Patriarch Gregorios III, head of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church, is encouraging his faithful to offer their prayers and other Lenten observances for peace in Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
The patriarch leads a worldwide flock of 1.6 million Eastern Catholics, most of whom either reside or have roots in Syria and Lebanon. In his Lenten letter for 2011, addressed to all clergy and laity of the Melkite Church, he explained the importance of Christian asceticism in light of current events.
“We can help our people’s way of the cross, sufferings and endurance to become the way of resurrection,” the patriarch wrote.
“Through fasting, prayer, penitence, alms-giving, works of charity and mercy, we accompany the birth-pangs of several of our Arab countries, shaken from the beginning of this year by painful events.”
Patriarch Gregorios said he hopes that the ongoing turmoil, particularly in many North African countries, would eventually lead to “social justice, rectitude in government, service for the well-being and development of Arab citizens,” and to their “spiritual, human and social progress.”
To encourage a spirit of sacrifice and union with the oppressed, he urged Melkite Catholics to observe their “sacred rule of fasting,” which differs from the traditional Roman Catholic discipline.
The Melkites' practice of fasting, also observed by Eastern Orthodox Christians, involves abstaining from most animal-derived foods – such as meat, eggs, and dairy products – for the entirety of Lent, and from wine and oil on most weekdays.
“Despite different dispensations which were put in place for different situations in life,” observed the patriarch, “the discipline of fasting according to the old, Eastern tradition remains firm – and, thank God, fairly well practiced in many monastic religious institutions and among the clergy and faithful.”
Patriarch Gregorios also encouraged the faithful to revive the practice of tithing, as another form of solidarity with the poor and needy. He said that the contribution of one-tenth of one's income to the Church “has spiritual as well as social and humane aspects.”
“Indeed,” he reflected, “by observing this rule, we are practising charity to the poor, sick, sufferers, students, unemployed and anyone in need.”
The patriarch has been strongly emphasizing the importance of worldwide solidarity with Middle Eastern Christians. In another recent message, he asked “all Christian people” to remember the bond between themselves and other believers, “at this very difficult moment for Arab countries.”
Patriarch Gregorios quoted the words of St. Paul to remind his followers that “in the body of Christ, when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.”
During Lent, he said, “we shall not be merely passively following events on the media, but actively praying for justice, social peace, unity and liberty.”