After breakfast overlooking the sea high up on a hill in Beirut, Father Guido and I were escorted by our regional director, Issam Bishara, to the residence of the apostolic nuncio to Lebanon, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia. As nuncio, Archbishop Caccia directly represents the Holy Father in ecclesiastical matters to the state of Lebanon and to its Catholic hierarchy.
We were warmly received by His Excellency and had a very engaging conversation with him over a cup of tea. His understanding of the complexities of the religious and political realities in Lebanon, mixed with its history of civil war and occupation, could not fail to impress. The nuncio has visited North America several times and I invited him to visit again and to stay with us in our new residence in New York.
Our next stop was an amazing jump into the history of the church in Lebanon: Blessed Sacrament Orphanage. How could an orphanage place us in the context of church history? Well, our story begins with the construction of this castle-like edifice in the 1600’s. Over the next 400 years, this structure has served a variety of purposes. But it is known for housing the first school in the area and later as the Maronite patriarchal chancery and seminary. Today, it is home to 80 girls, who are lovingly cared for by the Blessed Sacrament Sisters. For years, CNEWA has supported this excellent facility through our needy child sponsorship program.
We were warmly greeted by the present superior, Mother Francoise Doueihy, and a number of the other sisters. As we tried to meet everyone present, the grand entrance into the hall filled with singing, smiling and happy girls between the ages of 5 and 16. They welcomed us with some songs and dances, dressed patriotically in the colors of Lebanon: red, white and green, especially green, representing the famous cedars of Lebanon.
What a loving and lovable group of young ladies. I shared with them that the children of North America sent them their love and their prayers and they offered the same to all of our children back home. We had some real fun taking photos with all of them. Their radiant faces truly expressed the presence of Jesus on their faces and in their hearts. What a wonderful visit.
From the orphanage we headed to the Maronite Patriarchal Seminary, where we were greeted by Msgr. Maroun Aammar, rector, and other members of the faculty. After a brief tour of this architectural gem, we headed to the church for the Divine Liturgy. Yours truly was invited to be the celebrant of the liturgy in the Latin rite and in English. Msgr. Aammar explained that, since the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is the patronal feast day in the United States of America, it would be a good experience for the seminarians to be exposed to a Latin rite Mass.
The priests and seminarians were wonderful in assisting me to vest, since I did not know how to dress with Maronite vestments.
After Mass we joined the rector, faculty and seminarians in the dining hall for a lovely lunch. Plenty of food and even more smiles. I complimented the rector on the spirit of his seminarians. By the way, these young men are supported in their preparation for the priesthood by benefactors through CNEWA’s seminarian sponsorship program. They warmly expressed their appreciation to their CNEWA friends and promised to continue to pray for all of you.
Our next stop, a visit with Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III of Antioch. Patriarch Gregory is a very warm, humorous and lovable man. He enlightened me on some of the subtle differences between the various Eastern churches present in Lebanon and gave us some most interesting sketches of his own history and the dimensions of his ministry. As part of a brief tour of the patriarchal headquarters, he showed us the grand receiving room, which is a fixture at every patriarchate we have visited. He jokingly commented that his receiving room was not as nice as that of Maronite Patriarch Peter Bechara – I told him his chairs were nicer and he laughed and said, “You are right.”
This evening, Father Guido and I will host the papal nuncio, a number of hierarchs, religious superiors and heads of Catholic agencies that cooperate with CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission in Lebanon. This will take place in a dining room here at our residence with the Franciscan Sisters. This is mostly a social gathering so that we might express our solidarity with them, since we otherwise do not have the opportunity to greet them during this first visit.
And with that, I thank you for what you allow CNEWA to do on your behalf in a far away place called Lebanon. As I continue to tell everyone I meet, even the children today at the orphanage, we are all one family, God’s family. So your family in Lebanon sends you their love. Check out a video from our visit below.