ROME – Marking the beginning of Advent, “a moment of hope,” Pope Francis on Sunday prayed for “martyred” Syria, particularly sharing a sign of hope with the children of the beleaguered country, at war for more than eight years.
“May God our Lord forgive those who do war, who manufacture weapons to destroy others and convert their hearts,” Francis said.
Speaking specifically about Syria, he said he was “adhering to the initiative of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), I will light a candle, together with so many Syrian children and so many faithful from the world who today lit their candles,” Francis said, during his weekly Sunday Angelus prayer, before actually doing what he said.
“These flames of hope disperse the darkness of war!” he said. “We pray for and help Christians to remain in Syria and the Middle East as witnesses of mercy, of forgiveness and of reconciliation.”
Aid to the Church in Need is a papal foundation born after WWII to help Catholics who were in countries under the rule of the Soviet Union, but has since then grown into an international agency, with offices in over 20 countries.
It collects funds from some 500,000 individual donors and then allocates them in projects of particular spiritual connotations, such as the building of churches or the reconstruction of the Nineveh Plains. The latter is a joint effort among the Christian churches in Iraq, ACN, the Knights of Columbus and the government of Hungary.
(The Knights of Columbus is a principal sponsor of Crux.)
The pope also said that he wanted the “flame of hope” to all those who suffer in these days “conflicts and tensions in different parts of the world, near and far.”
“The prayer of the Church helps them to feel the proximity of the faithful God and touch every conscience for a sincere commitment in favor of peace,” he said.
As Francis noted before the Angelus prayer, the liturgical time known as Advent begins today, and lasts four weeks, to “prepare for Christmas, inviting us to lift our eyes and open our heart to welcome Jesus.”
Yet Advent is not only a time to wait for Christmas, “we’re invited to awaken the expectation of the glorious return of Christ, preparing for the final meeting with him with coherent and courageous choices. In these four weeks we are called to come out of a resigned and habitual way of life, nourishing hopes and dreams for a new future.”
Advent, the pope said, “invites us” to a vigilant commitment, “looking outside ourselves, expanding our minds and hearts” to the needs of others, “so many peoples tormented by hunger, injustice and war; to the needs of the poor, of the weak, of the abandoned. This time is appropriate to open our hearts, to ask us concrete questions on how and for whom we spend our life.”
ACN launched the campaign on Sunday, called “Candles for Peace in Syria,” but in the last few days, some 50,000 children of different religions from several Syrian cities, including Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Marmarita, Hassaké, Tartus and Latakia, lit a candle too.
According to a statement released by the pontifical foundation, “the children have prayed and painted pictures symbolizing peace on the sides of their candles: crosses, doves and messages of hope conveying to the world their longing for peace.”
“For it is these little Syrian children who have so often been the first victims of the conflict, which is still ongoing,” the statement said.
The charitable organization is inviting all people of good will to “respond to this cry of peace from the children of Syria, among other things by lighting a candle,” as Francis did today, “in order to spread this message of peace from the children of Syria and send a message of hope during the season of Advent.”
The candle lit by the pontiff came from Syria, created by a craftsman from the Old City of Damascus, and it bears the photos of some 40 children, most of them from Aleppo, and a dove with outstretched wings in the shape of a child’s hand.