PHOTO | LORRANE TURCHANSKY
Members of the faithful talk with Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith following a Sept. 14 Mass for peace in Syria at St. Joseph's Basilica.
Catholics attending a special Mass for peace in Syria were united in the belief that the power of prayer can help to end the violence in the Middle Eastern nation.
"People of faith are recognizing a deeper and prior agency at work - the power of prayer," said Archbishop Richard Smith, when addressing hundreds of people at the Sept. 14 Mass at St. Joseph's Basilica.
"At the call of Pope Francis, countless thousands implored the Lord for peace at a time when a military strike seemed certain to occur. Now there is real hope that it can be avoided," said Smith.
The day marked the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Even prior to the chemical gas attack in August, the day was earmarked by the Canadian bishops as a day for prayer and fasting for the crisis in Syria.
The day also marked the conclusion of a joint campaign with Development and Peace to raise funds in support of Syrian refugees. A special collection was taken at Mass.
The previous Saturday (Sept. 7), a similar prayer service for Syria, led by Auxiliary Bishop Greg Bittman, was held at the basilica with several hundred Catholics in attendance.
In his homily, Smith noted that news of a possible diplomatic alternative to military strikes in Syria followed the previous week's prayers by people around the world.
"The situation in Syria remains horrible. Our hearts continue to weep for the people who suffer and are forced to flee their country," said the archbishop. "We recoil in horror that the use of chemical weapons could even be contemplated yet alone used on innocent people."
"Certainly prayer can make a difference," said Alfred Fiumefreddo, who attended the Mass. "It's about time that the world made big notice of Syria and their problems. It's long been overdue. It was a very moving ceremony today."
Christian Syrians were among those at the basilica, and Smith assured them that they have his solidarity, love and support.
"There is no more effective way to demonstrate our solidarity than through shared prayer. From the depths of our hearts we must continue to pray, confident that the Lord alone has the power to change hearts," said Smith.
Maria Mastrih is a Catholic Syrian who has lived in Edmonton since leaving Syria seven years ago. She fasted on consecutive Saturdays, Sept. 7 and 14.
Mastrih told the WCR that gathering together in prayer is important for resolving the Syrian crisis.
"Some people are Catholic, some people are Orthodox and we've all joined up to be one in prayer," she said. "The emphasis from the pope and from the bishops calling us to come together as Christians from Syria and Christians from the Middle East, it's important that we all be together in the name of God."
She is convinced that prayer, especially the rosary, and fasting will make a difference.
"This Mass is very essential because it's announcing to the world that it's important to have peace, and not to have war. That's what Jesus taught us, and why we're doing this today," said Mastrih.
The archbishop said the sickness besetting Syria is idolatry - worshipping as god something which is not God. The ancient Israelites, he noted, attributed the powers of the living God to a golden calf.
"In different ways we can see the same thing happening in our own day. We are constantly fashioning 'golden calves' out of money, reputation, possessions and so on and allow these inanimate things to rule us."
The dangerous idols of today are power, hatred and pride, Smith said. Such idolatry has resulted in countless men, women and children being victimized.
The antidote, he said, is mercy. St. Paul persecuted the Church, but everything changed for him when he encountered mercy, when he met Jesus.
"God is not aloof, indifferent to the plight of his people. No, God comes looking for his lost ones so that he might show them mercy and heal them," the archbishop said.
Sam Waller, also at the Mass, said most Canadians may be passive about international politics, but he insisted, "I want Canadians to pay more attention to this conflict. It's a very serious situation there, something we can no longer ignore."
The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising started two and a half years ago. More than two million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries.
Praying and fasting are a good start to supporting the Syrians, even if Canadians are otherwise uninformed of the strife there, he said.
"People here don't have to know all of the issues, like the state of their human rights or the chemical weapons being used in Syria," said Waller.
"But we should let the local Syrians know that we are thinking of them and care for them. We're keeping them in our prayers."