From Lebanon, a Rosary of Hope
Prayer marathon includes Marian shrine in beleaguered country.
BEIRUT — Lebanon’s participation in a Rosary marathon for an end to the coronavirus, called for by the Vatican, has ignited hope in the country, which is suffering from multiple crises.
“We were so happy to receive this good news. Pope Francis choosing Our Lady of Lebanon is something very special for Lebanon, especially during this difficult time that we are living,” Maronite Father Fady Tabet, rector of Our Lady of Lebanon Shrine in Harissa, told the Register.
Throughout May, the Rosary is praying from a different Marian shrine around the world for a specific intention related to the pandemic.
The Rosary at Our Lady of Lebanon Shrine on May 29 will be offered for the intention of “all consecrated men and women.”
On May 29, at the basilica adjoining the Our Lady of Lebanon Shrine, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronites, will officiate the Rosary in the presence of bishops and religious orders from different Catholic rites, along with the faithful.
Father Tabet is expecting the basilica, which seats more than 3,000, to be full.
The Rosary at Our Lady of Lebanon will be international in scope.
Over the course of the Rosary’s five decades, the prayers will be recited in a total of 12 languages: Arabic, Syriac, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Aramaic (the language of Jesus), Tagalog (Filipino), German, Portuguese and Greek.
A Mother for All
With arms outstretched, welcoming all, a towering Our Lady statue greets pilgrims at the Lebanon shrine, which graces a 1,886-foot summit above the Mediterranean Sea, 16 miles north of Beirut.
The bronze statue, painted white, is nearly 28 feet high and 18 feet wide. Its stone base, which encases the “Our Lady of the Light” Chapel, is 65.6-feet high.
“She stands up majestic like the cedars in Lebanon,” reads the inscription above the chapel's entrance. Standing before the statue high above the sea and nestled under Our Lady’s arms, with the sky as her blue mantle, it’s easy for a pilgrim to feel a childlike sense of peace and security.
Typically, pilgrims climb the 104 steps leading to the statue — often barefoot, as a form of penance — to pray directly beneath the massive depiction of the Virgin Mary. Due to the pandemic, the stairway is not accessible, to account for social-distancing measures.
The shrine’s origins trace to Maronite Patriarch Elias Boutros Hoyek and the Vatican nuncio to Lebanon, Carlos Duval, who decided in 1904 to commission a token of grateful devotion to Mary on the 50th anniversary of the dogmatic proclamation of the Immaculate Conception.
Patriarch Hoyek, the 72nd Maronite patriarch, considered the “founding father” of Greater Lebanon, whose independence and defense he fought for, especially the regions taken by the Ottomans, was declared “Venerable” by Pope Francis July 2019.
The Our Lady of Lebanon statue was consecrated in May 1908, upon the 50th anniversary of Our Lady’s apparition to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France.
Harissa is more than a Marian shrine, as honoring the Virgin Mary is deeply rooted in the hearts of the Lebanese.
“[Our Lady of] Harissa is the mother of all Lebanese,” said Father Tabet.
“The Virgin Mary is venerated by all the religions. That’s why, here in Harissa, you see a lot of Muslims and Druze. They respect the Virgin Mary,” Father Tabet said.
In 2010, the Lebanese government instituted the Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25, as a joint Christian-Muslim national holiday.
About 35% of Lebanon’s citizen population is Christian, the highest percentage of any country in the Middle East.
Hopes for a New Life in Lebanon
“It is a big event for us,” said Father Tabet, regarding the Harissa shrine leading the Rosary on May 29. “Hopefully, the Virgin Mary is going to do a miracle for Lebanon. It’s very difficult,” said Father Tabet of the current situation in the country. “But we have faith that Our Lord and the Virgin Mary are going to help us to start a new life in Lebanon.”
Lebanon is sinking under the country's worst economic crisis in modern history. More than 50% of its population is now living below the poverty line. Economic misery prevails at all levels, as the country’s currency has lost nearly 90% of its value since late 2019.
The Lebanese feel betrayed and abandoned by their government and political leaders who have plundered the country with corruption and mismanagement.
“It is such a difficult time we are going through in Lebanon. The only hope is going back to God; going back to prayer; going back to the Virgin Mary,” Father Tabet said.
Harissa, he noted, offers people solace and hope.
