LOS ANGELES—In 1596, the papal legate Father Girolamo Dandini, a Jesuit, and one of the first western churchmen to study the life of Maronite Catholics in Lebanon, described the community to Pope Clement VIII as “the vanguard of Catholic missions in the East,” and a worker for rapprochement with the Muslim world.
In the aftermath of Lebanon's tragic 16-year civil war, Maronites in Lebanon, where they remain the country's largest Christian community, and in the diaspora, find that that missionary vocation, forged in suffering, has, once again, come to the fore.
“Lebanon is more than a country,” says Father Abdullah Zaidan, director of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mt. Lebanon in Los Angeles, “it's a mission.”
Father Zaidan, back from a visit to his homeland earlier this summer, described today's Lebanon as “the gateway between East and West,” and a special locus of the dialogue between Christianity and the Islamic world — a view of the country long espoused by the Vatican, and reaffirmed in Pope John Paul's visit to Lebanon in May, 1997, and in the documents of last year's landmark Lebanese Synod of Bishops.
Nevertheless, Father Zaidan lamented the presence of Israeli and Syrian troops in the country which, he said, inhibit Lebanon's freedom of movement in rebuilding its shattered civilian infrastructure.
For this rector of the cathedral of one of two Maronite eparchies (or dioceses) in the United States — Our Lady of Lebanon, established in 1994, and the older St. Maron-Brooklyn diocese — the long-cherished dream of Lebanon as a Christian enclave in the Middle East is no longer viable.
Hopes of carving out a Christiandominated state from the far western portion of the former Ottoman province of Syria were realized by French forces following the First World War, and, largely, confirmed by Lebanon's independence bid in 1944. Under the pressure of outside forces as well as internal ones, the fabric of relations between the country's Maronite establishment and Sunni, Shi'a, and Druze communities broke down in the mid-1970s, plunging the once prosperous country into a devastating civil war which ground to a halt only in the early years of this decade.
“We feel that we lost the [civil] war from that point of view,” he told the Register, “and now we Maronites need to adjust and adapt to the new [postwar] situation in which Lebanon is once again a missionary country, in which, through the work of hospitals, schools, and medical facilities, we must bear witness to Christ and work for peace and coexistence between the communities.”
“The [Lebanese] people are looking to the Church [in the postwar period] not only for their spiritual salvation, but what you might call their ‘patriotic’ salvation as well,” said Father Zaidan. It's the Church that has taken the lead in recent years in ensuring that people displaced by war are able to return to their homes, in organizing financial help, and helping to rebuild the country's medical system.
Maronites have long maintained a difficult balancing act in the midst of the volatile politics of the region.
Alone among the region's Christian communities to remain continuously linked to Rome, Maronites take their name from a fifth century hermit, Maron, who lived in northern Syria. As a result of persecution, early Maronites migrated to Lebanon where they settled in the country's high central range of mountains. “The faith of the mountains,” Maronites evocatively call it. There they managed to carve out an identity for themselves as a people and develop a high degree of independence and cohesion. While some scholars date Maronite ties to the Holy See back to the patristic age, the common view is that formal communion was cemented during the period of the Crusades.
But since the early years of this century, Maronites have done more than “keep the faith” in the highlands of the eastern Mediterranean. They've also emigrated in large numbers to the United States, as well as to Australia and Latin America, where they've become a unique and increasingly visible presence in Catholic affairs.
According to eparchial sources, there are more than 75,000 Maronites registered in parishes throughout the United States.
In Los Angeles, where the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, with some 27 parishes and missions in the western states, is based, this coming October will cap a year of celebrations honoring the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Lebanon-St. Peter, the cathedral since the western eparchy was set up under Bishop John Chedid, the church's pastor for more than 40 years, in 1994.
That growing visibility was also evident at the 35th convention of the National Apostolate of Maronites, held the first week of August in Pittsburgh.
Sponsored by the Eparchy (or diocese) of St. Maron, which is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and covers 16 eastern states, including Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, the convention represents the Church's lay apostolates, said Msgr. Ronald Beshara, director of Jubilee 2000 for the Brooklyn eparchy, and a main speaker at the event.
“Preparing for the millennium — that's where Maronites, along with the rest of the Church, are focused now,” he said.
In fact, he said, the Brooklyn eparchy's efforts to link the three-year preparatory program outlined by Pope John Paul in his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente on the Great Jubilee to a broader five-year comprehensive plan for the whole diocese had been singled out by the U.S. bishops’ Jubilee 2000 committee “as a kind of national model.” “We need to take Jubilee preparation seriously,” he said. “We need to see it as an opportunity to find out where we came from as a Church, who we are, and what our destiny is.”
And what would the implications of such a quest be for Maronites?
“Three streams feed the Maronite identity,” said Msgr. Beshara.
One is a particular approach to Scripture linked to the school of Antioch, a prominent center for biblical studies in the early Church — an approach characterized less by “the distancing of philosophical language, but by an attitude that encourages us to experience God in the Scriptures.”
“For Antiochenes, all creation is simply the setting for the revelation of Jesus Christ,” he said.
A use of poetry and music as primary vehicles of theology is a second stream characteristic of Syriac spirituality — a tradition most closely associated with St. Ephrem the Syrian, perhaps Christianity's greatest poet, who wrote nearly 400 catechetical hymns and metrical sermons.
“Finally,” said Msgr. Beshara, “there's the strong monastic influence on Maronite identity.”
The monastic tonality of Maronite piety “encouraged our Church to focus on detachment from the world, and on a certain eschatological point of view, centered on the Second Coming of Christ.”
“The charism of the Maronite Church,” he said, “is this deeply Scriptural, poetic tradition that, while focused on celebrating the presence of the Risen Lord, is always calling us on to parousia” to the Second Coming.
“That's the danger, as I see it, in the western liturgical tradition,” he remarked. “It's all so logical and demonstrative, so ‘here and now.’ The Maronite Liturgy gives this profound witness to ‘the beyond’ in our midst.”
For Father Abdullah Zaidan, the Maronite charism is, above all, the charism of unity.
“We're very proud to have been in communion with the Church of Rome from the very beginning,” he said. “Also, that we, as Maronites, have managed to stay one Church — not to have a Protestant wing and a Catholic wing, or an Orthodox one. This has been a blessing for us in so many ways. Throughout our history, we've had this role of witnessing to the unity of the Church.”
And then there's Our Lady.
“For the Maronite, there's no question about her,” said Father Zaidan, “no discussion, no debate. All that the Church teaches about her is not only believed, but cherished.”
In Lebanon, he said, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin is always celebrated in grand style.
“Every Maronite will go to church that day,” said Father Zaidan. “Our Lady and the faith of the mountains — it's what we Maronites bring.”
Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.