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The Maronite Church

The Maronite Church is not known for its architectural achievements, artistic wonders or musical treasures. Driven into the peaks and valleys of Mount Lebanon – a mountain range stretching along the eastern Mediterranean – the Maronites’ greatest accomplishments are perseverance in the faith, the unique relationship forged between their patriarch and his people and their role in the creation of modern Lebanon.

St. Maron. The Maronite Church is rooted in the asceticism of the desert fathers from Asia Minor, Egypt, Palestine and Syria – provinces of the Roman Empire that eventually evolved into Byzantium.

Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, thousands of men and women, following the Gospel’s call to “pray always,” withdrew from society, suppressed all worldly concerns and dedicated themselves to prayer and penance. One such hermit, a priest named Maron, repaired to a hilltop near the Syrian city of Aleppo. According to Theodoret of Cyr, an early fifth-century Syrian bishop, Maron lived a solitary life of fasting and prayer, attaining a “wealth of wisdom.”

Maron’s fame, Theodoret wrote in his “Historia Religiosa” (circa 440), “circulated everywhere … One could see fevers quenched by the dew of his blessing, shivers quieted, demons put to flight … He cured not only infirmities of the body, but … healed this man’s greed and that man’s anger, taught self-control and provided lessons in justice, corrected one man’s intemperance and shook up another’s sloth.“ The fame of this simple but charismatic figure spread throughout Byzantium. St. John Chrysostom, the great preacher and patriarch of Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople, asked Maron in 405 to write frequently, but to “above all, pray for us.”

Maron died in 410. Eventually his disciples, known as Maronites, formed a monastic community, Beit (Syriac, meaning “house of”) Maron, on the banks of the Orontes River south of Antioch (modern Antakya in southern Turkey), carrying with them the skull of the revered priest. According to the Arab historian Abu al-Fida (1273-1331), the Byzantine Emperor Marcian sponsored the construction of the monastery, dedicated in 452.

Christological controversies. The development of the Maronite community coincided with the clash of cultures in the fifth-century eastern Mediterranean world. As Christianity grew and embraced converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures, debate raged as to how to interpret and practice the teachings of Jesus. More divisively, Christians wrestled with a number of theories regarding the person and nature of Jesus and his relation to the Creator, establishing distinct theological schools. And as the church, particularly in the East, became intricately linked to the imperial Byzantine state, these Christological variations increasingly assumed political overtones. The early Maronites were Hellenized Semites, natives of Byzantine Syria who spoke Greek and Syriac yet identified with Greek-speaking Constantinople and Antioch. Predictably, the Maronites embraced the Christological decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451), joining the Byzantine emperors and their supporters in enforcing the assertion that in Jesus there are two natures, “perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity … like us in all things but sin.”

The council’s decrees proved contentious. Those who rallied around them, called Chalcedonians, were largely Greek-speaking urbanites who supported the emperor. Those who opposed them, called Monophysites (for those who believe in the oneness of Jesus’ humanity and divinity), were non-Greek-speaking Christians from rural Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria.

It is not known whether the Chalcedonian monks of Beit Maron influenced their Syriac-speaking neighbors, most of whom were sympathetic to the Monophysite cause. Scholars are divided: One position asserts the monks rallied the surrounding community, thereby forming the nucleus of the Maronite Church. Another disputes this theory, citing the Monophysite destruction of Beit Maron in the early sixth century and the slaughter of some 350 monks as an example of the monastery’s isolation. Nevertheless, the reach of the emperor’s authority prevailed: The great Justinian (483-565), who built the Church of the Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, rebuilt Beit Maron even as his wife, Theodora, lent covert support to the Monophysites.

What is clear is the ruptured unity of the church. The Monophysites later regularized their ecclesial communities, forming what is now known as the Oriental Orthodox family of churches: Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Malankara and Syrian.

Christological compromises. When the Byzantine general Heraclius (circa 575-641) took the Byzantine throne in 610, he took over a ragged realm – unresolved religious strife for more than a century and a half had opened it to the Persians, who plundered Byzantium’s cities, occupying most of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and parts of Asia Minor.

