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Waiting for Fr. Paolo

It's been almost two weeks since Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit leader of interreligious peacebuilding in Syria, has vanished. It's been more than one week since the date after which he told his friends "to raise the alarm" if they had not heard from him. They -- and we -- are still waiting.

The coverage of his disapperance has been relatively widespread. John Allen's Friday column led with the story, tying it to the previous kidnappings of the Syrian Orthodox bishop and Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo. It even made the print edition of the Wall Street Journal. But no one seems to know what, if anything, can be done.

I only met Fr. Paolo once, sharing a meal, when he visited Fordham University in 2011. I obviously can't claim him has a friend. But I have been unexpectedly angry, disdainful, and plaintive in heart since hearing of his alleged kidnapping. Part of my response comes from my writing a book about early Christianity in Syria at the same time as its current civil war. Another part of it comes from having written scholarship about the art of the medieval monastery, Mar Musa al-Habashi, which is what Fr. Paolo refounded after centuries of abandonment and made into a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims who wanted to meet in peace and prayer.

But the most anguished part of my response comes from the despair that if Fr. Paolo couldn't figure out the moral calculus in Syria -- and he confessed that the complexity of the civil war precluded obvious moral imperatives -- then who are we to do so? It's true that Fr. Paolo ultimately joined the anti-Assad side, but having done so did not necessarily imply a particular course of military action. Other Syrian Christians live in fear of the consequences of Assad's fall.

Earlier this year I wrote,

Rarely is someone so faithful and practical, idealistic and realistic, expressing levitas and gravitas, hope for the future and mourning for what has been lost. If anyone has a moral sense of the right thing to do in Syria, I would think it is Fr. Paolo.The fact that even he is uncertain of the best course of action thus reveals the fogginess of justice amid a civil war.

It's hard to have Christian hope when the oldest and longest-standing Christian communities are mortally threatened during our lifetime. I don't even know what to pray for. There's no patron saint for this.

Maybe it's best to stick with Fr. Paolo's namesake -- another saint who, though not a Syrian by birth, had a great impact on interreligious understanding there. Another saint who achieved a harrowing escape in Syria (Acts 9:25).

St. Paul, help Fr. Paolo help Syria.


About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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What about "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." I guess Jesus is the Patron saint.

When the gospel is followed fruit abounds everywhere. Very few Catholics are left in the lands of Augustine and Athanasius. Most Cattholics left Hippo (albana, Algeria) after the French Catholic Colonialists departed leaving Algeria independent. 


Why not just pray for peace?

During the Cold War we had regular peace prayers in the church I grew up in in Philadelphia. We did not specify how peace would be achieved: whether through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the acts of dissidents, the heart attack of a particular leader, etc.

"Thy kingdom come..."  Where history is concerned can a prayer be specific?  

Father Paolo may be in a particularly harsh situation of dhimmitude (spelling suspect), and if he survives at all (doubtful), he will have learned more than he ever wanted to know about Islam.

Bov Schwartz -- Your unhelpful comment could have been made about Christianity by the Jews in Frankfurt who were the first victims of the first Crusade. Fr. Paolo knows more about Islam than you will ever know, even if you study it, and he saw an opening for hope.

One of the things that nagged at Fr. Christian de Cherge as he thought about his coming death, and that of his Trappist associates in Algeria in 1996, was that "it would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps,  be called 'the grace of martyrdom' to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam." He knew Algerians and, like Fr. Paolo, knew Islam too well to join in the scorn he knew would be heaped on both.

I should have provided a link for Fr. de Cherge's last letter. There are many. This is good:

Tom Blackburn,

Actually, there were good relations between Jews and Christians in what would become Frankfurt (chartered as a town in 1253) until the Jews were expelled in 1490.  Jews who suffered persecution during the time of the first crusade would move to the area that eventually became Frankfurt.  The attacks on Jews during the this time were an abomination.  Some Bishops gave sanctuary to Jews in their walled towns / castles during this shameful crisis.  Unfortunately, these acts of support were not always successful.



Your attempt to sidestep the issue by pointing out what Christians did hundreds of years ago is irrelevant to my comments.  Islam hasn't reformed; Christianity has.  And dhimmitude is alive and well in Islam:  Have you noticed the Christian population decreasing in Allah's territories?  And incidentally, as a parenthetical aside, I am unashamedly not a politically correct person.  Face it, everywhere in Islam there is violence and chaos.  That's no accident.  But I appreciate your response.

Bob, I wasn't sidestepping to anywhere. I was merely noting the fallacy of generalizing from the many to the all. But I see you have doubled down and made it all Muslims. Which should make the Muslim victims of terrorism feel much better.


I hope Fr. Dall'Oglio is safely released.  Kidapping can't ne a morally neutral act, even if it's done by people who have some authentic grievance.  The monks in Algeria may have forgiven those who kidnapped them, but I don't think, for instance, the passengers on Air France Flight 8969 kidnapped two years earlier would have felt obligated to do so.

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