VATICAN CITY—The Jubilee of the Maronite Church offered something not often heard at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome: a solemn liturgy in Arabic and Syriac.
“Syriac is the living language closest to the Aramaic that Jesus himself would have spoken,” said John Paul Kimes, a Maronite deacon currently studying in Rome. “So during the consecration, we heard something similar to what the apostles themselves would have heard at the Last Supper.”
During the Holy Year, several days have been set aside for the Eastern Catholic churches as a way to highlight their place in the universal Church.
The Eastern churches are in full communion with Rome while retaining their own ecclesiastical structure, including government and cannon law. The Eastern liturgy — notable for its solemnity and beauty — is also distinctive.
The Feb. 9 feast of St. Maron was the Jubilee day for the Universal Church to focus on the Maronites, who number some 4 million worldwide with 500,000 in the United States. The celebration in Rome centered around the Maronite rite of the Mass, or divine liturgy, which was celebrated before an overflow congregation in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
The event was an occasion to remind Catholics that the Universal Church is actually several churches that are in communion with the pope.
“These individual churches … are nonetheless all equally entrusted to the pastoral guidance of the Roman Pontiff, who by God's appointment is successor to Blessed Peter in primacy over the Universal Church,” said the Second Vatican Council's decree on the Eastern Churches Orientalium Ecclesiarum.
“Therefore these churches are of equal rank, so that none of them is superior to the others because of its rite.” said the Council Fathers.
The 21 Eastern churches include, among others, the Ukrainian, Greek, Armenian, Chaldean and Coptic rites. These ancient ecclesial bodies remain vibrant, even though many of their regions of origin no longer have many Christians.
The Maronite Church is based in Lebanon, where it is the largest Christian body.
“It is a gift to the Maronite Church to be able to come together as one Church in Rome,” said Kimes, who will be ordained a priest this summer in Birmingham, Alabama. “To come here to Rome reminds us of our valued place in the Church. The Church herself realizes the diversity within her and treasures it.”
He said this is especially important for Maronite Catholics in the United States, “where we are such a small minority.”
The Mass at St. Mary Major was celebrated by Cardinal Nasrallah Peter Sfeir, patriarch of Antioch and All the East, who is the head of the Maronite Church. Joining him were Maronite bishops from around the world, including three bishops from North America.
The ancient walls of the Roman basilica resounded with Arabic chants and were filled with the incense so lavishly used during the Siro-Antiochene liturgy. A choir of Maronite monks from three Roman Maronite communities provided the music for the Mass, which was entirely sung.
“The Maronite College, founded in 1584, has, for more than four centuries, formed for the Church an important number of priests, among them bishops and patriarchs, who have guided their flock with zeal, wisdom and a spirit of true piety,” said Cardinal Sfeir in his homily. “In these conditions, young Maronite seminarians came to Rome to study the sacred sciences and Church culture in the universities of the Eternal City.”
After the Mass, the Maronite College was solemnly re-inaugurated following an extensive renovation carried out in recent years.
The Maronite delegation in Rome for the Jubilee was received in a special papal audience the day after the solemn liturgy at St. Mary Major, in which the Holy Father addressed the ongoing challenges faced by the Church in Lebanon.