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 as externally.
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) of Aleppo.
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 24:12-13).
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, our Lord.
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.