IN THE NAME OF THE ETERNAL, DIVINE AND ALMIGHTY
IGNATIUS ZAKKA I IWAS PATRIARCH OF THE APOSTOLIC SEE OF ANTIOCH AND ALL
THE EAST, SUPREME HEAD OF THE UNIVERSAL SYRIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
THE EIGHT HUNDRETH ANNIVERSARY
OF PATRIARCH MOR MICHAEL THE GREAT (+1199 AD)
We extend our apostolic benediction, best wishes and greetings to our
venerable brothers, Their Eminencies the Metropolitans; to our spiritual
children: the honorable archdiocesan vicars, chor-episcopii, monks, priests
and deacons; and to all our esteemed Syrian Orthodox people. May the divine
providence of the Lord be bestowed upon them through the intercession of
the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and St. Peter and Paul the Heads
of the Apostles, and the rest of the martyrs and saints. Amen.
After inquiring about your well being...
As the twelfth century AD approached, it found Syria and Upper and Lower
Mesopotamia in a deplorable state of misery. The Frank occupiers were
ravaging the region in its entirety, killing, robbing and bringing destruction
everywhere. They were establishing competing mini states that fought against
each other. One would not hear but news of turmoil, wars and fighting.
The Syrian Orthodox Church was an integral part of this corrupt and unstable
social mileau. As a consequence, some of the faithful became weak in their
faith, their hearts became troubled and their thoughts were in a state
of confusion. A large number of them lost hope in salvation as a result
of distress and the continuous change in the political, social, as well
as ecclesiastical situation.
Mor Mikhayel Rabo (St. Michael the Great) was born during this time,
in 1126 AD, in Melitine (Malatya, Turkey)—at the time, one of the
famous Archdioceses of the Syrian Orthodox Apostolic See of Antioch. His
birth took place during the reign of Patriarch Mor Athanasius VII Abu
Al-Faraj, son of Kamoor (1091-1129 AD). Patriarch Athanasius was said
to be perfect in all virtues and a great scholar. Because of his passion
for knowledge and virtue, the Patriarch ordained the great scholar Malphono
Sayd Ibn Al-Sabouni as Metropolitan of Melitine, who, in less than forty
days after his ordination, was martyred at the hands of Gabriel, the unjust
and brutal Byzantine ruler of Melitine. The latter accused him of some
political matter of which the Metropolitan was as innocent as the wolf
was of the blood of the son of Jacob. Further, Patriarch Athanasius himself
suffered severe hardships in administering the Church internally as well
During his youth, Michael was raised in a Syrian home from which the
sweet fragrance of Christ emanated. His father, Elia of Melitine, was
a virtuous and pious priest and a descendent of the Qandasi family which
produced many servants for the Church. Among them were Athanasius Zakka,
Metropolitan of Ayn Zarba (+1166); Patriarch Michael the Great's uncle,
Mapheryono (Catholicos) Gregorios Jacob; and Patriarch Michael
II Junior, the nephew of Mor Michael the Great, also known as Yeshou Sephtono.
Young Michael became a monk at Mor Barsawmo's Monastery near Melitine,
after which he was ordained a priest and appointed Abbot of the monastery.
During his term as Abbot, he made arrangements to bring running water
to the monastery. When the Patriarchal See became vacant following the
death of Patriarch Athanasius VIII, the Holy Synod of the Syrian Orthodox
Church of Antioch, consisting of eighteen Metropolitans, convened in the
Monastery of Fesqeen near Gargar on Pentecost Day. With the guidance of
the Holy Spirit, the Synod elected unanimously Raban Michael to the Patriarchate
of the Apostolic See of Antioch. When Raban Michael learned of this, he
ran away and disappeared as he thought he was unworthy of this most exalted
position. However, Mor Dionysius Ya`qub Bar Salibi, Metropolitan of Amid
(+1171) and one of the Holy Synod's members persuaded him to perform his
duty. On Tuesday, October 18, 1166, Michael was consecrated Patriarch
at Mor Barsawmo's Monastery with the laying on of the hands of the Mapheryono
along with twelve other bishops. The new Patriarch passed thirty-one laws
in the Monastery of Hananya.
Among the most glorious pastoral works of Patriarch Mor Michael the
Great was the moving of the headquarters of the Patriarchal See of Antioch
from Amid to Mor Hananya
Monastery, known as "Zafaran". On the day of his arrival
at this Monastery and the celebration of his enthronement on the Patriarchal
Seat in the new headquarters, Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Ya`qub Bar Salibi
delivered a fascinating speech that began with "My beloved, today
is the day of joy; today is the day of delight". In his invaluable
speech he enumerated the praiseworthy virtues of Patriarch Michael.
