L’église Saint-Éphrem-le-Syriaque

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L'église Saint-Éphrem-le-Syriaque in Paris
L’église Saint-Éphrem-le-Syriaque in Paris

Just down the street (and down the hill) from St-Etienne-du-Mont in the Latin Quarter (named Latin because of the Sorbonne, everyone spoke Latin) is l’eglise Saint-Ephrem. The St Ephrem Church is located between the Boulevard Saint Germain and the Pantheon in the nice quarter of La Sorbone in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. Located in the historical heart of Paris, the Church of Saint Ephrem, with its outstanding acoustics is a regular venue for concerts of classical music. Recitals are given by talented young musicians, all from the National Conservatory of Music of Paris. Concerts by Candlelight are usually on a weekly or more basis. Since 1927 L’église Saint-Éphrem-le-Syriaque has been classified as a historical monument (Monuments Historiques).

The present building is the third chapel built on the site. The first chapel was built around 1334: André Ghini, bishop of Arras, at that time transformed his Parisian hotel to a college for Italian students, the College of the Lombards. This college was bought in 1677 by two Irish priests who converted it into an Irish College, and around 1685 they built a second chapel. The present chapel was built in 1733. In 1925 the mayor of Paris bought it and it became the Syriac Catholic Mission in France.

The interior is decorated very simply, but boasts a beautifully ornate rood screen carved in wood. This is one of the few such screens remaining in Paris, most of them having been destroyed during the French Revolution. Its parish consists of over 350 families of Syrian, Iraqi, Turkish and Egyptian origin. Mass is celebrated in Syrian, Arabic and French. The prayer book is written in phonetic Arabic and Syrian, and is accompanied by a translation for non-Syrians who attend services here.

Saint Ephrem

It is named after Saint Ephrem the Syrian, who lived from 306 to 373 A.D. Over four hundred hymns composed by Ephrem still exist. Granted that some have been lost, Ephrem’s productivity is not in doubt. The church historian Sozomen credits Ephrem with having written over three million lines. Ephrem combines in his writing a threefold heritage: he draws on the models and methods of early Rabbinic Judaism, he engages skillfully with Greek science and philosophy, and he delights in the Mesopotamian/Persian tradition of mystery and symbolism. He has been called the most significant of all of the fathers of the Syriac-speaking church tradition.

Now we must address the name Siriac. In the language, Syriac (yes it is actually a language, a form of aramaic) the proper name of the Church is `idto suryoyto treeysath shubho. In the past, the name of the Church had been translated to English as “Syrian Orthodox Church”. The Holy Synod of the Church approved the translation “Syriac Orthodox Church” in its session of March 28-April 3, 2000 to reflect the worldwide presence of the religion and the early spread into Mesopotamia.

Although most Americans see the Catholic church as a homogenous church, there are actually several different divisions related to the geographic split between Rome and Constantinople and differences arising from the 5th version of the council of Nicea where the basic tenets of Catholicism and books of the new testament were established.

This is a pretty deep subject that involves the history of Rome, Byzantium, the Catholic religion, the Muslim religion, the Ottoman empire and a bunch of other historical things. I will reserve a full treatment of this very interesting subject for my trip to Turkey which will come either this year or next. What I will do now is refer you to an excellent synopsis by the Syriac Orthodox Church, and give you an even more brief synopsis.

In a single sentence, the Syriac Orthodox Church represents a division in the Catholic church, just as Greek Orthodox, Syriac and Coptic churches are other types of Catholicism. Because most American Catholics came from western Europe, we regard Catholocism as a monolithic entity with the Pope in Rome as it’s head. In fact, just as there are divisions in Christianity (Protestant, Anglican, Catholic etc) there are divisions in Catholocism, each with it’s own titular head and it’s own unique history. Even in Las Vegas we have Greek Orthodox churches and in larger cities even more subdivisions thrive. For instance there is a Saint Ephram church in San Diego.

Christianity spread rapidly from Jerusalem along major trade routes to major settlements, finding its strongest growth among Hellenized Jews in places like Antioch and Alexandria. The Greek-speaking Mediterranean region was a powerhouse for the Early Church, producing many revered Church Fathers. Christianity, which originated in the Middle East, was the major religion of the region from the fourth century until the Saracen Muslim Conquests of the 7th century. Christians make up 5% of the population of the middle east, down from 20% in the early 20th century. The Syriac church was founded in Antioch by St Peter, the first Christian church outside Jerusalem. He was their first Bishop and subsequently they were called the Church of Antioch. It was in Antioch, that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians as we are told in the New Testament. (Acts 11:26)

Aside from their ecclesiastical role, Syriac Churchmen have contributed to world civilization. As early as the fourth century, academics and schools were set up in monasteries throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. Monks and scholars were busy studying the sciences of the Greeks, commenting on and adding to them. Much of our knowlege of Greek literature comes from these sources.

After the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 ( the 5th version of Nicea) two camps of the one Church emerged: The Greek Church of Byzantium and the Latin Church of Rome accepted Chalcedon, but the Syriac and Coptic (later Armenian as well) Churches rejected the council. The sects rejecting Chaldeon are known collectively as the Oriental or Middle Eastern Orthodox communion.

The Oriental Orthodox communion comprises six churches: Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church or Indian Orthodox Church and Armenian Apostolic churches. Today, these various divisions of Catholicism are tiny. Copts number about 12 million people and reside mainly in Egypt, with tiny communities in Israel, Cyprus and Jordan. Currently, the largest community of Syriac Christians in the Middle East resides in Syria, numbering about one million while in Iraq it declined to 400,000 (from about one million before 2003 US invasion). Arab Christians number about one million and largely reside in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Today the biggest Middle Eastern Greek community resides in Cyprus numbering around 800,000 in 2008. Many millions of Middle Eastern Christians currently live in the elsewhere in the world. With these numbers, you can see why middle eastern politics are complicated.

Well, as usual, I have written less than I wanted and more than I should. I will leave it to you to investigate further. All of this from a little church in Paris, who knew! Traveling does open up the mind to new adventures.