As thousands of Christians across Sydney entered the holiest week in the year, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches joined together in Punchbowl to mark Palm Sunday, commemorating Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The remarkable gathering also expressed the hope for greater unity and that, one day, ancient divisions will be overcome.
Thousands of Sydney Orthodox Christians and Catholics took advantage of a once-in-four-years alignment of liturgical calendars as they united to celebrate Palm Sunday last weekend.
The Palm Sunday procession on Highclere Avenue in Punchbowl saw around 5000 faithful from local Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic churches walk together to commemorate Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
The alignment of Eastern and Western liturgical calendars meant that this year major Christian traditions were observing the same dates for Holy Week.
But for Fr Joseph Sleiman LMO, of St Charbel’s Maronite Catholic Church, Punchbowl, the joy was even greater.
“It’s very important when we celebrate this important event that we recognise that Jesus came to save all of humanity,” he said.
“Jesus prayed for the unity of all of his disciples. Jesus wanted his church to be one. Not two or three or four.
“So when we try to celebrate this kind of thing together, it reflects the unity that God intended for us to have from the beginning.”
The event commenced with liturgies in each community’s respective church, and then saw Maronite Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Antiochian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox faithful, led by their bishops and clergy, walk the length of Highclere Avenue singing hymns and chanting prayers as they went.
Fadi Moubayed (above) and the Melkite Marching Band Australia performed for the faithful.
The procession ended with a gathering in the courtyard of St Charbel’s College, where the crowd sang hymns and bishops from each of the congregations led the crowd in prayer.
Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay of the Maronite Catholic Church, Bishop Daniel of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Bishop Paul Saliba of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Bishop Robert Rabbat of the Melkite Eparchy of Australia and New Zealand represented their respective communities.
Bishiop Saliba spoke of the need for revival, especially among young Christians,
“We sing, we shake hands, we smile, and… we leave. Yesterday, to an extent, that was ok, because I wasn’t bombarded by the powers of evil all around me. Today, these powers are focused mainly against my children [and] I see a good number of them drift away from God.
“Jesus, riding on a donkey, asks, ‘what are you doing priests, bishops and faithful? Is my message given to your children’?”
The event, jointly organised by the bishops, was initiated as a contribution to greater unity between churches.
“The unity we speak of is divine, not human. There is no unity without truth and love. Union is revealed in history, and is revealed in the bible and the church,” said Rev John El Karaan of St Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church.
“We are being led by the Holy Spirit, and without the Holy Spirit there is no church.
“This procession is very important … but we hope to achieve theological unity too.”
Dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic churches has been the subject of ongoing discussion recently, with Pope Francis’ meetings with Patriarchs of major Orthodox communities, including the Coptic Orthodox leader, Pope Tawadros, and Patriarch Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
“Sometimes God can talk through people as well as leaders, and there has been a improvement in the way we [congregations] see each other,” said Fr Sleiman.
“This is the work of the Holy Spirit.”