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Saints are part of our DNA as Catholics. They are our friends, our personal companions on our faith journey. They comfort and challenge us, they give us guidance and hope, they help us find God’s plan for our lives. Walking With the Saints passes on the stories of selected holy people who are powerful examples of Christian living.

Walking With the Saints
Saints of Eastern Traditions

by Fr. Anthony J. Salim

When most people hear the term “Catholic,” chances are good they first think of the Roman Catholic tradition.

However, those who know of the Church’s foundations outside Jerusalem realize that the culture of the earliest Church changed rapidly. Within the Roman Empire, the gospel message took on the look and feel of local cultures. Today we speak of the gospel being inculturated.

These differences in traditions—and the rich ways the faith was proclaimed, explained, expressed, lived and celebrated in worship and prayer—remain with us today. Within the universal Catholic communion of Churches are those called “Eastern Churches.” They remain close to the Eastern origins of Christianity in style and character.

The saints profiled in this newsletter all come from the Eastern traditions.

St. Ephrem (c. 306-373)

“Praise God!” the young woman said to Deacon Ephrem as they exited the main doors of their parish church. “The new verses you have written for Our Lady on her feast day are wonderful! They made me think of how good our God is to us in Jesus and how lucky we are to be able to worship today.”

“Thank you, child,” Ephrem replied. “I am still amazed at how God allows me to compose music for the Church, and how you and your choir members can learn the verses so quickly. Our Aboon [Pastor] seemed pleased as well.”

Life for Christians in the land between the great rivers—the Tigris and the Euphrates—sometimes had these nice moments in it. But as a pawn in wars between the two great empires—the Roman and the Persian—Mesopotamia felt the tensions of an unstable political situation. The people of Ephrem’s time knew what it was to suffer at the hands of the great rulers who fought for control over this important place.


All must eat

Ephrem’s Syrian communities in Nisibis and Edessa knew ravages to their homeland from nature as well. Although situated in the “fertile crescent,” this land was prey to earthquakes and, at times, famines—events that take their toll on the lives of people.

After an earthquake devastated Edessa, Ephrem made his way to the point designated for the distribution of food. Tradition tells us that during the famine that hit Edessa in 372, Ephrem was horrified to learn that some citizens were hoarding food. When he confronted them, they offered the excuse that they couldn’t find a fair way or honest person to distribute the food. Ephrem immediately volunteered himself. It is a sign of how respected he was that no one argued with this choice.

He and his helpers worked diligently to get food to the needy in the city and the surrounding area. It is no accident that the following verses reflect not only the physical troubles which beset Ephrem but the spiritual ones as well:

All kinds of storms trouble me—and you have been kinder to the Ark: only waves surrounded it, but ramps and weapons and waves surround me....O Helmsman of the Ark, be my pilot on dry land! You gave the Ark rest on the haven of a mountain, give me rest in the haven of my walls.

Make a joyful noise

Ephrem the Deacon, known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” is considered by many to be one of the foremost liturgical poets that the Christian Church has ever produced. In fact, some compare him to Dante, the preeminent liturgical poet of the Western Tradition. Yet Ephrem’s contribution goes deeper. One of the purposes of his metrical compositions was to combat the heresies of his time. His excellent manner—at once poetic and symbolic—attracted many who had strayed from the teachings of the Church back to firm Catholic belief. For this he has been named a Doctor of the Church.

When we think of what it takes to recognize a saint, Ephrem surely fits the bill: a man who graces worship with meaningful and orthodox song, and who tends to the needs of the poor.

St. Ephrem’s feast day is celebrated on different days within the universal Church. In the East, many Christians venerate him on January 28; in the West, on June 9. St. Ephrem, pray for us!

St. John Chrysostom (349-407)

Pope John Paul II authorized the return of the relics of St. John Chrysostom to his ancestral see of Constantinople on November 27, 2004. Looted by Crusaders in 1204 and taken to Rome, the bones of one of the most famous bishops of the universal, undivided (pre-1054 A.D.) Church came home to rest. This bold act furthered the possibilities for healing between the Western Church and the Eastern Churches.

Nicknamed Chrysostomos in Greek, meaning “The Golden-Mouthed One,” John is widely recognized as one of the most eminent preachers the Church has ever produced. Revered as a saint by both the Eastern and Western Churches, John was a very human man, with struggles from within and without. Yet he attained spiritual greatness and personal sanctity worthy of imitation.

Born in the fourth century in Antioch, then the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, John converted to Christianity as a young adult. He received a classical Greco-Roman education, acquiring the skills for a career in rhetoric along with a love of the Greek language and of literature. As he grew older, he became more deeply committed to Christianity and went on to study theology under the famous teacher Diodore of Tarsus.

