Lebanon’s Love for the Blessed Mother

The deep-rooted devotion the Lebanese have for Our Lady is evident everywhere.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa draws pilgrims from near and far to honor the Virgin Mary.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa draws pilgrims from near and far to honor the Virgin Mary. (photo: Courtesy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon and Doreen Abi Raad)

In Lebanon, where Christians can freely express their faith, the deep-rooted love the Lebanese have for the Blessed Mother is evident everywhere.

Throughout the course of an ordinary day, one constantly encounters statues and images of Mary: through roadside and sidewalk shrines; in grocery stores, mini-markets and restaurants; in entrances to office and apartment buildings; on buses, taxis and cars, often with a rosary dangling from the rear-view mirror. Even in barbershops and hair salons. 

The tiny Middle Eastern country, about half the size of New Jersey, has more than 300 churches bearing the name of Our Lady. 

And when there is an emergency or a moment of distress, “Ya Adra” (O Virgin!) is typically the first petitionary plea that arises from their hearts. 

“In history, the Lebanese people love the Virgin Mary,” said Maronite Father Younan Obeid, vice rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa.

Located 16 miles north of Beirut, the towering Our Lady of Lebanon statue, her arms outstretched, graces a 1,866-foot summit above the Mediterranean Sea. Painted white, the bronze statue is nearly 28 feet high and 18 feet wide.

Its stone pedestal, nearly 66 feet high, encases Our Lady of the Light Chapel. 

“She stands up majestic like the cedars in Lebanon,” reads the inscription above the chapel’s entrance.

There is 24-hour adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel. Steps away, the adjacent basilica seats more than 3,000 people. Daily, there are nine Masses, mostly celebrated in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, located beneath the frontal part of the basilica. Simultaneously, confession is available during each Mass.

The shrine’s origins trace to Maronite Catholic Patriarch Elias Boutros Howayek and Msgr. Carol Duval, the apostolic delegate, 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.

Msgr. Duval wrote in a letter: “She would appear at a distance as the Queen and the Protectress of Lebanon. She would be truly exalted as a cedar in Lebanon. The pious people of Lebanon, already so devoted to Mary, would love to visit Her, to invoke Her. Pilgrimages would form that would draw down … the blessings of the Queen of Heaven.” 

Just as the two prelates had envisioned, Harissa indeed draws a steady stream of pilgrims every day. Particularly during the month of May, dedicated to the Blessed Mother, Lebanese make a special effort to pay homage to Our Lady of Lebanon. 

Harissa’s Father Obeid estimates that 1.5 million pilgrims visit the shrine in May. 

“Everyone wants to come, young and old,” he told the Register.

On a recent May weekday morning, a trio of buses filled with elementary students from a Catholic school had just departed the shrine. 

Meanwhile, elderly people, many in wheelchairs or walking with canes, accompanied by an adult child, were among those visiting Our Lady of Lebanon for what might just be an annual pilgrimage due to their frailty.

For Freda Kanaan, a Melkite Catholic who came to Harissa with her daughter, such advancement in age has not deterred her from frequent visits to the shrine. “I visit not just in May, but the whole year. It’s a need for me,” she told the Register.

“The Virgin is everything for me. She never abandons me,” Kanaan said with conviction.

Muslims and Christians alike come to the shrine. 

“Every day you can see Muslims here, visiting the Virgin Mary. They have a special affection for her, and they pray in their own way,” Father Obeid said, noting that there are 20 verses in the Quran about Mary and two chapters devoted to her.

Nancy Yaghi, a 25-year-old Maronite Catholic who is a civil engineer, referred to Harissa as “my safe place.”

“Each time I come here, I’m moved to tears. I cry unconsciously. I know the Virgin Mary loves us and hears us. She always works out all the details in our lives,” she told the Register.

Fadel Rawass always made a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Lebanon in May, walking for eight hours from his village east of Beirut. 

But that “on foot” tradition all changed in January, when he had a fall and injured his knee and hip. Now, the 49-year-old supermarket worker walks laboriously with a cane, every step an obvious source of pain.

This year, Rawass made the journey by taking several buses. “I can’t walk to the top anymore,” he told the Register of the 103 spiraling steps that many pilgrims climb from the base of the shrine to pray directly beneath the gaze of Our Lady.

“She’s like my mother,” Rawass, a Maronite Catholic said, his eyes misting with emotion. He said he came with a special prayer intention for Our Lady. “I prayed for me, and I asked her to save Lebanon. At least if she can’t help me, she can help Lebanon: ‘So many people need help. Please help Lebanon.’ And I am also thanking her, because many people helped me when I got injured.” 

As Lebanon faces a crippling economic, social and political crisis, Father Obeid notices that pilgrims are praying more fervently.

“They come here to pray to the Virgin Mary about their difficulties, believing that she is ready to help them” through her intercession, he said.

More than 80% of the Lebanese have been plunged into poverty in the once-middle-income country. Since 2019, the national currency has depreciated by more than 98%, evaporating the value of incomes — for those who are still employed. 

The World Bank has labeled Lebanon’s unraveling as a “deliberate depression” and one of the worst financial crises worldwide since the 1850s. In March, it said that Lebanon suffers the highest food price inflation globally.

On top of ever-increasing daily hardships, Lebanon is sinking further under a presidential vacancy. Its deeply divided Parliament has continuously failed to agree on a new head of state since President Michel Aoun’s six-year term ended on Oct. 30. Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, the post is reserved for a Maronite Catholic.

Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of Maronite Catholics, celebrating Mass in the basilica May 7 on the feast of Our Lady of Lebanon, observed on the first Sunday of May, stressed in his homily, “Despite all manifestations of the political, financial, social and daily living collapse, our confidence in our Mother, the Virgin Mary, remains great. Our Lady of Lebanon preserves this country and protects its people, its message and its role in its Eastern environment.” 

Such devotion is apparent in the pilgrims.

Our Lady of Lebanon Harissa adoration
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place in the Our Lady of the Light Chapel, beneath the Our Lady of Lebanon statue.(Photo: Doreen Abi Raad)

A pilgrimage to Harissa during the month of May has been a tradition in Yaghi’s family for as long as she can remember. “It’s like, when it’s Mother’s Day or your mother’s birthday, you want to be with your mother, to talk to her.” 

When Our Lady of Lebanon was consecrated in May 1907, this prayer rose up to her: “Stretch forth your hands in blessing over this country which since the earliest centuries has ever loved and defended you, despite every vicissitude. Preserve for this country concord and peace; keep its ancient faith and age-old piety; protect it against error and false progress as you have protected it up to now. Keep for it what has always constituted its strength and its beauty: a tender, indestructible love for you. … O Cedar of Lebanon, pray for us!”