Worshipers attend a Mass for peace in Syria and the world Sept. 7 in the Crypt Church at the  National Shrine.
Worshipers attend a Mass for peace in Syria and the world Sept. 7 in the Crypt Church at the National Shrine.
The mumbled prayers, the soft clacking of rosary beads, the lighted candles and the petitions to God that were evident Sept. 7 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception were comforting and reassuring. About 700 gathered in the National Shrine's Crypt Church to pray for peace in Syria and other trouble spots throughout the world.

They came in response to an urgent plea by Pope Francis for people to mark that day - the vigil of the Nativity of Our Blessed Mother, the Queen of Peace - by offering prayers, sacrifices and fasting in supplication to God for peace in Syria, the Middle East and throughout the world.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl was the principal celebrant of a special Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice that day. (See stories on page 3). He told us to be confident that our prayers could have an effect in bringing peace to hot spots like Syria.

"We can come to the altar today in the confidence born of the pledge that the Holy Spirit would fill our hearts so that when we cry out, 'Lord, Lord,' we will be heard," Cardinal Wuerl said.

The Mass at the National Shrine was conducted at the very moment Pope Francis himself was leading a prayer vigil for peace at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. An estimated 100,000 people gathered there to hear our Holy Father urge policymakers to "conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation."

Similar prayer services were held throughout the United States - including some parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington - and in Canada, Europe, Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere across the globe.

"In uniting our prayer with that of our brothers and sisters throughout the Catholic world, our prayer truly becomes universal and a sign of hope for the world," Cardinal Wuerl said at the National Shrine. Pope Francis said that we should pray together because "humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace."

Our prayers were being offered around the world on the very same day that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with European leaders to outline President Barack Obama's support of a military strike on the government of Syria's President Bashar Assad.

Pope Francis, Cardinal Wuerl and other religious leaders have said it is vital we pray. There is much suffering in Syria. President Obama has claimed that chemical weapons have been used in the two-year-old civil war there. The conflict - which began in 2011 as part of the "Arab Spring" and was officially labeled last year as a civil war by the United Nations - has killed more than 100,000 people. Another 6 million have been displaced.

Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria's population. Many of Syria's Christians have fled to Lebanon where they shelter in monasteries.

Among those displaced are the residents of Maalula. This Syrian village is predominantly made up of Christians, many of whom speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Only a few such communities exist throughout the world, and this one has been destroyed.

Also in harm's way in Syria is Dura Europos, an important archaeological site in the Syrian Desert. It is the location of the world's oldest surviving house-church and synagogue, dating back to the third century; and the Basilica of St. Sergius, a fifth century ruin in Rasafa and the oldest church dedicated to St. Sergius, a third-century Roman soldier martyred for the faith.

Also suffering are the people of Damascus, which has been called the oldest continually occupied city in the word, and Aleppo, a major caravan stop on the road to Baghdad that was a major center of Christianity, with a large cathedral in the time of the Byzantine Empire.

Cardinal Wuerl, in his Sept. 7 Mass, called it "particularly appropriate and urgent that the Church, as a voice of conscience in our nation and a moral force in civil society, should call us to pray" because the Church herself "as a victim of much violence and ... brings a unique testimony to the present circumstances."

Prayer is what we must do. St. John, Christ's beloved disciple asks, if one "sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17)

And, we know that prayer works. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Hebrews (11:32-34), reminds us that it was through the faith of holy men and prophets that "conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, (and) escaped the edge of the sword."

Speaking of St. Paul, Syria is where he became a follower of Jesus. It was on the road near Damascus that Saul converted and became the Apostle Paul. It in Damascus where Paul preached that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 9:20).

On Tuesday, Sept. 10, the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued an urgent call for a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria. The bishops issued the statement on the first day of their Sept. 10-11 Administrative Committee meeting at the USCCB headquarters in Washington.

"We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance, and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities," the bishops wrote.

The bishops condemned the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, calling it a "heinous crime against humanity."

Noting that U.S. lawmakers are considering a military strike against Syria, the bishops noted that "Congress struggles with the complex challenges and humanitarian catastrophe that have engulfed Syria," and have promised to "offer the voice of the Universal Church and our prayers for peace."

Any military intervention in Syria, the bishops said, "will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences."

At the Crypt Church Mass, Cardinal Wuerl put into words just what we ought to pray for in this terrible situation.

"We ask on behalf of those who suffer so mightily in the Middle East. We seek for them and for ourselves peace," the cardinal said at his Mass. "We knock at the doors of human hearts all over the world, but particularly in Syria and the Middle East, asking that God open them with the power of his love so that those hearts might be changed - so that the world might be changed."