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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Faith and Courage: The Story of Maronite Catholics

The power of the centuries-old story of Maronite Catholics is renewed through the faith of its members.

In the fourth century A.D. a devout monk living in Syria became known for his holiness and for the miracles he worked. A friend of St. John Chrysostom, he fought the heresies which were rampant in his time, particularly Arianism, Monophysism and Nestorianism. On the banks of the Orontes River in Syria he converted an old pagan temple into a monastery, and there spent the rest of his life teaching about God. The monk’s name was Maron.

Maron’s fame quickly spread through the countryside, and by the time he died he had brought the Word of God to hundreds of Syrians. His monastery became the principal center of pastoral and spiritual care for the area, and at one time 800 monks were living and working there.

The followers of Maron – the monks and the country people whom they converted – came to be known as Maronites. Their history, it has been said, “is the story of a people who were continually willing to sacrifice their lives and possessions for religious conviction and human liberties.”

In spite of many hardships, the Maronites have always remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. The Most Reverend Francis M. Zayek, first bishop of the Maronites in the United States, proudly says, “We were never separated from the Holy Father.” Because of this unwavering fidelity, Maronites have been called “the Irish of the East.” Unlike all the other eastern rites of the Church, they have no Orthodox counterpart.

The history of the Maronites actually begins long before the time of Maron. The Maronite Church has its origins in ancient Syria, a country which embraced many cultures. Antioch in west Syria was a hellenistic city, while Edessa, to the northeast, was a center of Semitic culture and Syriac tradition. The Maronites, living in the countryside not far from Antioch, resisted the hellenistic influence and retained the Syriac-Aramaic culture and language. Thus Maronite theology and liturgy developed according to Biblical thought forms rather than Greek philosophy.

It was in Antioch that the followers of Christ were first called Christians, although the name was intended as an insult. The Christians of Antioch welcomed St. Peter when he fled the persecution in Jerusalem after the martyrdom of St. James. According to tradition, Peter founded the Church at Antioch and became its first bishop. Early Maronites were the direct descendants of the people who received the faith from the apostle Peter.

The Maronite Church became a formal entity with the institution of the Maronite Patriarchate in the seventh century. The first Patriarch was St. John Maron, who was chosen in 685. But those years brought tragedy as well: conflicts with heretics and the start of the Arab invasions. Faced with the certain destruction of their faith, the Maronites migrated to the mountains of Lebanon. By the tenth century, most of them were settled there.

The Maronites welcomed the Crusaders when they came, fighting alongside them and serving as guides through the Lebanese countryside. The association with the Crusaders was to have a long-lasting influence on Maronite history, liturgy and practice: ties with Rome became closer, some Western practices were adopted, and certain Latinizations were incorporated into the rite.

During the fifteenth century, with the agreement of the Maronite Patriarchs, the Holy See established various missionary orders in Lebanon to give religious instruction to the people. The teaching of the missionaries helped to bring about the high level of Maronite culture and literacy. In 1854, Pope Gregory XIII established the Maronite College in Rome. Graduates of the college helped to spread knowledge of the East in Europe and improved the education of the clergy at home in Lebanon. Through the years, scholarly and devout members of the Maronite hierarchy participated in synods held in Lebanon to bring about liturgical, pastoral and monastic reform, and to establish ecclesiastical law. The Maronite Church continued to grow and develop.

The Maronites, however, bore untold sufferings because of political unrest and persecution. Thousands died in the revolution of 1860 against Turkish rule, and nearly half the population perished at the time of the First World War. With characteristic courage the Maronites endured tragedy, and many chose to emigrate to countries around the world, including the United States. Wherever they settled they established strong communities, building churches and preserving intact the heritage of their ancient rite. Although many people do not realize it, “Maronite” is not synonymous with “Lebanese”: the Mother Church of the Maronite rite is in Lebanon, but the Diaspora or “migrant” Church is represented in Mexico, Africa and Australia as well as North and South America. The sons and daughters of St. Maron carried their faith with them as they became citizens of many nations. And that faith is expressed through a spirituality that is prayerful and rich in symbolism.

One of the cornerstones of Maronite belief is the Old Testament teaching that God is mysterious and unknowable in Himself. But God does not remain hidden: He is revealed through Christ, the “Lover of Mankind,” who brings the Father’s mercy to His children. The Maronites cultivate profound adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, seeing in the Holy Eucharist the Risen Christ who sends to men the sanctifying Spirit. They are also deeply devoted to Mary, the Mother of the Light, hailing her strength and fidelity in the title “Cedar of Lebanon.” It is said that the first altar in her honor was erected in Lebanon.

Because flight, resettlement and the fight to survive are so large a part of Maronite history, the idea of the Christian as a pilgrim bound for heaven is deeply rooted in Maronite spirituality. The members of this rite have called many lands “home,” yet they know these are but resting places on the way to their real home. Equally important in the Maronite tradition is the spirit of austerity, of “traveling light.” St. Maron and his monks impressed upon their people the need for simplicity and readiness for the Lord, and Maronites have always tried to follow this monastic counsel, which flourishes today in the spirit of St. Sharbel, the Maronite monk who was canonized on October 9,1977.

The Maronite liturgy, which is derived in part from the Judaic tradition of St. James, also expresses the spirit of Eastern monasticism. The cup used in the Divine Service was originally made not of precious metal but of wood. At the Consecration, the priest tips it in the four directions of the compass to symbolize Christ’s shedding His blood for the entire universe. This practice recalls the Judaic custom of sprinkling the four corners of the altar with the blood of the sacrificial lamb. The Maronite rite is also the only one in which the words of Consecration have traditionally been spoken in the same language Our Lord used at the Last Supper: Aramaic.

The many Latin usages which were introduced into the Maronite rite over the centuries were removed following Vatican Council II. The Divine Service and the celebration of the Mysteries (sacraments) are being returned to the austere beauty of their original Eastern form. Although Maronite priests use the vernacular today, many of the prayers and hymns retain the traditional Syriac or Arabic languages.

In order to care for the spiritual needs of the Maronites in the United States, the Church established an exarchate in 1966. It became the Diocese of St. Maron in 1971 under the guidance of Bishop Zayek, whose offices are in Brooklyn, New York.

The 150,000 Catholics of the Maronite rite in the United States continue to cherish and renew the spiritual heritage of their ancestors, and their valiant faith recalls the prophecy of Isaiah: “It shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise: the glory of Lebanon is given to it: the beauty of Carmel and Sharon.”

Freelance writers A.V. Crawford and Nora Coyne sometimes work in collaboration.

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