BEIRUT — Under an open sun-setting sky on the sprawling grounds of Bkerke, the Maronite Catholic patriarchate in Lebanon, 41 couples were married in a collective wedding, receiving the apostolic blessing for their marriages.
One by one, each bride arrived in a white luxury car, adorned with a bouquet of flowers. Waiting with anticipation, each groom opened the door to greet his bride, and, together, they walked toward the altar on a red carpet, beneath a canopy of pink and white balloons and cascades of matching flowers.
As they took their places, seated semi-circle facing the altar, the soon-to-be-wed couples chatted together and with other couples as they waited for all the brides and grooms to be seated and for the arrival of their patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Rai, who would concelebrate the Rite of Marriage with four bishops and a group of priests.
The annual collective wedding tradition at Bkerke began in 2009 with nine couples. Each year, more couples participate. Now, after this year’s Sept. 2 ceremony, 240 couples have been married.
The Maronite League, a nonprofit Lebanese organization whose mission is to support the Maronite identity and presence in Lebanon and in the world, arranges every detail of the collective wedding.
“We try to make the couples feel as much as possible that it’s their own personal wedding,” said George El Hajj, a member of the league’s committee in charge of organizing the wedding. Each bride and groom invite as many guests to the ceremony as they wish, averaging about 100 family and friends for each couple.
In his homily during Sunday’s ceremony, Cardinal Rai told the 41 couples, “It’s a great, joyful day for the Church, the community and the country.”
“It’s a joyful day for the Church because you are receiving the holy sacrament for marriage and family life. It’s a joy for the (Christian) community because a new family has proclaimed love and happiness at a time when only pain and anxiety is being heard. Our community needs families full of love and faith. And it’s a joy for Lebanon because each couple is a piece of the mosaic of a great country. That’s the meaning of this mass wedding at Bkerke.”
The cardinal thanked the Maronite League for organizing and raising the funds for the wedding.
“I’m asking God to bless you with his blessings and a great future,” Cardinal Rai told the couples. “I include prayers to the Blessed Mother, the patron of Bkerke, to be with you all throughout your married life and for you to be faithful to the Blessed Mother.”
“I’m asking God to be with you and to bestow you with fruitful and abundant love and happiness,” he added.
“Marriage is a sacred vocation,” the patriarch reminded the couples.
“You will express it in a few minutes with the words ‘I do.’ You are saying ‘Yes’ to God, who is uniting you; ‘Yes’ to the Church, because you will continue in your married life following the Church and having the Bible as your guide,” the patriarch advised.
Each couple then stood individually before the patriarch and pronounced their acceptance of the sacrament of marriage and received the apostolic blessing from the patriarch.
Gathered again at their seats, Cardinal Rai blessed the group of newlyweds. Facing each couple, their accompanying diocesan priest assisted with the ring exchange and also blessed the couple.
As part of their preparation for the sacrament of marriage, each couple had pre-Cana sessions with their diocesan priest. In addition, the collective group had a session with the patriarch and several sessions with two Maronite priests whose ministry includes married and about-to-be-married couples from the Maronite League’s collective wedding.
Maronite Father Paul Deccache has been participating in the Maronite League’s collective weddings for seven years now.
“I love this ministry,” he told the Register.
“These couples feel that the Church is really close to them, that the Church takes care of them,” Father Deccache explained.
“At the Maronite League, we focus on the spiritual and moral aspects of the marriage,” said El Hajj.
Aside from the economic help in covering the ceremony expenses — including the bridal (rental) gown, the groom’s suit, flowers, wedding car and photographer — as well as a $2,000 financial gift to each couple, the Maronite League aims to help foster faithful Christian families through the collective weddings, El Hajj explained.
The Maronite League continues its close ties with the couples throughout their marriage, providing subsequent support, such as helping to find employment if there is job loss. El Hajj cited a recent example in which a couple with three children, expecting their fourth, were facing financial difficulties. The league helped the couple economically.
As an incentive to plan a family, the Maronite League provides newlyweds with health insurance for the first year that covers the birth of a baby and health insurance discounts thereafter.
Ahead of their wedding, speaking to the Register at the rehearsal at Bkerke, Saba Kozah, 30, and his bride-to-be, Narimane Saleh, 27, said their friends got married at the collective ceremony two years ago and said it was “very beautiful” and also a big financial help to the couple.
“So we decided to get married here, too,” said Kozah, who is a sergeant in the Lebanese army.
“It’s something really precious to get married by the patriarch,” said Saleh, who heads a department at a learning center. “It’s not like any wedding,” she added. “Everyone is part of the wedding, and the preparations — everything is very special.”
Kozah pointed to their Maronite heritage. “Our ancestors sacrificed a lot, from the oldest generations 400 years ago. To get married here at the patriarchate, it really means a lot.”
“Our faith is very important to us,” his bride added. “Without faith, we can do nothing.”
She admitted she was “excited and nervous at the same time.”
As for their dreams for the future, the groom said: “To be happy,” with his bride adding, “We want to make a good family.”
When asked how many children the couple would like to have, the couple responded in unison, “We leave it in God’s hands.”
Joseph Sokhen, 30, who also serves in the Lebanese army, and Samar Fakher, 27, who works in accounting at Telelumiere, Lebanon’s Christian TV station, met eight years ago at the annual birthday festival of Lebanon’s St. Charbel in Bekaa Kafra in the north of Lebanon.
“It was love at first sight,” Sokhen told the Register at the wedding rehearsal about his bride-to-be, who shyly giggled at the memory.
“I hope for us to have a healthy life, a good life and so many kids,” Sokhen said, adding that he would like to name their first son Charbel.
“We are so honored because the patriarch will give us the apostolic blessing,” his bride said.
“St. Charbel is very special to us,” Fakher added. “He brought us together.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.