Patriarch Michael paid Apostolic visits to his Archdioceses that were
widespread at that period of time. In 1168, he headed for Jerusalem and
stayed at the Monastery of Mary Magdalene near Damascus Gate (Bab al-caamuud).
There he consecrated the Holy Murun (Chrism) and ordained John
(Yohanna) as Metropolitan for Damascus on Easter day. He then returned
to the headquarters of his Apostolic See at the Monastery of Hananya.
There he passed a number of ecclesiastical canons, as reported by the
great scholar Mapheryono Mor Gregorios Bar Ebroyo. He also held
a Synod meeting in 1169 at Mor Barsawmo's Monastery. In the following
year, Emperor Manuel dispatched a messenger named Theoryanos to the Syrians
and Armenians. Patriarch Mor Michael answered him through John, bishop
of Khayshum, and the monk Theodoros Bar Wahbun.
In 1180 AD, Mor Michael held another Synod meeting where Theodoros Bar
Wahbun of Melitine was excommunicated. Although Bar Wahbun was a great
scholar, he was arrogant and devoid of godliness and fear of God. Bar
Wahbun rebelled against his superior and was later ordained as anti-Patriarch
by four castaway bishops. Although he was a disciple of Patriarch Michael
the Great and was educated in the Patriarchal house, Bar Wahbun denied
the favor of Michael, and in the end, was excommunicated and dislodged.
Bar Wahbun died in 1193.
Mor Michael wrote a book on the ranks of priesthood, liturgical texts
on preparing for receiving the Holy Qurbono (Eucharist), the duties
of man, how to be a disciple of Jesus, and the need for repentance and
confession. The greatest of his works, however, is the ecclesiastical
and secular Chronicle that begins from Creation until the year 1193 AD.
A unique manuscript of this great work is kept to this day in a book-case
at St. George's Church in the Syrian Quarter (hay al-suryaan)
Following his consecration and according to the ancient custom followed
by the Syrian and Coptic Churches, Patriarch Michael sent a letter of
fellowship to the Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Yohanna I Ibn Abi Ghalib,
known as Aba Al-Majd, in which he included his confession of faith. He
also authored another letter to Yuhanna's successor, the Alexandrine Pope
Mark III Ibn Zar'ah, on the Sacrament of Confession. This is the Sacrament
that was rejected by the heretic Mark Ibn Qanbar the blind who created
confusion in the minds of the children of the sister Coptic Church for
a long time by his false teaching. In doing so, Ibn Qanbar had renewed
the heresy of the followers of Origen and the Messalians. Patriarch Mor
Michael the Great refuted the weak reasoning of Ibn Qanbar as well as
his false teachings, proving the necessity of practicing the Holy Sacrament
of Confession. He also supported the excommunication of Ibn Qanbar and
his abhorrent heresy.
Patriarch Michael ordained one Mapheryono and fifty-four bishops.
He departed to the Heavenly Chambers on Monday, the seventh day of Second
Tishrin (November) in the year 1199, at the age of seventy-three,
thirty-three of which he was Patriarch. He was buried in the new church
at Mor Barsawmo's Monastery in the tomb that he had prepared for himself.
Indeed, the life of the commemorated Patriarch Mor Michael the Great,
was one of righteousness and holiness. He led the life of the good confessors
who were persecuted for the sake of righteousness following the example
of most of the Patriarchs and many bishops of our Holy Church. Likewise,
he was an honorable scholar and renowned researcher. Patriarch Ephrem
Barsoum describes him as "one of the greatest pontiffs of the Church
of God, the finest of the Patriarchs of Antioch, a scholar, and a famous
chronicler; of everlasting name, of graceful pursuit, and of uncommon
qualities, of widely known virtues, and of good deeds". Patriarch
Barsoum converses with him saying, "Is it not right for the general
history of the world to remember your honorable name since you have written
those volumes that are full of the events of the ages, from their inception
until your happy reign, for you have brought to life what took place,
and had it not been for you, these would have been totally forgotten?
Indeed, it is befitting to do so for the world in general and for your
nation in particular. Your greatness is manifest not only in this, but
also in the fact that you were magnificent in your virtues, endurance
and self-esteem. You were great in your Patriarchal works. It is no wonder
that history describes you as The Great".
Dearly beloved: On the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the departure
of the Patriarch and the Saint Mor Michael the Great to the heavenly chambers,
we command, by our Apostolic authority, that our Holy Church across the
whole world celebrate this commemoration on the 17th of Second
Tishrin (October) of this year 1999, which we consider the Year
of Patriarch Michael the Great. We further command that the celebration
of this happy occasion begin with the Divine Liturgy which we too will
celebrate, God willing, at St.
