In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI announced that a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East would take place in October 2010. For 15 days, 185 bishops from around the world, including the heads of all the region’s dioceses, discussed how to strengthen the bonds of communion among the region’s Catholics and how to foster their witness to Christ amid many challenges.
“In these countries, unfortunately marked by deep divisions and lacerated by years of conflict, the Church is called upon to be the sign and the instrument of unity and reconciliation, modeled on the first communities in Jerusalem,” Pope Benedict said on the synod’s first day.
On Sept. 14, the pope was to undertake his 24th apostolic journey outside Italy and arrive in Lebanon. Part of his agenda is signing a post-synodal apostolic exhortation — a document based on the synod’s deliberations offering guidance to the region’s Catholics.
Lebanon, the pope said in 2008, “is the cradle of an ancient culture which radiated throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, as well as the country of numerous religious beliefs that have been able to demonstrate that they can live together in fraternity and collaboration. Rich in its diversity, the Lebanese people have great love for their land, their culture, and their traditions, while remaining faithful to their vocation to universal openness.”
Lebanon is home to Muslims and Christians alike, and under a 1943 agreement, the president of the nation is a Christian while the prime minister is a Muslim. Lebanon’s religious diversity extends to its Christian population: Bishops from five different Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with the pope minister there, as do bishops from Orthodox and other Eastern churches.
The majority of Lebanese Christians are members of the Maronite Catholic Church — a church with rich liturgical and spiritual traditions dating back to the earliest days of Christianity.
“When the Church began, three languages and cultures welcomed her message: Syriac, Greek and Latin,” said Bishop Gregory Mansour, who heads the Eparchy (diocese) of St. Maron of Brooklyn and leads a flock of Maronite Catholics in 16 states. “The Church’s liturgy took on the customs of each.”
“The Greek world gave the Church a liturgy and a glorious tradition inspired by icon writers and the Constantinople royal court, honoring the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, with an emperor’s glory,” the bishop told Our Sunday Visitor. “The Latin language and culture bestowed a prayerful simplicity common to the early Christians and a Benedictine-style chant common to monks. The Syriac language and culture gave an agricultural hymnody that went back to St. Ephrem (306-373) and a liturgy that has its roots deeply in the synagogue tradition from the time and culture of Jesus.”
The Maronite Catholic Church belongs to this Syriac tradition and, more specifically, is part of the “western Syriac Antiochene tradition,” according to Father Abdallah Zaidan, rector of the Maronite cathedral in Los Angeles. The Antiochene tradition is a reference to the city of Antioch, located near the border of modern-day Turkey and Syria, where the apostles founded a church of largely Jewish converts and “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).
From this tradition arose St. Maron, a priest who became a hermit, led a life of extraordinary penance, attracted followers and died in the early fifth century.
“The liturgy and spirituality of the Maronite Church is impacted by the life and the example of St. Maron, its patron saint,” and thus has a monastic dimension, said Father Zaidan.
Periods of persecution
In 451, the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon solemnly taught that Jesus Christ is one divine Person with two natures, divine and human. When many Syriac Christians rejected the council’s teaching, St. Maron’s followers remained in full communion with the Holy See, with hundreds suffering martyrdom.
Under the leadership of their patriarchs, Maronite Catholics continued their history of fidelity in the midst of crosses as Islam spread and the area fell under Ottoman rule. In this context, churches were “very humble structures in mountains,” and Maronite churches remain simple today, says Amine Harb, president of the National Apostolate of Maronites.
Lebanon gained its independence in 1920 after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, and Maronite Catholics in recent decades have lived through a civil war and political conflicts that brought Israeli and Syrian troops to Lebanese soil. Tens of thousands of Maronites have emigrated, and today there are Maronite eparchies in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, the Holy Land, Mexico and the United States as well as in Lebanon and Syria. There are 3.26 million Maronite Catholics worldwide, including nearly 85,000 in the United States, according to figures compiled by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association from the Annuario Pontificio.
Harb, who recently visited Lebanon, said that even in early August, coverage of the impending papal visit was already dominating the Lebanese media. Harb predicted that the pontiff would encourage the region’s Christians “to the face the future with hope and love” in the midst of the challenges they face.
The concerns of Maronite Catholics are “the same as [those of] all Christians of the Middle East,” Bishop Mansour told OSV. “Christians are truly the salt of the earth in the Middle East: They open the doors of their schools and universities, their hospitals and health care centers, and all the social services they provide to all in need, no matter their faith. There is a continuing challenge to support [these initiatives] financially and now numerically because so many are leaving the Middle East.”
“The challenges that Maronite faithful are facing in Lebanon are economic problems, political instability, and the emigration of Maronite faithful from Lebanon,” added Father Zaidan. “Over the years there have been more and more Christians leaving their native countries. Pope Benedict will encourage Christian faithful to remain in their home countries in order to be witnesses to the love of God.”
Middle Eastern Christians also face challenges presented by the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which helped topple governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen and brought civil conflict to Bahrain and Syria.
In an Aug. 17 interview with Aid to the Church in Need, the Maronite Catholic patriarch expressed concern that the Syrian conflict could spread to Lebanon.
“The civil war in Syria between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority has already begun to have an impact on the Sunnis and Alawites in north Lebanon,” Patriarch Béchara Boutros Raï said. “The Lebanese are … split into supporters of the Assad regime and supporters of the opposition.”
Patriarch Raï predicted that Pope Benedict’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation “will be concerned with the communion between the churches, Islam, and the other religions” and “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.”
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.