Love for Scripture, the poor

John lived an extreme asceticism and became a hermit around 375. He spent the next two years continually standing—scarcely sleeping—and committed the Bible to memory. As a consequence of these practices, his stomach and kidneys were permanently damaged. Poor health forced his return to Antioch.

After recovering, John was ordained a priest (or presbyter) in 386. This event seems to have solidified the two main focuses of his life: his love of Scripture and, like St. Ephrem before him, his clear and outspoken concern for the poor. The following quote is typical of the many things John had to say:

Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food” and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”. . . .What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.

Speaking out against excess

This concern for the poor deepened when, in 398, John was asked to go to Constantinople to become the chief bishop or, as properly known, patriarch. In this wealthy and decadent Roman capital, John was confronted with all that he abhorred. It wasn’t long before he clashed with the Empress Eudoxia, wife of the Roman Emperor Arcadius. Used to the pleasures of the most powerful empire on earth, Eudoxia had Patriarch John banished into exile for his criticism of her lifestyle.

John died on the way to his place of exile in 407, a sad ending to his life of zeal for the gospel and concern for the poor and oppressed. Yet his martyrdom mirrored that of his master, Jesus, who died that we might live.

St. John Chrysostom, pray for us!

St. Sharbel Makhlouf (1828-1898)

“Joseph, Joseph! Come out of the monastery! Come home where you belong!” cried Mrs. Makhlouf and other relatives, convinced that Joseph was making a mistake in entering the monastery. Joseph knew better. His dedication to God and to a life of prayer was already firmly planted in his soul, and he wasn’t about to leave these behind. Joseph desired to join the long procession of devout Lebanese Christians of the Maronite Catholic Church who have dedicated their lives to the service of Christ and the Church through prayer and fasting within religious communities.

Joseph Makhlouf was born on May 8, 1828, in the village of Bqaaqafra in the high mountains of northern Lebanon. He was the youngest of five children born to poor, respectable and devout parents. They made sure their children were adequately fed and well educated.

Obedient and disciplined

In 1853, after a brief time in another monastery, Joseph transferred to the Monastery of St. Maron at Annaya, where he took the name of Sharbel, an ancient martyr in the Eastern Church. It is here that the incident at the beginning of this story took place. On July 23, 1859, Brother Sharbel was ordained a priest.

Like John Chrysostom and countless others before him, Sharbel led a life of arduous asceticism. Then, in 1875, the superior of the monastery gave Father Sharbel permission to live as a hermit. For 23 more years, he did not live independently in the solitude of his hermitage but remained at the disposal of his superiors, following very strict discipline. On Christmas Eve 1898, Sharbel fell asleep in the Lord, faithful to his vision of total dedication to the Eucharist, to the Word of God in the Bible and to Mary, Mother of God.

The fame of holiness that surrounded St. Sharbel during his life spread even more after his death. On the evening of his burial in the churchyard of St. Maron Monastery, his superior, Father Antonio El-Michmichani, wrote in the monastery’s register:

...On 24 December 1898, receiving the Sacraments of the Church, the hermit Father Sharbel Makhlouf of Bqaaqafra was struck by paralysis. He was seventy. Because of what he will do after his death, I need not talk about his good behavior and, above all, the observance of his vows; and we may truly say that his obedience was more angelic than human. . . .

Ecumenical spirit

Many miracles have occurred through St. Sharbel’s intercession, including the fact that his body remained incorrupt for many years after his death. These were proofs that led the Vatican to declare his beatification in 1965. Pope Paul VI, who ordered the beatification to coincide with the closing of the Second Vatican Council, had in mind to propose the holy hermit Sharbel as a providential man, bearing to our modern world a message of deep spirituality of an ecumenical character. The pope stated:

At the closing of the Council, when many souls are inquiring about the proper measures to be used by the Church to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of Christ, how appropriately the Saint of Annaya is reminding us about the indispensable role of prayer, of hidden virtues, of mortification.

On October 7, 1977, Pope Paul VI canonized Sharbel. His life of holiness and rigor is not for all, certainly. However, along our way to the Kingdom, such examples urge us to seriously direct our own lives to the way of the Lord. St. Sharbel, monk and hermit, pray for us!

Next: Special Friends of the Poor

Stepping Out in Faith
by Joan McKamey

Become your best in your cultural setting. Follow in the footsteps of…

• St. Ephrem, who drew many back to the Church through his music, which he used to combat heresy and clarify doctrine. Use your gifts and talents to uphold the truth. Thank someone who has inspired your growth in faith.

• St. John Chrysostom, whose love of Scripture, concern for the poor and ascetic lifestyle led him to criticize the extravagant lifestyle of the empress. Examine your own lifestyle for excesses and make needed changes.

• St. Sharbel Makhlouf, who responded to God’s call to religious life against his family’s wishes and active discouragement. Encourage a member of your family or parish to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. Pray for vocations.

Share how these and other saints inspire you on your faith journey.
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
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