In time, Heraclius expelled the Persians (628). His success, however, was short-lived: The Arabs, a Semitic people from the Arabian Peninsula galvanized by the teachings of Muhammad, moved into the vacuum formed by the defeated Persians taking Byzantine Syria, Palestine and Egypt by 641.

In the midst of this chaos (638), Heraclius issued the Ekthesis, a Christological formula created to reconcile Monophysites and Chalcedonians, a vain attempt to unify the Byzantine commonwealth. The Ekthesis, which suggested that Jesus, while both God and man, had but a single will, was condemned by both parties. Rather than accept a state-sponsored compromise deemed heretical, therefore, strict Chalcedonians handed over Jerusalem (638) and Alexandria (641) to the Muslim Arabs (Pope Honorius I and Sergius, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, considered the Ekthesis orthodox).

Where were the monks of Beit Maron in this political, social and theological upheaval? Little evidence remains. What has survived has triggered more than a century of debate among historians, particularly in Maronite circles. The general consensus, however, concludes that the Beit Maron community, as loyal subjects of the emperor, accepted the Ekthesis and implemented it among the local Syriac-speaking Christian community thereby forming the nucleus of the Maronite Church.

A church is formed. Until this period, the Maronites were a juridically indistinct part of the Antiochene Church, a dynamic community that assimilated the theological learning of Constantinople with the poetic and literary traditions of the Syriac intellectual center of the early church, the city of Edessa (present-day Urfa in southeastern Turkey). And while the Christological controversies that had ravaged Antioch eventually created a multitude of churches, they did not prevent cross-pollination among them.

The richness of the Western Syrian tradition of the Maronites – for example the structure of the eucharistic liturgy, which originated in Edessa; the existence of the Sharar, an ancient eucharistic prayer nearly identical to the Anaphora of Addai and Mari used by the Assyrian Church of the East; and the custom of chanting the Trisagion hymn as in the Syrian Orthodox Church – attests to the communication that had once existed among these daughter churches of Antioch as well as the distinctiveness of the Maronite Church.

Despite the Arab annexation of Syria and the rejection of the Ekthesis by the Council of Constantinople (680-81), the Maronites remained loyal, in theory, to Heraclius’ Christological compromise – they were now living a very different reality. With Antioch in Muslim hands, contacts with Constantinople severed and Antioch’s ecclesial situation in disarray (Chalcedonian patriarchs of Antioch were exiled to Constantinople while a parallel Monophysite patriarch assumed the head of the city’s Christian community), the monks of Beit Maron elected one of their own as patriarch of Antioch. Tradition has it this first patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, St. John Maron, was elected in 685.

Mountainous retreat. Bands of Maronites began to flee to the northern reaches of Mount Lebanon soon after the Muslim Arab invasion of Syria. There, they established autonomous communities, the Marada, eventually forming alliances among themselves while pledging fealty to the patriarch. Fierce fighters, the Marada tenaciously defended their autonomy, repeatedly attacking Arab positions and harassing Byzantine troops who periodically advanced into Syria seeking to retake it. The Marada grew stronger after the destruction of Beit Maron in the ninth century and the relocation of the Maronite patriarchate to a monastery near the coastal town of Batroun. Exiled to the valleys of Mount Lebanon, the Maronites terraced the difficult terrain, tilled the soil, planted olive trees and fruit trees and cultivated vineyards. Maronite holy men and women, like their hermitic predecessors, lived and prayed alone, carving hermitages in the rock, inaccessible to predators but accessible to those seeking counsel. Thus for more than two centuries the Maronite Church endured in mountainous isolation.

Contacts with the West. The Great Schism that ruptured the unity of the churches of Constantinople and Rome (1054) did not prevent the Byzantine emperor in 1095 from requesting papal help to deliver the Holy Land from the Muslims. Pope Urban II immediately responded, calling for a Crusade in which he offered spiritual and material benefits to those who joined the emperor’s quest.

In 1099, a crew of nobles, knights, vassals, monks and penitents took Antioch, where they established a Crusader principality and a Latin (or Roman Catholic) patriarchate. Traveling south to Jerusalem, the Crusaders encountered the Maronites, who welcomed them as allies and companions in the faith. Some may have even joined the Crusaders in their successful quest to free Jerusalem for Christendom.

