Thousands fasting and praying for peace in Syria
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tweeted this image on September 6.
September 7th, 2013
08:33 AM ET

Thousands fasting and praying for peace in Syria

By Daniel BurkeCNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
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(CNN) - After morning Mass on most Saturdays, you’d find the Rev. Dan Atkins cutting into a thick stack of pancakes or digging into a plate of eggs. But this Saturday’s menu is a bit spartan.

“I’ll probably just have coffee and a piece of toast,” said Atkins, the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in New Albany, Indiana.

The Catholic priest isn’t on a diet. Rather, he’s one of many believers across the country - and throughout the world - heeding the call of Pope Francis to fast and pray for peace in Syria on Saturday.

“It’s a way to be in solidarity with people who are suffering terribly from war,” said Atkins, a native of southern Indiana. “I’m going to be thinking about the children, the kids, affected by this terrible conflict.”

Holy Family is opening its doors Saturday afternoon and inviting parishioners to pray and reflect before the Blessed Sacrament, also known as the Eucharist, asking Jesus to bestow a blessing on the world. A special Mass for peace and and justice will follow.

“I’m going to be inviting people to stop and think: Is the world more peaceful this world because of something I did, or not?,” Atkins said. “It’s a way of bringing the pope’s message home.”

Pope Francis has proclaimed September 7 a churchwide day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. It was the first such proclamation since 2003, when Pope John Paul II called for fasting and prayer before the Iraq War, according to CNN Vatican analyst John Allen.

“Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace!,” Francis said. He called on the world’s 1.5 billion Catholics, other Christians, people of different faiths and “all men of good will” to join him in prayers and fasting. Many are.

The Vatican expects to host huge crowds at its prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on Saturday evening.

In a poignant conjunction, U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday declared September 6-8 to be National Days of Prayer and Remembrance of the 9/11 attacks.

Obama encouraged Americans to remember the victims and their families through prayer, contemplation, vigils and other ceremonies.

The Catholic day of prayer and fasting is the spiritual component of a wider push by Francis and other religious leaders to persuade the United States not to use military force in Syria, even as they acknowledge the severity of suffering there.

In a letter to G20 leaders on Thursday, the pope decried the “senseless massacre” in Syria but said a military solution would be “futile.”

READ MORE: Pope to G-20: Keep your armies out of Syria

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed the pope, calling on Congress to consider this moral calculus: “Will more or less lives and livelihoods be destroyed by military intervention?”

According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 people have already died in Syria's bloody civil war, which has drawn fighters from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

In a letter sent to Congress on Friday, a coalition of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders organized by the Washington-based Friends Committee on National Legislation urged legislators not to approve the use of military force in Syria.

"Rather than yielding to the temptation to fuel the fire with more violence," the letter says, "we see an opportunity for the U.S. to leverage the full weight of its diplomatic influence and resources to advance a just, negotiated settlement."

Sister Patricia Chappell, president of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi USA, signed that letter and said she's combining protests with prayers on Saturday.

She’s fasting most of the day and joining a vigil at noon outside the White House with Catholic groups and other activists.

But if she wants to transform others, she must first be transformed herself, Chappell said, a process aided by fasting.

“It’s basically a way of cleansing myself and trying to be open to what God is directing me to say and do,” Chappell said.

In addition to the political advocacy, Catholic parishes from Alaska to Washington are holding prayer services and fasting on Saturday.

According to Catholic teaching, people who are fasting are allowed one full meal and two smaller meals. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory fast days for Catholics ages 18 to 59, but the church occasionally asks members to fast on other momentous days as well.

READ MORE: Syria explained: How it became a religious war

Catholics aren’t the only believers praying and fasting for Syrian peace this Saturday.

Bishop Michael Vono of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande asked congregations in Texas and New Mexico to set Saturday and Sunday aside as days of “prayer, action and contemplation.”

The pope’s call to prayer and fasting is “too serious to ignore,” said Enuma Okoro, an author who has written several books about prayer. While granting the frailty of human faculties, human prayer has a quiet power, she said.

“Such things have been known to topple kingdoms, to bring down walls, to free those held captive, to heal and comfort, and to do what appears impossible for our limited imaginations,” Okoro said.

Even when prayer doesn’t move mountains (or mortar shells), it can still be worthwhile, said other Christians participating in Saturday’s spiritual campaign.

Rachel Held Evans, a popular Christian author and blogger, said she’s weighed the theological and political options, wept over images of disfigured Syrian children, sent money to help refugees and listened to the counsel of wise people.

And still, she said, she feels helpless. “It’s just so big, so complicated, so out of my control.”

But there’s a “strange power” in acknowledging helplessness before the divine and holding on to hope that God will answer, Evans said.

"In a world where opinions get whittled down to 140 characters and allegiances are declared on Facebook walls and 30-second TV spots, focused and deliberate prayer says: I don’t know. This is bigger than me. Help us, God.”

Like Evans, the Rev. James Martin said he has watched the news coming out of Syria with “growing alarm and sorrow.”

The Gospels say that when Jesus saw suffering, his “heart went out to them.” But that’s a weak translation of the Greek, said Martin, a Jesuit priest and prolific author. What the Bible really means is that it was gut-wrenching for Jesus to see people in pain. “That’s how I feel when I look upon Syria,” Martin said.

How do fasting and prayer help?

Abstaining from food forms a physical connection between the person fasting and people half a world away whose stomachs growl because they can’t find a safe place to eat, said Martin. Fasting puts our bodies in need, just as others do involuntarily.

