Syriac Catholic Bishop Paulos Antoine Nassif poses for a photograph Jan. 26 at the Syriac Catholic Archbishopric in Beirut. Nassif, ordained Jan. 23, will lead the first apostolic exarchate for Syriac Catholics living in Canada, with the jurisdiction based in Montreal and Laval, Que. CNS photo/Dalia Khamissy

New Syriac bishop wants to make Canada home for faithful

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • March 20, 2016

MONTREAL - Canada’s first Syriac Catholic bishop says his immediate challenge is to minister to refugees from the Middle East and at the same time move forward with plans for evangelization in his vast new Canadian diocese as he prepares for the demands of the Easter season.

Paulos Antoine Nassif, who was ordained a bishop Jan. 23 in Beirut and installed as bishop of Canada’s first Syriac Catholic apostolic exarchate on Feb 27, has hit the ground running. He has already made pastoral visits to Ottawa and Toronto and has established his cathedral see at St. Ephram in Laval, Que.

“I want the faithful to feel that, even in Canada, the Church is a mother, a home for them,” he said. “I’m willing to be close to the people, I want to be close to them. I’m going to encourage the priests to do the same.”

Until Nassif was appointed tothe post by Pope Francis in January, Syriac Catholics in Canada were under the jurisdiction of the Newark, New Jersey Epararchy of Out Lady of Deliverence. The new Canadian Eparchy has five priests serving more than 16,000 people in parishes in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Nassif said he hopes to work with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion and with Liberal MP Eva Nassif, a distant relative who represents a Laval riding, on humanitarian and refugee initiatives. Both politicians attended his instalment.

“The climate in the Middle East is not favourable to Christians,” Nassif said. “In Iraq and in Syria they are imprisoned within their borders over there. They live in hope, but conditions there are very difficult. I have no doubt that the Canadian government considers this issue one of its priorities too. We all want stability.”

Nassif, 47, the third of four children in his family, was born in Biakout, Lebanon. An accomplished violinist, he has performed with the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music. He entered the seminary in 1987 and after obtaining a degree in theology and philosophy was ordained in 1992.

Intrigued by the monastic life, he went to Naples to study with the Franciscians, but returned to start a youth movement in Lebanon, and served as an assessor judge with the ecclesiastic court. In 1991 he became a parish priest, was appointed rector of a seminary and then went to Rome to work on his doctoral thesis, which he has not finished.

As a young man he travelled to Canada to visit relatives in 1984, but he said he never dreamed he would return as a bishop.

“I certainly didn’t expect the appointment but I was available. I am obedient. I am prepared to go where God sends me,” he said.

It is, he added, significant that the new Canadian diocese was created during the Year of Mercy when God offers so much opportunity to the Syriac community.

He was installed by the Patriarch of Antioch, Ignace Joseph III Younan, during an emotional two-hour ceremony at St, Ephrem Church in Laval. His mother and a number of Canadian relatives were present for the occasion.

His episcopal arms incorporate a cedar tree, symbolic of Lebanon, and a Canadian maple leaf.

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

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