Journey to the Holy Land: Lebanon’s Extremes

Today marks our last full day in this country of beauty and poverty, faith and conflict. Tomorrow, after we celebrate Holy Mass with Issam, his staff and their families in Beirut, Father Guido and I fly to Amman, Jordan. But first, let me catch you up on what we did yesterday.

Friday began with a climb by car of a mountain that hovers over the Beirut suburb of Jal el Dib to the mother house of the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross. This is the same community of sisters who have hosted us at the Notre Dame du Puis Retreat Center.

My first impression upon arriving on the campus was the sheer number of buildings and the size of the layout. This isn’t just a mother house, however, but a home for more than a 1,000 people with special needs, most of whom live out their lives with these dedicated sisters and their superb staff. The government of Lebanon does not sponsor any facilities for those with mental and/or physical handicaps or those with substance abuse addictions. But thanks God for these sisters, who identified a need and have reached out to these marginalized children of God, who are treated with dignity, grace and love.

We spent some quality time visiting with many different groups of residents and were greeted warmly by most of the residents. In fact I was greeted with many hugs from patients who told me, “I love you.” A warm greeting indeed!

Our most memorable visit was in an area for profoundly mentally challenged boys and men, some of whom have severely physical handicaps. There was a remarkable sister who had a God-given ability to discern in the moans, groans or unabashed sounds of these patients ranging in age from 6 to 45 years a need for some type of attention. She calmly reached out and gave them a little hug, a pat on the check, a little touch on the head, and their anxieties or fears went away. She did it so instinctively and so calmly it might not have been noticed – she did it with love.

In the many other departments of this hospital we encountered loving patients and even more loving sisters and staff. And even in the very old sections of this huge facility, everything was immaculately clean, as were all the residents.

A special highlight of this visit included a tour of a newly furnished museum that featured the founder of this order of women, Blessed Frere Jacques, who died in 1954 and was beatified in 2008. We had seen his face on huge posters all around Beirut, but now we could appreciate this saintly man by walking through the wonderful display of his personal artifacts and all things connected with the process of his beatification.

CNEWA continues to be a part of this story of love that unfolds each day at the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross Hospital, especially through our sponsorship program. Your support assists these dear sisters in sharing the love of God in a heroic way with these special children of God.

We left the sisters and their charges to visit a few recipients of our microcredit loan program, which is quite successful. CNEWA makes available small sums of money to individuals seeking help to begin a small business or even to expand it. The applicants are recommended to us by a parish priest and their loan is held by a local bank. In every instance, it is understood that these small grants (which range from $1,000 to $10,000) are loans and must be paid back – this is not a welfare assistance program.

Our first visit was with a family who now have a grocery store in a teeming neighborhood. Sales seem to be doing well, as evidenced by the traffic in the brief time we spent with them. They offered us a nice refreshing glass of juice as we milled around the store.

Our second stop along this microcredit tour was a visit with a woman who has grappled with the results of juvenile polio all her life. And in her words, as a result of a miracle, she long ago snapped out of any depression or despair and decided to make something of her life. Now, thanks to a very modest loan, she has published two catechetical books used in many schools and also a CD of music written by herself. Her gratitude was beautifully reflected when she gave me a copy of her CD and her two books. I fibbed a little and told her this would inspire me to learn some Arabic!

Issam surprised us again with a side trip to the world famous Grotto at Jeitta, one of the wonders of the world. This cavern, as we would call it in North America, has two levels. We walked on foot along a channel of clean cold mountain water over four miles. To traverse the lower level one boards a boat. The geologic formations inside this cavern are spectacular – but I was disappointed I could not take a few photos to share with you: No photos are permitted inside the cavern.

