"I could feel the angels and archangels and could hear the choir
of the saints responding with melodic voices as were present in the Kingdom
of Heaven," said Father John Salem of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox
Church of San Francisco.
It has been some two weeks since Patriarch Ignatius IV had visited San Francisco, but the buzz about his presence and the unity among all Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Bay Area is still felt strongly among the people.
"I have not felt this comfortable or this at home in San Francisco since His Beatitude (Holiness) came," said Tony H. Karam 30, who is earning his masters degree in Mechanical Engineering at San Francisco State University.
The feelings are overwhelming; people came from as far as Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Modesto and even Los Angeles just to worship with His Beatitude for maybe the only time in their life.
All branches of Eastern Orthodoxy came to take part in this mystical liturgy. Greek, Russian, Serb, Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, both born into or converts to the faith came together in one church with estimates of 1,200 plus people in attendance.
"The significance is not that he came but how all these Orthodox Christians would come together in honor of His Holiness' arrival in California for what most people will never get to experience again," said in Arabic by Lyla Samo a parishioner at St. Nicholas.
To understand why His Beatitude's visit is so significant one must examine a brief history of the Church. St. Mark the Apostle who wrote the holy gospel founded the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Antioch, which was originally in Syria. The Church is one of the five blessed churches by the Apostles.
The city lies on the northwest tip of the Syrian-Turkish boarder and was annexed by the Ottoman Empire from the Al-Iskandaroun area of Syria. Antioch was the epicenter of constant political controversy during the time of the Ottomans. The ancient Apostolic See found it necessary to move the great city to a major metropolitan area in the Middle Eastern, thus moving the Patriarch to Damascus.
The Patriarch of Antioch's jurisdiction lies in the entire East including the Orient, all Arabic speaking Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, Europe, Cyprus, North, Central and South America as well as Australia.
The Holy Synod is the Patriarch's governing council who are Metropolitans (similar to Catholic Cardinals), they hold a type of spiritual court that select other Metropolitans for "widowed archdiocese" replacing Archbishops who have passed on into eternal life. They also deal with spiritual problems that face the Antiochian Patriarchate.
His Beatitude is a direct successor of founders of the Church of Antioch and a successor of the teachings of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul.
Preparation for his arrival was great. Weeks upon weeks of getting the Parish ready to hold such a large number of people made it that much more challenging for the council who prepared the church.
Night after night the Church Council would discuss how arrangements would be made for the Patriarch's arrival, who would pick him up, where he would stay and the type of security needed to take care of His Beatitude.
The day had finally arrived. St. Nicholas was full of strong Christian Believers at 7 a.m. for the 10 o'clock Liturgy ready to partake in the Mystical Supper of Christ and to witness what was only thought possible to occur with their relatives living in the Middle East.
"I couldn't believe it, I got here at 8 thinking I was early to help as an usher and to my surprise the first half of the church was full of people," said David Hanhan, 27, a Chiropractic Student.
Metropolitan Elias of Beirut and Bishop Joseph of the Western Region of the United States accompanied his Beatitude Ignatius IV. Thirty Priests, Deacons, Sub-Deacons, as well as 12 Alter Boys all stood by in the Holy Alter of St. Nicolas in preparing for Liturgy.
Five giant sized plastic bags were filled to the top with bread for the Holy Communion to be served to the Orthodox Christians. Most of Diamond Heights Street was blocked off my police barricade waiting for the black Lincoln Limousine to drive up as the Choir was preparing to sing "God Grant You Many Years" to the 85-year-old man. "I lost count of how many loaves we cut after the first two bags were filled," said Tony H. Karam.
As he entered the doors of the Church, the Parishioners all rouse to their feet trying to get a glimpse of the small stature man who holds the title Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
Standing what looked to be about 5 feet 4 inches, dressed in black from head to toe with a long walking stick adorning a traditional long beard that has become custom for Priests and the higher ups of the Church to have.
The Priests had just finished blessing each other's garments as His Beatitude entered the Holy Alter. All of them gathered together to robe (dress) him in his Patriarchal clothes.
"My attachment to him and the church has brought me closer to my faith," said Dr. Tali Bashour who preformed heart surgery on His Holiness about five years ago.
Finally the time had come for the Holy Communion. His Beatitude blessed the wine and bread, which became the blood and body of Christ and passed out the chalices to the several Priests distributing communion. Priests and alter boys were sent downstairs into the church hall where a live video feed was sent for the people who were not able to enter the church due to fire safety codes.
After Liturgy a banquet was held in his honor at the Crown Plaza in Foster City. There, men close to His Beatitude all praised him for his hard work in the church and uniting together with the other sections of the Eastern Orthodox Faith that spoke with the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in which they have finally united the dates of the Resurrection of Christ all to be celebrated in unison.
"Each one gives a spirit to the Church, he (Patriarch Ignatius IV) gives a sense of love and a vision and to bring about a University in Lebanon during the height of the civil war only shows how much love he has for his faith," said Father Thomas Paris Dean of Ascension Greek Orthodox Church in Oakland.
"Volumes of books could not hold the works that you (His Beatitude) have done," said His Grace, Bishop Joseph.
After His Grace had finished speaking, His Beatitude walked to the podium thanking everyone in attendance for making him feel welcome.
"I have two choices, to speak in English where few will understand me, or to speak in Arabic where no one will understand," joking said Patriarch Ignatius IV.
"There is a practical weakness because Orthodox people do not meet enough," he said. "If we continue not to see each other, then a pit will be created to divide us," said His Beatitude.
A silence falls over the crowd as people begin to look at one another wondering if they could make time to come together more often.
"We are created individually, but that we may come together as a community," he said. "What we constitute as a family at home is an image we want to create for our community," said His Holiness.
As the Patriarch finishes his monologue all 500 plus people at the banquet stand in cheer, praise and a sense of brotherhood for the father of the Church of Antioch all waiting to try and receive a blessing from him.
"Each of you are a stone of the building which is called the Church. The Priests, Bishops, Patriarchs and buildings are for you, you are the Church. Please feel like you are for each other," said His Holiness