As for prayer, Jesus famously said, “Ask and you shall receive.” Martin said he’s taking him up on that offer and asking for peace in Syria.

“How will God answer? I don’t know: I’m not God,” Martin said. “But I don’t need to understand God; I only need to be in relationship with God. I believe God hears us, so I pray.”

READ MORE: Syria's rebels: 20 things you need to know

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Mass • Politics • Pope Francis • Prayer • Syria

soundoff (737 Responses)
  1. Prophecies about World War III

    Mother of Salvation: A new, bitter world war will be declared
    Friday, September 6th, 2013

    My dear child, I must, on the instructions of my Son, Jesus Christ, reveal that the wars, which will unfold now, in the Middle East, will herald the great battle, as a new, bitter world war will be declared.

    How this breaks the Sacred Heart of my poor suffering Son. The hatred, which infuses the hearts of those leaders, entrusted with the responsibility of running their countries, by ordinary people, will spread. They will betray their own nations. Millions will be killed and many nations will be involved. You must know that the souls of those who will be murdered and who are innocent of any crime will be saved by my Son.

    The speed of these wars will escalate and no sooner will four parts of the world become involved than the Great War will be announced. Sadly, nuclear weapons will be used and many will suffer. It will be a frightening war, but it will not last long.

    Pray, pray, pray for all the innocent souls and continue to recite my Most Holy Rosary, three times a day, in order to ease the suffering, which will result because of World War III.

    Thank you, my child, for responding to my call. Know that there is great sadness in Heaven at this time and it is with a heavy heart that I bring you this difficult news.

    Your Mother

    Mother of Salvation

    Read more prophecies: http://www.thewarningsecondcoming.com

    September 18, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  2. Josh


    September 11, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
  3. CommonSensed

    Why not pressure the Arab League to police their own? Would do more than prayer and fasting combined.

    September 11, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • Just wondering

      how do you suggest the Pope pressure the Arab League

      September 11, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
      • doobzz

        For starters, he could pick up the phone and ask to meet with them in person. The Arab League is made up of humans who actually exist.

        Anything is better than talking to yourself and skipping between meal snacks for a day.

        September 11, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
        • Just wondering

          actually he has no sway over the Arab League. They are a different relegion and could care less what he thinks, He has very little Dipolmatic ability as he is the leader of a single church not a power full nation with a large military, prehaps you should be asking why the world govrnments don't meet with them not blaming the Pope

          September 12, 2013 at 10:17 am |
        • doobzz

          Way to miss the point.

          Which was that even if they laugh in his face, action is better than talking to yourself and thinking it helps somehow.

          September 14, 2013 at 1:11 am |
  4. Alias

    The Pope prayed and fasted, and noe we have a political solution from Russia.
    Doen't this prove to everyone that God does exist?

    If only he had included the rest of the world instead of just one country we would all be in the land of puppy dogs and sunshine.

    September 11, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Just wondering

      at least he tried to do something, all you did was post a snarky commnet on the internet

      Very Helpful, thanks

      September 11, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
      • doobzz

        How do you know he even did it? And if he did, how is skipping a couple of snacks and talking to yourself for a few minutes helpful?

        September 11, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  5. What if Putin is correct?

    So these are the swine that Obama, McCain, Feinstein, and Graham want US to arm and be the Air Force for???
    I'm not sure that link will work because I had to remove a letter because of the stupid auto filter on this site.
    At what point did the Saudis hijack this nation's leadership?

    September 11, 2013 at 8:19 am |
  6. What if Putin is correct?

    So these are the swine that Obama, McCain, Feinstein, and Graham want US to arm and be the Air Force for???
    At what point did the Saudis hijack this nation's leadership?

    September 11, 2013 at 8:13 am |
  7. Kenrick Benjamin

    I think that the president made a good decision, because the risk of bombing the stock pile of chemical weapons poses an immedate danger to civilian life at large. Once bombed the chemicals rises and spreds through the air posing a danger to civilian life and creating more problems..

    September 11, 2013 at 8:11 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

      Do you actually think Obamer cares about civilian lives?

      September 11, 2013 at 8:15 am |
      • Kenrick Benjamin

        I think he does.

        September 11, 2013 at 8:29 am |
        • I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

          Oh you sweet, naive man. If only he did.

          September 11, 2013 at 8:34 am |
    • What if Putin is correct?

      If you're worried about that, then you will won't like ongoing Fukushima catastrophe which the msm continues to bury. Remember how the balloon bombs launched in Ja.pan in WW ll reached the US?

      September 11, 2013 at 8:25 am |
    • Just wondering

      cause that was his concern

      September 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
  8. HotAirAce

    Just checking in to see if peace has broken out in Syria. Nope, people still killing and dying. Looks like Pope-A-Dope's fasting and praying plan was a massive failure, or peace is not some unproven god's will. Off your knees christians and grab a beer and a hot dog. Hey, I didn't say grab a boy!!

    September 11, 2013 at 5:55 am |
    • Just wondering

      His effort was more useful then yours

      September 11, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        I didn't make any effort to pray or fast 'cause I'm very confident that neither would change anything.

        Almost a week of fierce praying and no real sign of peace. How long do the Chief Mumbo Jumbo Charlatan Shamans need to work their magic?

        September 14, 2013 at 2:10 am |
  9. J.W

    Oops sorry about all of the repeat comments. It wasn't showing up and so I was trying to figure out what part was causing it. But all of the sudden they did show up.

    September 10, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
  10. J.W

    We have gone to war many times in the Middle East and it never seems to help.

    September 10, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.