Ephrem's Monastery in Ma'arrat Saydnaya. Their Eminences, the Metropolitans
of the Syrian Orthodox Church and her priests shall celebrate the Divine
Liturgy all over the world on the same day, which should be dedicated
for worshipping God and soliciting the intercession of Mor Michael the
Great. The preachers are to speak about the biography of the honorable,
who is commemorated, in their sermons. This Apostolic Encyclical of ours
is to be read once again on that day for our faithful, after it has been
read for the first time on Sunday, Ayyar (May) 23, this year. We
also command that the clergy and people come forward for canonical confession
offering to God true repentance and partake of the Holy Communion with
faith, godliness and fear of God so that they may have the blessing of
the Lord, for "the memory of the righteous is blessed" (Proverbs
10:7), as the author of Proverbs says. Let honorary celebrations, scholarly
seminars, and symposia be held on his pure and godly life and precious
works. In the forefront of this is the Symposium of scholars and orientalists
that was scheduled to convene in Aleppo, but now has been moved to our
Theological Seminary at St. Ephrem's Monastery in Saydnaya between October
1 and 8, 1999.
Dearly beloved: When we reflect on the biography of Patriarch St. Michael
the Great and the secular and religious events that were contemporaneous
to the stages of his life, from his birth until his departure to the heavenly
chambers in the twelfth century AD, we find that our Syrian Orthodox Church
in that crucial time of her history was like the boat that the Lord Jesus
took, as narrated in the Holy Gospel, to cross to the other shore of the
sea. His disciples were with Him. A great windstorm arose and waves beat
into the boat so that it began to fill. He was in the stern, asleep on
a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him "Teacher, do you not
care that we are perishing?" Then He rose and rebuked the wind, and
said to the sea, "Peace, be still!" And the wind ceased and
there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you so fearful?
How is it that you have no faith?" And they feared exceedingly, and
said to one another, "who can this be, that even the wind and the
sea obey him!" (Mark 4:35-41).
Yes, lack of faith in difficult circumstances such as these leads to
fear and terror. However, true believers in Jesus Christ our Lord, who
place their confidence in His Divine capability and His Divine providence
do not become frightened and their hearts do not become troubled no matter
what happens in the universe since Christ has promised them to be with
them even to the end of age. They ought to remain in faith in Him for
He is the Almighty God. They will never be frightened and "their
hearts never become troubled" (John 14:1) so long as Christ is with
them in His church. Regardless of how grave the distress and how relentless
the persecutions waged against the Church of Christ become, She will remain
steadfast and will never be shaken, for God is in her midst (Psalm 46:5).
When the Lord Christ founded Her on the rock of faith that heavens proclaimed
through Peter, the head of the Apostles, He promised Her saying, "and
the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
Even though the accursed Devil is still trying to "deceive, if possible,
even the elect," (Matthew 24:24) but he will always be defeated in
the face of the power of Christ Jesus and His righteous followers. Nevertheless,
we should not be surprised if we find sometimes some of those whom the
Lord selected to become a light for the world follow the seduction of
the Devil, the light in them turning into darkness. They cause trouble
to the good shepherds of the church. The Lord in His sermon on the last
days has said to us, "because lawlessness will abound, the love of
many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end should be saved (Matthew
We thank God, may He be exalted, Who looks at His church with the eye
of His mercy, embrace Her with His care and constitutes in Her good shepherds
such as the commemorated Patriarch Mor Michael the Great, to shepherd
his sheep, ewes and rams with good care and offer His servants their spiritual
food on time. Those are the holy fathers who live according to the Gospel
of Christ and act in accordance with the law of the Lord Jesus, His enjoinments,
and Canon of His holy church for which he gave his precious blood. In
doing this, they bear hardships, fight the good fight, finish the race
and keep the faith like St. Paul the Apostle. The Lord, the righteous
judge, will lay up for them in Heaven the crown of righteousness which
He will give to each one of them, and not to them only but also to all
who await His second coming.
How happy then will we be, shepherds and flocks, if we make Patriarch
Mor Michael the Great an example to us in holding to the faith, working
according to the law of the Lord persisting in it day and night, and complying
with the Canon of the Church which has been enacted by the inspiration
of the Holy Spirit that it may keep us within the fold of Christ Jesus,
May God make this happy memory a cause of blessings for you all, through
the prayer of our Lady the Virgin Mary, that of the holy Patriarch Mor
Michael the great, the righteous martyrs, and all the Saints. May the
grace of the Lord embrace you always and forever. Amen.
Our Father Who art in heaven, ...
Issued at our Patriarchal
house in Damascus, Syria
on the 14th day of March, in the year one thousand nine hundred
and ninety nine which is the 19th year of our Patriarchate.