My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
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“Give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, for His mercy endures forever!”
On this weekend of our national holiday of Thanksgiving when we gather with family and friends, our hearts are filled with gratitude for all the blessings our gracious God has given to us. And, at this time, the Church calls us to turn our minds and hearts to our spiritual preparation for the coming feast of the holy Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ at Christmas.
Lest we get caught up in the secular materialism of our popular culture during this season, our Lord reminds us in the Gospel—both today and last Sunday—of the foolishness of seeking our security in material wealth and prosperity. All our so-called worldly “treasures” will be of no use to us on the day we are called to stand before God face to face. “With what difficulty,” Jesus says, “will they who have riches enter the Kingdom of God.” Indeed, our material blessings, if not used properly, can easily become an obstacle that hinders us from becoming “rich” in the things of God and from living Godly and God-pleasing lives in this world.
The material blessings which Christ gives us in this life are His gifts to us, so that we may care for ourselves and our families, and assist in the building up of God’s Kingdom, the Church on earth. St. Paul exhorts us in today’s Epistle to the Ephesians “to walk in a manner worthy of the high calling…with all humility and meekness, and patience, bearing with one another in love.” My brothers and sisters, this is our “high calling: as Christ our God poured out the riches of His Divinity in love for us, so too He calls us to pour out in love for others and for His Church the rich blessings He has given to us.
Indeed, our Melkite Church is the means by which our Father in heaven showers us with “every good gift and perfect grace from above”, and our Melkite brothers and sisters, with whom, as St. Paul reminds us, we share “one body and one Spirit” are the intended beneficiaries of the gracious gifts God blesses us with, given for the building up of His Kingdom of Love.
It is fitting, then, that at this time of year, I appeal to you, once again, for your generosity and kindness in building up this “household of God” which is our Melkite Church in America. Truly, my heart overflows with gratitude for all your generosity to our Church which enables us to carry out our “high calling” “bearing with one another in love.”
We have so much good news to relate to you about the growth of our Eparchy which has to come to pass, in large measure, due to your generous sharing of the material blessings God has bestowed upon you.
I am happy to relate to you that our Melkite Church is growing on the West Coast. New Melkite communities are being formed in Las Vegas, Nevada, as well as in Palm Springs, California. Our parish of St. George in Sacramento, California is growing so rapidly that walls have had to be knocked out between the church and the rectory to accommodate standing room only crowds for Divine Services, and the parish Sunday school now enrolls over 80 children and young people! Just last week, St. George parish made an offer to buy a former Protestant church on 4.5 acres of land!
A new outreach has also begun from our parish of the Holy Cross in Placentia, California in Mission Viejo which has been meeting regularly for the Divine Liturgy. Our Melkite Mission of the Annunciation in Covina, CA, is growing steadily, as are our churches in San Diego and Temecula.
And there is growth in the South, too. Our new mission of St. Barbara in Houston Texas which has been serving the Divine Liturgy in the Ruthenian Church is presently raising money to buy a piece of land for a future church of their own. And this community will be hosting our National Melkite Convention in July 2018.
And there’s also growth on the East Coast as well. Our Lady of Mercy Mission in Allentown Pennsylvania, which is only a year and a half old is filling to capacity the Latin church where they continue to hold Divine services. I am happy to be able to spend this Thanksgiving weekend with this community. In addition, I have been approached about starting even more Melkite communities in Toledo, Ohio, Jacksonville, Florida, and Portland, Oregon to name a few.
My brothers and sisters, so many people hunger for the light of the truth and the transcendent beauty of our Divine Liturgy. And we are only able to bring these Divine gifts to people because of your generous response each year to the Bishops Appeal. Any efforts to expand our Church in America and to evangelize our people require your financial support.
This past year, your generous gifts have supported the renewal and expansion of our Deacon Formation Program, which now offers online classes, in addition to its two-week residential program. We are blessed to have eleven men in our Deacon Program. And now lay people may also participate in this program to prepare for roles of evangelization and catechesis in the parishes of our Eparchy.
I am also very pleased to report that, at this time, there are four men at Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh studying for the holy Priesthood for our Eparchy. This is, truly, a great blessing, as there are many large Latin dioceses that do not have as many seminarians as we currently have. This is also a great blessing especially because a number of our current priests, who have served our Church faithfully for so many years, are now nearing retirement age. Just as each of you plans for your own eventual retirement, as Eparchial Bishop, I must make sure that our retired priests are cared for in their “golden years.” As we currently have fifteen retired priests in our Eparchy, we must plan for providing additional retirement benefits in the coming years. And it is through your support of the Bishops Appeal that you enable me to take care of these “good and faithful servants” of our Melkite vineyard.
Finally, in addition to funding so many vital works in our Eparchy, we continue to donate a tithe–ten percent–of the total Appeal response to Associated Melkite Charities, of which 40% is sent to the Middle East directly, where, despite recent improvements, the situation remains desperate for many. For example, only six out of twelve Melkite churches in Aleppo Syria are even open. Our Melkite bishops must provide food, rent, medicine, and even home rebuilding for these poor people. Because of your generous response to last year’s Bishops Appeal, I was able to send $60,000 to five Melkite bishops in Syria to assist families devastated by the on-going conflict.
My fellow Melkite brothers and sisters, whether it be establishing new communities and missions, supporting our seminarians and deacon candidates, publishing SOPHIA magazine, ensuring our children’s and young people’s catechesis, or providing for our retired priests, I hope you understand how important your generous financial contribution is to all the critical works of our Melkite “household of God” in America.
Every time I reflect upon the fact that my ancestors walked the same paths and worshipped in the same language as Our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, I feel especially honored and blessed to be Melkite. Yet, realizing that Christ our God has chosen me to shepherd, guard, and promote this magnificent tradition makes me feel extremely humbled, as I am so unworthy of this task. While I rely on your prayers for God’s abundant grace upon me, I must also count upon you to make the financial support of your Melkite Church a high priority in your financial planning. And though I count on you, please know that I never take you for granted. Your generous monetary sacrifice made to Christ with a loving heart for the good of His Church on earth is truly a fragrant offering most pleasing in His sight. And I am most grateful for it.
In the coming days, you will receive my Bishops Appeal letter in the mail, or perhaps you have already received it. Before responding to my letter, I would ask you to consider the words of the Psalmist, “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good He has done for me!” Then “walk in the manner of your high calling” by being as generous as you possible can.
May God bless you and your families and friends with His abundant graces, and may He prepare your minds and hearts to welcome the most precious gift of His love, His Only-begotten Son, Christ our only Savior.
Your Father and Shepherd,
X The Most Reverend Nicholas J. Samra
Eparchial Bishop of Newton