Monsignor Paolo Pezzi with Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria

Syria: Pilgrims in a tormented land

Not since 2011 had such a large group of pilgrims visited Syria. They were a group of 44 Russian Catholic and Orthodox faithful led by Monsignor Paolo Pezzi in the footsteps of St. Paul. An account of those days

"Thank you for coming to Syria! Such a large group of pilgrims had not come since the beginning of the war." The incredulous, curious and grateful looks of the Syrian people: this is what first struck the group of 44 Catholic and Orthodox pilgrims who came from Russia under the leadership of Monsignor Paolo Pezzi at the end of April. We felt expected, welcomed and loved during seven days in the land of the Apostle Paul. A week of visits, prayers and meetings with a history spanning more than 5,000 years.

It was a pilgrimage that introduced us to Syria's very long and very rich historical and cultural heritage and allowed us to walk in the footsteps of the Apostle of the Gentiles: the Roman road on which Paul ran into Christ ("Saul, why do you persecute me?"), the road where Ananias had the courage to meet the terrible persecutor of Christians, the house where Paul was introduced to the contents of the faith, and the walls of the ancient city from where Paul fled at night. We then visited the fruits of St. Paul's missionary work - ancient monasteries founded by his disciples - and traces the presence of the Crusaders. Finally, we had the opportunity to learn about aspects of the social work that Christian churches carry out today in war-torn and earthquake-affected Syria. The meetings, Monsignor Pezzi's sermons, the places visited, and the contact with Christian communities helped us put together the pieces of an otherwise incomprehensible mosaic.

From the first day, the bishop offered us the path of personal work: "Our response to the Lord's initiative is always a conversation. It is the path that St. Ananias also had to take. He too did not fully understand God's initiative, but overcoming an initial moment of misunderstanding, he trusted. And so he became the "instrument of salvation" for Paul. All of us, like Ananias, need conversion."

The visit to the office of Pro Terra Sancta in Damascus, then, made us perceive the extent of people's needs: medicine, medical care, food, help with renting houses for displaced people, help with heating costs. In Syria, the drama within a drama are young people: those called to military service, for example, can only re-enter civilian life after 9 years. This prevents them from raising a family and developing the knowledge they acquired during their studies. It is a broken generation.

Read also - "These nuns are not afraid"

We then went to meet the Val Serena nuns of the Azeir monastery on the border with Lebanon. Sister Marta explained to us that St. Benedict, in founding Western monasticism, drew on the earlier Eastern tradition. For the daughters of St. Benedict, therefore, returning to the places of the cenobite fathers restores to this land the richness that arose from it.

"I came to this pilgrimage," Tania from Moscow confided to us, "full of my daily problems. And here I saw people with far more serious problems after the war. Yet I see them happy. A happiness that comes to them from faith. I return with so many of questions about my life." As Aleksej writes to us, "I have just returned and already I see how this journey in Syria we experienced together raises so many questions and challenges in me. The faith of the people we met cannot leave me indifferent, because I also want to live on this level." Here we had gone to give (milk powder and shoes for the children of Aleppo and offerings collected in Russia) and we found ourselves being revived by a witness of true and genuine faith. The blood of the many Christian martyrs of recent years is already generating something in us.