.

Another tradition: Those baptized this year (mostly babies) get all dressed up in their baptismal garb for the parade. I took a little video that I may try to get up--if I can figure it out!

And now for the commentary: All those churches are fully Catholic, in full communion with Rome, though with their own (really long!) liturgies (with participation that would make choir directors green with envy), their own disciplines around the marriage of clergy (priests yes, bishops no). And I haven't even mentioned them all. In Damascus alone there are six different Eastern Catholic churches (add Syrian, Greek, and Maronite), all as ancient as the Roman (Latin) church. It's a real study in the diversity of the church--and a good corrective to our Latin focus on some externals--how we translate texts, whether our clergy are married, whether we kneel during the eucharistic prayer (they don't). Puts it all in perspective.

They could also teach us a bit about joy: Many of the Chaldean Catholics I joined today are refugees from Iraq, but I don't think I've ever been to a more joyful, hopeful liturgy in a long time.