“They come to Harissa like a little child who is coming to cry in front of his mother,” he said.
That’s the sentiment expressed by pilgrim May Geahchan on a recent May afternoon at the shrine.
“She’s like a guardian angel for us Lebanese,” Geahchan told the Register.
“I like to come here to pray and ask her to save Lebanon, to help it come back to what it was before: the Switzerland of the Middle East. It really was. That’s what we hope for,” said Geahchan, a Maronite Catholic from Beirut.
“Hopefully, she’s going to have pity on us and bring us to a normal situation, not the awful situation we are living,” Geahchan said.
“I visit her whenever I can,” Geahchan said. “This is the month of Holy Mary, so we come often.”
Adoration, Consecration to the Immaculate Heart
Soon after becoming rector of the shrine in Harissa in September 2019, Father Tabet instituted 24-hour perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the “Our Lady of Light” Chapel nestled under the Virgin Mary statue.
“I believe the Blessed Sacrament is going to play a very important role in Lebanon,” Father Tabet said.
Every Sunday at Harissa there is a special blessing with the Blessed Sacrament. With the monstrance from the chapel, the priest collectively blesses all those present outside the chapel and, facing in different directions, blesses the four corners of the world.
Father Tabet noted that often Muslims who are visiting the shrine also join those who gather around the Blessed Sacrament and, like many of the Christian pilgrims, come forward for an individual blessing of the Blessed Sacrament.
At Harissa, since 2013, Cardinal Rai has consecrated Lebanon to the Immaculate Heart of Mary each year in June, commemorating the feast day.
Vatican Solidarity With Lebanon
During Pope St. John Paul II’s historic visit to Lebanon, it was at Harissa that the Polish Pontiff remarked: “What a beautiful horizon!” as he gazed at the sunset and the sea of Lebanese youth gathered on May 10, 1997.
At Harissa that day, the Pope signed the apostolic exhortation “A New Hope for Lebanon,” which concludes with words that remain timely today:
“May Lebanon, the happy mountain, flourish once again and fulfill its vocation to be a light to the region and a sign of the peace that comes from God.”
And in 1989, St. John Paul II had declared that “Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism, both for the East and for the West.”
Pope Francis has also demonstrated his solidarity with Lebanon’s suffering people: From calling in September 2020 for a day of fasting and prayer for Lebanon; a special Christmas letter to Cardinal Rai, expressing his concern; an appeal to the diplomatic corps to the Holy See in February in which he warned that “without an urgently needed process of economic recovery and reconstruction, the country risks bankruptcy, with the possible effect of a dangerous drift towards fundamentalism”; and his Easter message calling on the international community to “support the Lebanese people, who are going through a period of difficulties and uncertainties,” the Pope has expressed his care and concern.
Kiki Salhab, another Maronite pilgrim to Harissa from Beirut, expressed to the Register the gratefulness of the Lebanese: “For Pope Francis to pray for Lebanon and to always think of Lebanon, it’s so important for us. He gives us hope. We feel we have a connection with him.”
Father Tabet noted that, indeed, Pope Francis has a long-standing connection with the Lebanese, dating back to his years as cardinal in Argentina. There, the future pontiff often visited the Maronite community in Buenos Aires, where the Congregation of the Lebanese Maronite Missionaries came in 1901 to establish the first Maronite mission in South America for the Lebanese diaspora.
Pope Francis has also said he wants to visit the Land of the Cedars, specifying recently that wouldn’t occur until there is a government. Lebanon has been stuck in a political impasse for nearly 10 months, preventing the formation of a government.
Aside from St. John Paul II, Lebanon has been graced with visits by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and Pope Paul VI in 1964.
In 1954, then-Cardinal Angelo Roncalli — who later became Pope John XXIII — came to Harissa on behalf of Pope Pius XII to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the shrine’s construction.
“It is the hope of all the Lebanese to see Pope Francis in Lebanon,” said Father Tabet. “His presence in Lebanon would be a huge blessing.”
Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut.
The Rosary from Harissa on May 29 will be broadcast live at noon EST on the Vatican’s website at VaticanNews.va.
Also, it will be broadcast live by Lebanon’s Christian broadcasters: Telelumiere/Noursat; Charity TV; Voice of Charity Radio, as well as some secular TV stations.