Icon of Saint Paul highlights the connection between the local Church and the Syrian Archdiocese

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When Christians think of art depicting the conversion of Saint Paul, they probably think of the saint falling from his horse on the road to Damascus after being temporarily blinded. But in Acts of the Apostles, where the event is recounted, no horse is involved, said deacon Mickey Friesen, director of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Mission Center.

And, he says, real conversion occurs when he arrives in Damascus and Ananias baptizes him.

This is what is depicted in a 3ft by 4ft icon recently created by Stillwater-based iconographer Deb Korluka to commemorate a special relationship between the local Catholic Church and the Maronite Catholic Archdiocese of Damascus, in Syria. Organizers of the four-year partnership between the two archdioceses commissioned the icon, which shows Ananias baptizing Paul in a stone baptismal font.

The partnership began to take shape five years ago, after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed concerns about Christians in the Middle East and challenged bishops to reflect on how the Church America could engage more personally with the Church in the Middle East.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda consulted with Deacon Friesen, whose center has experience of similar partnerships, including an Archdiocesan missionary parish in Venezuela and an almost 20-year relationship with the Diocese of Kitui, Kenya. The deacon consulted with Chorevebishop Sharbel Maroun, pastor of St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in Minneapolis, and Kevin Hartigan, regional director for Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East for Catholic Relief Services (and originally of Minneapolis), regarding a partner in the Middle East. East. Both suggested the Maronite Archdiocese in Damascus.

“It is a Church that is suffering from civil war, (and) it is the diocese from which Saint Paul comes,” said Deacon Friesen. “He was baptized in Damascus. So, I thought, it’s almost biblical. So he contacted his Archbishop, Samir Nassar, about the possibility of a partnership, and he responded with an openness to the idea.

What does an icon mean?

After Korluka’s iconographic research and discussion with the partnership’s steering committee, its members told Korluka that the most significant icon to follow as a guide to creating the archetype of the Damascus initiative was a fresco of icons. from the 14th century Decani Monastery in Kosovo. It depicts Saul in a stone baptismal font and Ananias dressed as a disciple of Christ with the house of Judas (mentioned in Acts) behind. In his icon, Korluka added images of the cathedrals of Saint Paul and Damascus, connected by a white veil.

Because the icons are theological in nature, no effort is made towards physical realism, as in a photograph, Korluka said. Instead, she said, the icons contain and tell gospel truths with images in light of the sacred tradition of the Church. They must be distinct from other types of images, just as the gospel is different from all other literary works, she said.

“It doesn’t matter how simple and crude the icons are, or how elaborate and grandiose they are, mystical works of worship,” she explained.

Part of the icon’s inspiration is with the idea of ​​doors – that partnership is a gateway to a lot of things, Deacon Friesen said.

“It’s an entry into the faith,” he said. “The baptismal font is a gateway to the Christian faith, entrances to churches.

They symbolize baptism, he said, and a door symbolizes an entrance into the mystery of God.

Korluka, 63, an Orthodox Christian, has been working in iconography since the age of 18. She said that only a handful of ancient icons of Paul’s baptism remain.

Filled with symbolism, the icons are not meant to evoke an emotion, but rather “a spiritual response,” Korluka said. Iconography did not come from an artist’s creative freedom, she said, but from the tradition of the Church.

Those wishing to support the partnership can contact the Mission Center for more information: 651-222-6556. To learn more, visit centreformission.org.

The partnership was formalized on January 25, 2017 – the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul, one of the patronal feasts of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

Asked about the value of the partnership, Archbishop Nassar, whose mother tongue is Arabic, replied by email that “Divine Mercy has brought the Archdiocese of Saint Paul to our forgotten little church, still living ( a) very difficult times in Damascus. , city of the conversion of Saint-Paul and next to (the) sanctuary of Ananias.

Damascus is home to many Eastern Rite Catholic churches, said Deacon Friesen.

“Within the Catholic Church, they are fully Catholics,” he said. “In fact, as they would say, ‘We’ve been around longer than you.’ The Maronites of Damascus like to say, “Just remember; we baptized Paul. ‘”

Deacon Friesen said the partnership is a commitment to grow in a relationship between two churches through opportunities to get to know each other.

“We learn from each other’s faith experience, so one of our goals is to share the stories of our faith and to pray for one another,” he said. It also involves sharing resources to meet needs, he said, and a commitment to learn from each other over time.

The partnership’s steering committee includes parish leaders from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, including St. Mary’s Basilica in Minneapolis, St. Paul’s Cathedral of St. Paul, and St. Maron’s Maronite Catholic Church in Minneapolis, as well as the Maryknoll Missionary Vocations Director and Mission Center staff.

Icon set for traveling

Starting September 4, the icon will visit six parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and St. Catherine and St. Thomas universities. Brochures and prayer cards will be available at each location.

The icon reached St. Paul’s Cathedral in St. Paul on January 20, where it will be on permanent display. Archbishop Bernard Hebda will bless the icon in the cathedral on January 23, two days before the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul. Archbishop Nassar hopes to be present that day, but his journey remains uncertain.

After about three years, the partnership’s steering committee thought it might be helpful to have an image that could focus and lead connected Catholics through the partnership further into the conversation, Deacon Friesen said.

And part of the spirituality of Maronite Catholics is very much influenced by icons, he said. “It’s an integral part of their faith. “

The icon of Saint Paul and Ananias creates a spiritual unity between “our two Churches of the same faith”, declared Mgr Nassar.

The icon is intended to represent the meaning and spirit of partnership and to bring Catholics deeper into the experience of Saint Paul’s meeting with Ananias in Damascus, and their meeting with others, according to documents produced by the Center for the mission.

As Acts relates, when Paul arrives in Damascus after hearing Jesus’ voice and has gone blind, Christians do not welcome him because Paul intended to arrest and imprison them, Deacon Friesen said. . But the Christian disciple Ananias welcomes Paul, assuring the people that Paul has been called of God. And that’s where Paul was baptized, and the scales fell from his eyes and he could see, said Deacon Friesen.

“I love the whole story of Paul’s conversion and this idea of ​​Saint Paul’s return to Damascus,” said Deacon Friesen. “We have something to learn from each other. And that was my experience in the mission office. It was the greatest gift… to really get a much deeper idea of ​​what it means to be Catholic. Each of these relationships that take us beyond our borders has opened me so much to the Catholic faith in all its dimensions.

Bishop Nassar said that he would like to say “to all the parishioners of Minnesota, because of your friendship, we no longer feel alone”, and that he is proud of Bishop Bernard Hebda who (teaches us) how to deal with problems and… (make) courageous decisions.


Where to see the icon

Saint-Paul, Zumbrota

University of Saint-Thomas, Saint-Paul

Saint-Maron (Maronite), Minneapolis

Holy Family (Maronite), Mendota

St. Mary’s Basilica, Minneapolis

University of Sainte-Catherine, Saint-Paul

Saint-Paul, Ham Lake

St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul


Visitors are urged to adhere to each location’s COVID-19 precautions.

Key words: Bishop Bernard Hebda, Archbishop Nassar, Center for the Mission, Damascus, Deacon Mickey Friesen, Deb Korluka, Icon of Saint Paul, Syrian Archdiocese

Category: Featured, Local News


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