From the grotto we headed to one of the refugee camps that have housed Palestinians since the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. This crisis prompted Pope Pius XII to found the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, which the Holy Father asked my predecessor several times removed at CNEWA, Msgr. Thomas McMahon, to head as its president. Once, there were three camps in Lebanon that housed Palestinian Christian families, most of whom were from the Galilee. Dbayeh is the last camp in Lebanon to house Christian refugees, almost all of whom are Catholic.

A camp is not what you might think, or at least what I thought before coming here. I conjured up a picture of refugees living in cardboard shelters or in tents. Well, a camp is like a little city within the confines of another municipality, but the people have no rights, no citizenship, no legal recourse and little social acceptance. The homes here in Dbayeh are very basic, even crude, but the people are most happy to be here instead of the other camps in the country, which are armed and lawless, centers where a “survival of the fittest” mentality reigns.

We were engaged in a very lively discussion with members of the Dbayeh Camp steering committee. Unwanted in Lebanon, these folks cannot go back to their homeland either. They live in a kind of limbo where they cannot travel – they have no passports – they cannot own land, work legally or even improve their homes without permission (which is almost never given). We met two lovely Belgian Little Sisters of Jesus whose door is always open to the families living in there.

Pray for them, and thank you for your assistance to them. Since this camp opened in the early 1950’s, our Pontifical Mission has supported them by building an running a school – destroyed in the civil war – the parish church of St. George, as well as providing small grants for various community needs. It is a tough existence for these families, many of whom still have the keys to their homes back in the Galilee.

Today, we left Beirut early and traveled south to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mantara, which is famous throughout the country. Legend has it that Jesus arrived in the nearby biblical town of Sidon to meet his mother there, but she had to wait for him in a cave on a hilltop, now called called Mantara, which in Arabic means “wait.” It is a natural cave and now houses a beautiful little chapel commemorating this visit by Mary. We greeted the parish priest and he invited us to step inside the new shrine church, which is still under construction. We also enjoyed stopping at a magnificent overlook, which gave us sweeping views of the entire countryside below. The largest Palestinian refugee camp was right below us; some 70,000 people live there.

From the shrine we traveled further south to the town of Tyre, one of the ancient biblical cities mentioned in the Gospels and had a delightful coffee with the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Tyre, Georges Bakhouny. His knowledge of the realities of war and conflict in Lebanon were most helpful to me in getting a better grasp of what is a most complicated political, religious and social mix.

I was fortunate to accompany him in his car for a 45-minute drive to the village of Yaroun. What a big surprise to find about 80 people waiting in the chilly outdoors for us in front of the parish hall. Father Guido and I were taken aback how these parishioners, some of whom had come from neighboring villages, were here to greet us and thank us for the help that CNEWA has provided before, during and after the war of 2006.

Archbishop Bakhouny led us into the meeting hall and after some remarks by the pastor, I was invited to speak to the group. After my remarks, I invited them to ask questions or make comments. Even the archbishop encouraged them to be open with me, even in his presence. Well, they were most kind in offering thanks to all the CNEWA family and the solidarity that my visit meant to them. They also expressed the fear in each of them about their future, as it is increasingly more and more difficult for them to remain there for a host of reasons that are too delicate to mention here.

They were most grateful that I listened and assured them that we would continue to do what is possible to assist them, not just with financial assistance, but with technical help and always our prayers. I also told them I would return another time.

To end our visit in Yaroun, the parish priest and the archbishop took us to the church, which was shelled in the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006 and remains under construction. CNEWA has assisted in covering some of the costs to furnish the church, especially the erection of the iconostasis that separates the sanctuary from the nave.

I feel a close bond with Archbishop Bakhouny, and have invited him to visit us in New York this coming May when he will be coming to the United States for the first time to participate in an international congress in New Jersey. That would be a treat and an honor to host him at our residence. He, too, seemed very enthused about this possible visit.

Several of our hosts at this village gathering left me with the same parting message: “Monsignor, please do not abandon us.” On your behalf, I assured them we stand with them as one family in Christ. They gratefully accepted this pledge and I pass it along to you.

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