On Sunday, Pope Francis announced a worldwide day of prayer and fasting on Saturday, September 7, for the intention of peace in Syria and the Middle East.

“….I have decided to proclaim for the whole Church on September 7, the Vigil of the Birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world; and I also invite each person (including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will) to participate in this initiative in whatever way they can. On September 7, here in Saint Peter’s Square from 19:00 until 24:00, we will gather in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world. Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace! I ask all the local churches that they gather to pray for this intention in addition to fasting.”

First, it is a traditional custom to pray and fast on the day before pretty much any big Feast. (Which was why people often feasted and ate a lot of festival food on the actual feast day. The fasting and feasting go together.) So that’s not exactly a hardship.

Second, prayer for peace is never a bad thing. And since the Pope is the shepherd given responsibility by Jesus for all souls on earth, it’s nice to see him calling on all the wandering sheep to help out also.

Third, it’s a birthday present for Mary. Can’t go wrong with that.

Fourth, in ancient times Syria was full of Marian devotion, and of course most Catholics and other Christians in Syria still do love her. St. Ephrem was from Syria, and his poems are still used in the Syriac-using rites. In medieval times, many places in Europe had a devotion to Our Lady of Syria on behalf of the Crusaders and pilgrims to the East.

There was a famous Crusader cathedral called Our Lady of Tortosa (aka Our Lady of Syria or Our Lady of the East) in Tartus, Syria (ancient Antaradus, Byzantine Constantia, medieval Tortosa). It was built on the site of a Byzantine pilgrimage church called the Sanctuary of the Virgin Mary. Both that and the Crusader church were built around the remnants of an earlier chapel said certainly to be the first Syrian church dedicated to Mary, and legendarily to have been dedicated by St. Peter soon after Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. The Sanctuary of the Virgin Mary was already around in Emperor Constantine’s time, and he apparently gave it honor. History records that there was an earthquake in AD 487 that destroyed most of the chapel but left its altar intact. Both the Byzantine basilica and the Crusader church also housed an icon portrait of Mary attributed to St. Luke.

Tortosa was the last place in Syria held by the Crusaders before they were driven out. Our Lady of Tortosa survives today as only a museum, sadly, but that’s better than when it was being used as a mosque. (The Orthodox also have a major Marian pilgrimage site, Saidnaya, a monastery church which is said to have a wonderworking icon portrait of Mary painted by St. Luke. Not the same one. There are a fair number of icons painted by St. Luke.)

Cantiga #165 of the medieval Spanish Cantigas de Santa Maria is about one of the miracles of Our Lady of Tortosa. As with the other cantigas, we have the words and the tune. (Click on the number for midi files of the tune; click on the title of the song for the lyrics in the original medieval Spanish.)

A prose English summary from the Cantigas de Santa Maria database.

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