Amid raging turmoil in neighboring Syria, Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 14-16 visit to Lebanon is seen as a great message of hope and peace, as well as an affirmation of the Church’s support of the Christian presence in the Middle East.
The motto of the pope’s first official visit to Lebanon is “I Give You My Peace.”
This visit is particularly important, with Pope Benedict delivering an apostolic exhortation based on the deliberations of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops that was held in the Vatican in 2010.
“The Holy Father is a messenger of peace,” said Maronite Bishop Camille Zaidan of Antelias, who chairs the Central Coordination Committee for the visit. “So in this troubled region amidst its war and instability, we need to hear another voice besides the voice of explosions and those who incite people to fight each other.”
Massive security measures have been implemented and every detail of the visit has been carefully planned by the Lebanese government in partnership with the country’s six Catholic Churches — Maronite Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Chaldean Catholic and Roman Catholic.
|People gather outside Our Lady of Lebanon chapel in the village of Harissa near Beirut Aug. 18. Pope Benedict XVI will visit Lebanon Sept. 14-16. CNS photo from Reuters
In the weeks before the visit, the momentum of hope and excitement could be felt across the country, as Christians and Muslims alike began their spiritual preparation to receive the pope and his message.
Father Marwan Tabet, general coordinator of the Central Planning Committee, anticipated that the Lebanese would find great comfort in the intended objective of the pope’s visit.
“He wants to tell the Christians of the Middle East, you are an integral part of the fabric of the region so you need to remain here. And to the Muslims, he will say you have experienced an East in which the Christians have always been present and will ask if they could imagine an East without Christians, which would further provoke sectarian strife between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” Father Tabet said.
The official spiritual preparation began Sept. 2 with “Awaiting for you … the East Prays,” an evening of prayer based on the three Christian values of faith, hope and love to be held at 13 main locations, including the Basilica of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa and the monastery of St. Charbel (Lebanon’s first saint) and numerous churches across the country.
After the prayer services, 500,000 novena booklets based on the luminous mysteries of the Rosary were to be distributed, along with blessed candles, to foster spiritual preparation for the pope.
On Sept. 12, an Islam-Christian gathering was to bring together Church officials and Muslim religious leaders in prayer. Approximately 10,000 people were expected to participate, as “Muslims are very enthusiastic about the visit and are mobilizing to demonstrate their support,” said Father Tabet. The outdoor gathering site located in Beirut was officially designated by the government as “Benedictus XVI Place.”
A diverse population
Lebanon is unique in that its population of nearly 4 million represents 18 different religious denominations, 12 of which are Christian. Christians account for about 33 percent of the Lebanese population.
When Pope John Paul II came to Lebanon in 1997, he was impressed by the religious dynamic of the country and declared that “Lebanon is more than a country, it’s a message of peace and coexistence between the East and the West.”
“What makes Lebanon very special is that we have 18 different religious communities,” Bishop Zaidan told Our Sunday Visitor. “We have no majorities in Lebanon, we are all minorities. That’s why we’ve learned to live together and to help each other.”
Zeidan said the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is intended to present a “new horizon” for the Christians and Muslims of the Middle East.
According to Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai, a major portion of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation for the Middle East will be concerned with the communion between the churches, Islam and the other religions.
“Moreover, this apostolic letter will inspire hope and encourage the peoples of the Middle East to intensify their unity and efforts at living together and to play their role within the Arab and international community,” the patriarch recently told Aid to the Church in Need.
The pope’s itinerary includes the signing of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation at the Melkite Catholic basilica of St. Paul; an Encounter with the Youth at Bkerke, the seat of the Maronite Catholic Church; a Mass at Beirut’s waterfront; a meeting with leaders of Muslim communities at the presidential palace; a meeting with Cabinet ministers, government officials, diplomats, religious and cultural leaders; lunch with the patriarchs and bishops of Lebanon, members of the Synod of Bishops and the papal entourage at the Armenian Catholic patriarch’s residence in Bzommar and an ecumenical meeting with Orthodox and Protestant church leaders at the residence of the Syriac Catholic patriarch in Charfet.
Regarding the pope’s Encounter with the Youth, Denise el-Khoury, coordinator of the National Commission for the Youth Ministry at the Episcopal Commission for the Apostolate Laity, said the youths are “counting on the pope’s visit to Lebanon to confirm and strengthen them in their identity, to encourage them to be planted and built up in Jesus Christ, in their land, firm in the faith.”
El-Khoury added that the youths need to understand and to have a clear vision of the significance of their presence in multi-religious societies.
“They need a reason to stay in their lands and not leave to other countries where they may find a better future, security and peace,” she told OSV.
In times as tumultuous as these in the Middle East, the pope’s visit to Lebanon is seen as timely and poignant. The pope has made a choice in visiting Lebanon and has been very clear in his purpose.
The pontiff’s presence validates that the Vatican has not forgotten about the Christians who remain in this region. His visit also demonstrates an obvious declaration by the Catholic Church that it will stand by the Lebanese Christians who want to remain rooted in their homeland.
The Lebanese people, as well as other pilgrims from the region, are expected to welcome Pope Benedict with open arms.
More than 250,000 people are expected to attend the Mass. The 30,000 youth expected to participate in the youth gathering will receive as a special gift from the pope the first Arabic translation of the Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, or YOUCAT.
And on the night before the pope’s arrival — the eve of the Feast of the Holy Cross — Lebanon were to be illuminated with thousands of candles.
“We expect that Pope Benedict’s visit will put the critical situation of Christians of the Middle East on a spotlight for the eyes of the international community,” said Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch for the Syriac Catholic Church.
“Threats to their very existence, even survival, should be taken seriously and honestly by leaders of all civilized nations, particularly countries based on Christian faith and ethics,” the patriarch said.
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.