By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — After speaking to parishioners and students in the Religious Education program at Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Parish last weekend about the dire situation in Syria, Father Rodrigo Miranda, IVE, was impressed that one of the first to respond was a 13-year-old girl.
“She came up to me and immediately asked: ‘What can we do to help?’” Father Miranda said.
As the current pastor at the cathedral in Aleppo, Syria, Father Miranda is hoping that all Catholics would be just as quick to generously respond to the needs of fellow Christians in the Middle East.
According to Father Miranda, for the past three years Aleppo has been embroiled in a violent civil war that has destroyed the once-thriving Syrian city that is home to about 2.5 million people. While the vast majority of inhabitants are Muslim, Father Miranda said there is a small contingent of Christians living in Aleppo.
“A few years ago, I’d say maybe 15 percent of the population was Christian,” Father Miranda told The Anchor. “Now, I think it’s closer to 10 percent, if not less. We are clearly the minority within the community.”
Not only are Christians in the minority, they often find themselves caught in the middle of the warring factions on either side of the conflict.
According to recent Catholic News Service reports, more than 70,000 people — mostly civilians — have been killed and more than three million Syrians have been displaced inside the country since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. In addition, some 1.1 million people have taken refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
“The problem is you have Palestinians on one side, Arabs on the other, and the Christians are stuck in the middle,” Father Miranda said. “It’s a completely different situation than what you have here in the U.S. You have Christians who are trying to live out their faith — just like any other Christian in the world — but they are caught in the middle of a war raging in the Gaza Strip.”
“Both sides have preconceptions about the other,” he added. “People have their own beliefs and they don’t understand or appreciate the other’s style of life.”
While “everyone receives some form of help from the United Nations,” Father Miranda said Christians must rely solely on the Church for support.
“Our mission (in Syria) is to evangelize the culture,” Father Miranda said. “We are trying to bring Christ to the people. We go to the places where the Church can’t go due to circumstances.”
It’s clear that Father Miranda is very passionate about his missionary work in Syria, and despite the hurdles he’s had to overcome, he remains optimistic.
“As a priest, I lean on my faith,” he said, smiling.
A native of Chile in South America, Father Miranda was ordained a priest in 2006. Before coming to Syria, he previously ministered in Bethlehem, Egypt, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, and for a brief time in Argentina. While serving as a deacon just prior to his ordination in the latter country, he got to know the future Pope Francis.
“He’s a very humble and simple man,” Father Miranda said of the pontiff.
In May, Father Miranda briefly met with and spoke to Pope Francis about the grave situation in Syria, during his weekly general audience.
“I greeted him and introduced ourselves as missionaries in Syria,” Father Miranda wrote on his blog. “Instantly the laughter was gone and the countenance of Pope Francis saddened, unable to hide the deep pain that this war has caused him. We talked a bit about the situation and conveyed to him the gratitude of our people for his prayers. It lasted only a few moments, but they were very intense. Saying goodbye to us, the face of the Successor of Peter lighted up again as he encouraged us with lively enthusiasm ‘Keep going forward in the missions! Keep going forward!’”
In fact, it is this worldwide missionary focus that first drew Father Miranda to profess to the Institute of the Incarnate Word order.
“I was working towards my master’s degree in fine arts when I decided I had to do something else,” Father Miranda recalled. “The Institute of the Incarnate Word community came to do a mission near where I lived at the time and they talked about the work they were doing, trying to bring Christ to the people in a simple way, but with a sense of radicalism.”
That brief encounter not only convinced Father Miranda to give up his studies and career to become a priest, but also to pursue missionary work in the Middle East.
“I wanted to do missionary work in the Middle East because it’s Jesus’ land, it’s the Holy Land,” he said. “It’s the same place where Jesus walked, and where He suffered. It’s where the Church began. It’s where St. Ignatius of Antioch came from. The first eight popes were from Syria after St. Peter, as were many fathers of the Church.”
Of course, Father Miranda probably never realized what he’d be getting himself into when he agreed to come to Syria.
At the height of the conflict, there was a period for six months where they were incommunicado and friends and relatives outside of Syria feared they might be dead.
“We had a bomb attack very near our cathedral, which killed more than 450 people in 10 minutes,” he said. “We had no way to contact people, so our first message posted to Facebook was: ‘We are alive. We are trying to do Christ’s work.’”
Fluent in Spanish, Arabic and English, Father Miranda’s message is clear in any language.
“I think we all need to be more grateful for the blessings we have everyday,” he said. “Take, for example, electricity. You have electricity here in the U.S. and you don’t think about it. In Syria, we sometimes have electricity for one hour a day. And without electricity, there are no lights, no telephones, no Internet, not even pumps for water. At one point, we only had water for two hours every 10 days. And this has been going on for almost four years now.”
Currently on a missionary trip to the U.S. that will next take him to New York, Father Miranda noted this is the first time he’s been able to travel and let the world know about the devastation in Syria.
“People (in Syria) often ask me: ‘Why doesn’t the pope or the Church do anything for us?’ The thing is, people are so involved in their own lives and problems, it’s sometimes difficult to think of people living in other places,” Father Miranda admitted. “When people perceive that they are not being abandoned, it makes a big difference. They feel like the Church is helping them.”
In fact, if not for the support of the Catholic Church, Father Miranda said the current situation in Syria could be a lot worse.
“In Aleppo, the Church prepares and provides 17,000 meals everyday for students, children, and workers in colleges and schools,” he said, adding that most of the schools, hospitals and dispensaries have been severely damaged or completely destroyed.
“Like any other parish in world, there is a sense of hope and peace,” he said. “But we have to remain very prudent in our decisions moving forward.”
Going back to that 13-year-old girl’s question — “What can we do to help?” — Father Miranda said there are two ways.
“First, we ask for your prayers,” he said. “Prayer can help you to understand that you are sharing in the suffering with us. It’s like Christ told St. Paul: ‘Why are you persecuting Me?’ Today, it’s our conflict. We are the persecuted Christians.
“Second, we could use economic support. Right now, the only financial support we are receiving is from the Church.”
Father Miranda’s simple but sincere approach certainly seemed to resonate with people at Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Parish.
“We are grateful that Father Miranda came to share his story with us,” said parishioner Carol Oliver. “It reminds me that we are part of a larger Christian family all over the world and we need to pray for one another and support one another.”
“Father Miranda has awakened my responsibility to pray for the needs of our fellow Christians in the Middle East and around the world,” agreed parishioner Sue Auger. “May God keep him safe and well as he serves the Catholics of Syria.”
“Father Miranda spoke with the Confirmation classes about his work and showed them images of Aleppo from 2010 and contrasted them to today with all the fighting,” said Tim Mitchell, director of Religious Education at the New Bedford parish. “The students asked good questions and Father Miranda asked them to commit to pray a Hail Mary daily for the people of his parish.”
While Syria is essentially a melting pot of 33 different groups or sects representing some 60 countries and varied political interests, Father Miranda said he answers to just one person.
“My job is to be another Christ,” he said. “Jesus is the King of peace; without Jesus, there is no peace.”