Mar Matthew Gregory Nakkar, A Syrian Saul

(Reprinted with Permission)

Editor’s Introduction: In the Arab Catholic world there is a rich treasury of liturgical rites. The Ancient Syrian Ritethat of Antiochis the “parent rite” of five “children”: The Maronite Rite, discussed at length in this same issue; the Syrian Rite, which is discussed in the following article; the Chaldean Rite, which has preeminence in Iraq; and two rites celebrated in India: the Malabar and the Malankara Rites. The Melkite Rite, which is also present in Arab lands, is an Arabic adaptation of the Byzantine Rite of Constantinople. Aside from the Maronite, and Malabar Rites, the above listed rites represent, in general, bodies of Christians who have returned to Church Unity from schism and heresy. The Jacobites were Monophysites, that is, they rejected the sacred humanity of Our Lord, believing Him to have only the outward appearance of a man. Those who returned are known as Syrian Rite Catholics.

Between 1825 and 1830 nearly all the Syrian Jacobites in Damascus and Southern Lebanon, including their Bishop, Jacob al-Haliani, returned to the communion of the Catholic Church: there were, in fact, only fifteen Jacobite families left there. Alarmed, the Jacobite patriarch sent Matthew Nakkar, Metropolitan of Mosul, to Damascus to deal with the situation, and to see, like a new Saul persecuting the faithful of that city, that Bishop Jacob was imprisoned.

Nakkar, born in 1795 into a distinguished family which for 600 years had monopolised the Jacobite See of Mosul, was ordained a priest at the age of 25, and succeeded his uncle as Metropolitan in 1826. He soon distinguished himself for his zeal against Catholics of the Syrian rite, denouncing them to the Muslim Turkish authorities for disobeying the Sultan’s order forbidding change of religion. In his Memoirs we read: “My hatred for Catholics, inherited from my ancestors, increased every day; I preached against them relentlessly and formally taught what they regarded as heresy… I did all in my power to hamper their clergy in their ministry… To profess Catholicism seemed to me scandalous and dishonourable.”[1]

It was his success in the imprisonment of two recently converted Catholic bishops in Mardin, obtained from the Pasha at Baghdad for a suitable consideration, that caused his patriarch to send him to Damascus. On his arrival, however, he found that Mar Jacob al-Haliani had sought refuge amongst the Maronites in Lebanon, and all he could obtain was the imprisonment of 25 Catholics for as many days. Seeing that his efforts to have Mar Jacob sent back to Syria were without avail, Matthew decided to give up for the present, and he went to Jerusalem to celebrate Holy Week there.

In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre it is the custom on Easter Eve for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and a Monophysite Armenian ecclesiastic to shut themselves up in the chapel of the Angel before the sepulchre, kindle fire, and pass it out through small windows to the waiting multitude outside. Now it was, and remains, a common belief amongst the schismatics that this ‘holy fire’ still came down miraculously from heaven (as it genuinely had done before the schism), and that this miracle was a sign of God’s approval of the separated churches. This belief was not confined to the simple: Matthew Nakkar, for example, firmly believed in the miracle and all that he had heard about the properties of the holy fire, e.g., that it did not burn. Accordingly, on this Holy Saturday of 1832, he went with his deacon to the church, joined in the procession, united his heart with the excited crowd, and jostled with them to light his candle at the holy fire. With triumph he returned to his deacon, and, to demonstrate the miracle, applied the flame to the deacon’s long beard — it disappeared in a flash of light, sizzling and smelling. “I cannot express my amazement,” wrote Mar Matthew, “I was so certain that the fire would not burn that for a few minutes I was stupefied: then I pulled myself together and bitterly reproached my deacon for his lack of faith that had caused his beard to be burnt!” It was the beginning of the change in Matthew Nakkar’s life: if the “holy fire” was not miraculous, then it was not the sign of God’s approval of his church that he had believed it to be; henceforward he began to have other doubts, and he resolved to make a study of those points of religion about which there is disagreement between the Jacobites and the Catholic Church.

He was soon to have this opportunity in an unexpected way. Having traveled to Aleppo to have the Catholics there expelled, he was obliged to wait there until the end of the Muslim fast of Ramadan before the orders could be executed by the authorities. Divine Providence so disposed it that, in the mistaken belief that he had come to the so-called “Venetian Inn,” Mar Matthew obtained lodging at the monastery of the French Lazarist Fathers! After the persecutor’s initial surprise and fear, the Father Superior won his confidence through his charity and respectful welcome, and soon conversations and discussions followed which turned principally on Monophysitism: was Jesus Christ a real, whole and complete man as well as God, or was He not? Matthew found his views less easy to defend than he had supposed — he was particularly impressed by the testimonies that Father Godès adduced from the writings of the Syrian doctor St. Ephrem, and he asked permission to read himself in the Lazarists’ library. He read there and he prayed; as an honest man, he was really worried. Grace was at work, and on 27 November 1832, in the church at Aleppo that he had come to recover, he made a public abjuration of heresy and was reconciled by the patriarch of the Catholic Syrians, Mar Gregory Jarwah.

Then the persecutor became the persecuted. He went straight to Mardin, the chief Jacobite stronghold, and within two months fifty-four Jacobites had formally abandoned their errors. The Jacobite patriarch cited him before the governor, accusing him of receiving a “chest of gold” from the Pope as the price of his apostasy, and of enticing good Jacobites from their allegiance to the Sultan to that of the “Franks.” The governor, in spite of the evident injustice of the accusations, took the course of Pilate, and soon Mar Matthew was imprisoned in the patriarch’s own jail.

The latter tried everything he could to make him apostatize: he was confined in an empty underground cistern for two weeks, and every evening brought out for a cruel beating. Then, dressed in a caricature of episcopal vestments, he was brought before the patriarch and ordered to curse the Council of Chalcedon. Thereupon he was struck in the mouth, the blow breaking his teeth, and literally kicked from the top of a flight of stairs to the bottom. Unable to move, he was picked up and flung into a hut outside the monastery. “If he dies, throw his body to the dogs” was the order.

The next morning, as Mar Matthew lay in the hut praying to God for strength, a Kurdish princess happened to pass by, and hearing his groans, told her servants to break the door down. Hearing Matthew’s story, she sent for her husband, who had him taken to his palace and nursed back to health. Giving thanks to God and the prince for this unlikely turn of events, Mar Matthew was soon back at his preaching and teaching with more zeal than ever. At the end of a year he had won over his own successor in the see of Mosul and a thousand lay people. Thus he continued for some thirty-five years, bringing tens of thousands of Jacobites to the Catholic Faith in his new diocese of Nabk and Kariatim until, rich in merits and exhausted by his labours, he went to his eternal reward on 22 March 1868 at the Syrian ecclesiastical college at Sharfeh.

[1] British English spellings are used throughout this article.