Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A New Patriarch for Lebanon

Newly-elected Maronite Patriarch Bashara Rai
Bishop Beshara Rai was elected as the 77th patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church today. He takes over after the retirement of 91-year-old Nasrallah Sfeir, who had served as the Maronite patriarch for 25 years. A patriarch is the highest-ranking bishop in a particular Church. Maronites were once the most important political bloc in Lebanon but since the 1960s, high emigration rates have reduced the community's size in the country. They still make up more than 20% of the Lebanese population and, according to an agreement enshrined in the country's constitution, the president of Lebanon must always be a Maronite.

This news brings up an important consideration for we Catholics who are so used to thinking only in terms of "Roman" Catholicism. We don't often think about it, but the Catholic Church really is big. Within her, there are actually 23 autonomous "Churches" throughout the world, all in union with the Pope -- the successor of St. Peter and the living sign of visible Christian unity. Besides the Latin Church (the one most of us think of when we think of "Roman Catholics"), there are 22 Eastern Catholic Churches that are also part of the universal Catholic Church. One of these autonomous Churches is the Maronite Church of Lebanon.

Who are the Maronites?

Maronite icon of St. Maron in prayer
Christianity's history in Lebanon really is fascinating. Like most of the Middle East, Lebanon was once solidly Christian in a time when all Christians were in union with the Pope. Up until the fifth century, Christians there considered themselves a part of the Church of Antioch, an ancient city which was an important center of early Christianity. The Lebanese Christians revered St. Maron (d. 410) as their founder. He was a monk who moved from Antioch to a mountain in Syria to be a missionary and to lead a life of asceticism. St. Maron's disciples moved into present-day Lebanon in the early fifth century and spread the Gospel throughout the region. Christians in Lebanon, then, were referred to as Maronites.

After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the patriarch of Antioch rejected the Council's decisions on the nature of Christ while the monks and faithful in Lebanon were strong supporters of the Council. The Church of Antioch then separated from the Catholic Church (the birth of "Oriental Orthodoxy" - the first large-scale schism in Church history) and the Maronite Catholics in Lebanon were persecuted for adhering to the decisions of the council and they suffered hardships at the hands of anti-Chalcedon Christians. During the Muslim conquest of Syria in the first half of the seventh century, most Maronite Catholics fled to the mountains of Lebanon. Under Muslim rule over the next 400 years, the Maronites in Lebanon existed in a precarious state: they were largely cut-off from the rest of the Christian world -- so much so that the Roman Catholic Church did not even know that they still existed. During those years, starting in the year 637, the Maronites established their own line of patriarchs to lead their Church. The Maronite Church remained isolated for over four hundred years.

During the 12th century Crusades, Christian soldiers passing through Lebanon were shocked to be greeted by a local, indigenous Christian community: the Maronites. During the Crusades, the Maronite Church assisted the Crusaders and affirmed their loyalty and union with the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter. In fact, the Maronite Church is one of only three Eastern Churches that have never in their history been outside of communion with the Bishop of Rome. (The other two are the Italo-Albanian Church in southern Italy and Sicily, and the Syro-Malabar Church in southwestern India - a community which traces its roots all the way back to the first century missionary activity of the Apostle Thomas!)

St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church in Birmingham, Ala.
Today, Maronite Catholics are still the largest Christian group in Lebanon, making up about 22% of the country's total population. This is, by far, the largest concentration of Christians in the Middle East. There are approximately 200,000 Maronite Catholics in the U.S., but most American Maronites assimilated into Roman Catholic parishes through the years because there were not very many Maronite Catholic parishes and priests in the U.S. There are currently two Maronite eparchies (the equivalent to dioceses) in the U.S.