Monte Cassino is a rocky hill about 80 miles southeast of Rome. St Benedict established his first monastery here around 529, and never left. Others gathered around him, and it was there he wrote the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for western monasticism. Monte Cassino became a model for future communities. Benedict’s sister St Scholastica (feast day Monday) moved nearby to be close to him
Unfortunately its prominent site has always made Monte Cassino an object of strategic importance. In 581 the Lombards sacked the abbey, and the surviving monks fled to Rome. A flourishing period of Monte Cassino followed its re-establishment in 718, but in 884 Saracens sacked and then burned it down. It was rebuilt and reached the height of its fame in the 11th century under the abbot Desiderius, who later became Pope Victor III. The number of monks rose to over two hundred, and the library and its manuscripts became famous throughout the West. The buildings of the monastery were reconstructed on a grand scale. An earthquake damaged the Abbey in 1349, and although the site was rebuilt it marked the beginning of a long period of decline. The site was sacked by Napoleon’s
troops in 1799.
During the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 the Abbey made up one section of the 100 miles Gustav line, a defensive German line designed to hold the Allied attackers from advancing any further into Italy. On 15 February 1944 the abbey was almost completely destroyed in a series of heavy American led air-raids. The bombing was conducted because many reports from troops on the ground suggested that Germans were occupying the monastery. However, actually during the bombing no Germans were present, and it emerged that the only people killed in the monastery by the bombing were 230 Italian civilians seeking refuge. After the bombing Germans held the position until 17 May 1944, having repulsed four attacks by the Allies. Eventually Allied forces broke the line between 11 and 17 May, and the Polish flag was raised over the ruins on 18 May 1944.
The Abbey was totally rebuilt after the war, and Pope Paul VI reconsecrated it in 1964. Reborn yet again, it is one of the great sights of Italy.
Although so many of the events described in the Gospels took place in Jerusalem, when you go there it is not always so easy to “picture” them. The city has changed so much. Some sites require a great leap of the imagination. Even the Mount of Olives, obviously still there and mostly not built on, is covered with a cemetery and various churches.
So it is particularly moving that excavations on the south side of the Temple Mount have exposed the steps that people climbed up to the great Temple. For this would have been the route, the actual steps that Mary and Joseph took in order to present their baby in the Temple and be purified. Here, amid the crowds of pilgrims and worshippers, one little family slowly made their way up, unnoticed by anyone. …Until, that is, they reached the great courtyards at the top, within the Temple precincts. Here a wise and holy old man caught sight of them and made his way across. He – and the whole of the people of the Old Testament – had been waiting for exactly this moment, for the Messiah to enter his Father’s House. How Simeon’s warm and venerable heart soared as he caught sight of the little bundle in Mary’s arms. How did he know which baby was the One? Some whispering of the Spirit, some quiet idea that grasped his wise inner being. There he is – He has arrived, He is here!
With a great sigh, the sigh of the ages, the sigh of the human race that calls out for our Father, Simeon is ready to fall back into the arms of that Father, for now he can go home. His Father can let him depart in peace, for his eyes have seen the unseeable, the incarnation of eternal love.
And soon Anna comes too. A prophetess, a seer, and of good age also, her heart joins Simeon’s in soaring with a joy that she has never known before. All is complete, all is just beginning. The Old gives way to the New. The Temple now leaves its stones behind, and takes shape in the warmth and intimacy of each human heart.
Today, the steps still rise up to the Temple. But the one presented is now the one who presents. At the end of our journey, we are the one carried in his arms, carried up into our Father’s House. But first, we have to follow his steps… through the Holy Land of our lives.
This month we heard the news that Father Saad Sirop, the brother of Mrs Aida Aris and Mrs Maysoon Aziz, both from our 3 Churches, has been elected a Bishop. At 41 he is the fifth youngest Catholic Bishop in the world. Father Saad has visited us several times over the years, and some of us have watched his journey “from afar”. He has now been named Auxiliary Bishop to the Patriarch of Babylon in the Chaldean Church. This is one of the Eastern Rites of the Church, historically linked to the Syro-Malabar Rite, to which many of our Keralite members belong, including Fr Tomy, and Frs James and Modest before him. It has about 20 bishops, mainly across Iraq and neighbouring Syria, Iran and Lebanon, but also a few in countries where there are large numbers such as the USA.
The Patriarchate is based at Baghdad, where Fr Saad was born 6 September 1972. After studying at university he entered the Chaldean Patriarchal Seminary. He finished his theological studies at Rome at the Pontifical Urbanian University, and on 13 October 2001 he was ordained priest.
After ordination he gained a Licence in Philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome. From 2005 to 2006 he was Parish Priest of St James in Baghdad, Director of Studies at Babel College, and Vice-Rector at the faculty of Philosophy and Theology. His work was cut short when he and colleagues were kidnapped, a tragedy which made the headlines. Transferred to Rome, in 2008 he gained his doctorate in Philosophy, but in 2008 he was back in Baghdad. He became Parish Priest of the Chaldean Cathedral of St Joseph, and Professor of Philosophy at Babel College. He was Dean of the Chaldean priests in Baghdad, and Secretary of the Commission for Christian Youth there. He speaks Arabic, Italian, and English, and is familiar with German and Aramaic.
We cannot imagine the conditions for Christians in Iraq. Fanatics often identify them with the West, but the Chaldean Catholics have in fact been there since the very beginnings of Christianity. In an interview in 2010 Fr Saad said “I was kidnapped on 15th August 2006. I was the first priest in Baghdad who was abducted. For 28 days I was in the hands of a fanatical Muslim group. In that time I learned a lot about myself and about the relationship between the religions. In 2008 I came back to Baghdad, because I love Baghdad, I love Iraq and I love my people, so I wanted to continue working here as a priest. I also have a lot of Muslim friends here.” Bishop Saad, we celebrate your dedication to priesthood, your appointment as bishop, and we pray for you and your people.