His Excellency, Mar Shlemun addressed the kids during his homily and told them how they should never forget this blessed and holy day. He then looked at the pews and told the parents of these children that they should always keep up with the Church of Christ and to never miss a Sunday mass. Following mass, the parishioners had a nice gathering for us in their hall where we ate, presented awards, and mingled with the parishioners.
Outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Beirut, Lebanon, the children could hardly contain their excitement.
All the suffering of their lives in forced exile seemed to vanish as they anticipated the holy sacrament for which they had so diligently prepared. Two girls joined hands and gleefully spun each other around.
Dressed in white robes adorned with wooden rosaries on the eve of Pentecost, the 30 Iraqi refugee children quickly composed themselves when Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan arrived from the nearby patriarchate. They assembled reverently for the processional, folding their hands in prayer.
"This is the day we were waiting for. ... O Jesus, you are closest to my heart," they sang, as they led their shepherd to the altar.
The patriarchate had taken care of every detail to make first Communion special for the children and their families.
"Dear children, it is something very special that you will receive today -- the Lord into your hearts -- while you are displaced and suffering like him, because of being uprooted from your homes in the Plain of Nineveh to become exiled in a foreign land, Lebanon," Patriarch Younan said in his homily.
Sister Waffa Yousif Shasha and Father Youssef Sakat, who helped with sacramental preparation, knew personally the trauma the children had experienced. They, too, had been expelled by Daesh (as the Islamic State is called in Arabic), from their homeland in Iraq and are serving the displaced Syriac-Catholic community in Lebanon.
"It's very difficult to leave your home, your country, your church and to leave all your belongings behind. Despite all this, our faith is strong, and we give hope to these families and children. This is our mission," Sister Waffa Yousif told the Register during a practice session at Holy Family Syriac Catholic Center in the Bouchrieh section of Beirut. The patriarchate set up the center as a satellite church in the second floor of a narrow building in the neighborhood where most of the refugee families live in crowded apartments.
"What God is giving us in faith and strength is helping us to give more, and that by itself will bring us closer to God," Sister Waffa Yousif added.
She noted that the parents had taken great interest in the first Communion instruction, asking her how they can help guide their children in the faith.
"Because the children have such pure hearts, we can build up the Church through them," Father Sakat told the Register. He likened their receptiveness to a blank sheet of paper. "On it, we can imprint forgiveness, love, how to accept the others and what the Church should be for them. We feel from these children that they would still like to live happily, and they are hungry for learning more about their faith," he said.
But the memories of being driven out from their homes by terrorists are still very painful. When the children -- most of whom are between 9 and 11 years old -- asked the priest questions, such as, "What wrong did we do?" he would remind them of Matthew 5:3-11, the beatitudes, particularly verse 11: "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me."