31 January 2017
The Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio ministered to people in Syria and committed his life to dialogue with the Islamic world. (photo: CNS)
When we first met this CNEWA hero two decades ago, we had no idea the dramatic turn his life would take.
The Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio had settled in Syria, at Mar Mousa (St. Moses), a monastery about an hour’s drive north of Damascus that had become a treasured pilgrimage site for thousands of people every year. Our story in the magazine from 1998 explained its history:
A manuscript from Mar Mousa now in the British Museum dates the monastery’s construction to the sixth century. Local tradition says the monastery was founded on the site of the grave of St. Moses the Ethiopian (c. 330 – 405).
According to tradition, Moses, the slave of an Egyptian official, was dismissed from service for immoral conduct and theft.
Once freed, he formed a band of fierce robbers, who ran roughshod throughout Egypt. Fleeing the law after one escapade, he sought refuge with some hermits who overwhelmed the robber with their sanctity and kindness. He asked to remain with the hermits and, after making a confession, he received the sacraments. Encouraged by St. Isidore, he overcame his penchant for violence and sex and, with his band of robbers-turned-monks, he traveled throughout the Near East, spreading the Gospel.
Moses became a well-loved individual, particularly in the East, where the Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Latin and Syrian churches honor his memory.
In 1982, when Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest, first came to Syria, the ancient Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mar Mousa was abandoned and in ruins. The monastery church dates from the 11th century; the frescoes that adorn it, from the 11th and 12th centuries.
...Today, the Mar Mousa community is led by Father Paolo, who has a flare for archaeology, languages, preservation and, of late, cheese-making. Definitely no hermit, Father Paolo is the tour guide, spiritual leader and overall mus’uul or the one responsible in the monastery.
“Today our community is composed of 10 members: five monks and five novice nuns [all of whom are under 40 years of age],” he says. “And we are international: we are Syrian, Italian and Swiss.”
He intended to turn the monastery into a place for shared prayer and dialogue — ideals close to the heart of CNEWA:
Christian-Muslim dialogue and supporting the Syrian Christian ecumenical movement rank at the top of this man’s objectives. His interest in Islam led him to pursue a doctorate in Qur’anic Studies from Rome’s Gregorian University.
“Our community plans to be ecumenical,” Father Paolo comments.
“We are particularly committed to prayer, hospitality and dialogue with the Islamic world. We hope to be a part of the movement in the Universal Church working toward achieving harmony with the Islamic world.”
Under his guidance, over the next several years the monastery became a center of interfaith dialogue. But the political situation in Syria eventually led Father Paolo to a different calling. The Italian Jesuit priest became a vocal peace activist and critic of the Syrian regime. Then, in 2013, he was kidnapped by militants of ISIS. There were reports that he was executed, but they have never been confirmed. An ISIS defector in 2015 insisted that he was still alive.
Pope Francis has mentioned Father Paolo in his public prayers and asked the world to pray for him and other Christians whose fate is unknown.
To this day, he remains a heroic figure to many around the world who continue to believe in his ideals of dialogue and peace between peoples.
As one of friends, Hind Aboud Kabawat, told a reporter last year:
“We have to follow his principles. To love the others, to build bridges with the others. To cross the line and make peace and make reconciliation. This was his favorite word.”