The rise of Crusader states throughout Palestine and Syria emancipated the Maronites from their exile in the mountains, enabling them to settle in the diverse cities of the eastern Mediterranean coast. Thus begins the Maronites’ association with the West, an association that would permanently affect the Maronites’ position.

This relationship was bolstered less than a century later. The primary chronicler of the era, William of Tyre (circa 1128-1186), notes that in 1182, the Maronite patriarch and his bishops, representing the Maronite people (which then numbered some 40,000), approached the Latin patriarch of Antioch, abjured their allegiance to the Ekthesis of Heraclius, made professions of faith and oaths of loyalty to the bishop of Rome, Pope Alexander III.

Traditional Maronite histories dispute William’s account; the Maronites had nothing to renounce. At the very least one can point to 1182 as the year the Maronite Church formally confirmed its union with the Church of Rome. It also marks the beginning of the Latinization of the Maronite Church, the process of conforming its rites and disciplines to those practiced in Rome.

Latinization. After traveling to Rome to attend the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), Maronite Patriarch Jeremias al-Amshitti received a bull from Pope Innocent III outlining a number of initiatives in doctrine and discipline he wished to introduce, including: an emphasis on the two wills in Christ; revisions to the sacramental administration of Christian initiation, or chrismation (baptism, Eucharist and confirmation); regularizing the number of Maronite episcopal sees; and encouraging the use of Latin vestments and bells.

And while the papal bull also granted the patriarch the pallium – a traditional symbol of communion with Rome – it was to be granted to him by the Latin patriarch of Antioch, which suggested the pope recognized Jeremias as a primate, but not as Maronite patriarch of Antioch.

As the late medieval Crusader states of the Middle East evaporated, so too did the Crusaders’ protection of the Maronites. Fleeing the Mamluks – a class of professional Sunni Muslim soldiers who pursued the retreating Crusaders and their allies – the Maronites returned to the sanctuary offered by Mount Lebanon and the security of Crusader-held Cyprus. Rallying around their patriarch and their village leaders (who were ordained to the subdiaconate and considered members of the patriarch’s household), the Maronites guarded their political and ecclesial autonomy, retaining their Syrian legacy for more than a century.

When contacts with Rome were restored in the mid-15th century, so too were the requests to conform. The success of these Roman reforms appears marginal, until Pope Gregory XIII established, in 1584, Rome’s Maronite College, which sought to form Maronite clergy in the Counter Reformation Catholicism of the Council of Trent.

One of the greatest of its graduates, the renowned Orientalist and prefect of the Vatican Library Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768), guided the Synod of Mount Lebanon (1736), which ratified many of the liturgical and disciplinary initiatives advocated by the Holy See. The synod also compiled a nearly complete Code of Canons; erected eight eparchies (or dioceses); and delineated the rights of the patriarch, including the patriarchal electoral process.

The creation of Lebanon. Under the Ottomans, the Maronites prospered despite periodic troubles with their immediate neighbors and rivals, the Druze, a syncretic Muslim sect, who also found refuge in Mount Lebanon. The Maronites, however, had a powerful protector. Flexing their muscles, as well as their borders, Europe’s nation states, beginning in the 17th century, began to patronize the ancient Christian communities of the East.

The Russians assumed responsibility for the Ottoman Empire’s Orthodox Christians, while France protected its Catholics, which included the Maronites. The presence of French missionaries, such as the Jesuits, Lazarists and a number of religious communities for women, dates to this period. These communities established a number of schools, instilling in its Christian (mostly Maronite) pupils a regard for all things French.

As the power of the Ottoman Empire waned, rival communities, or “nations,” jockeyed for influence, occasionally resorting to violence. In 1860, 10,000 Maronites were murdered by Druze militants. The French intervened, restored order and persuaded the Ottoman sultan to institute a number of reforms to protect the empire’s minorities.

Though recognized as the temporal head of the Maronite nation, Patriarch Boulos Massaad’s (1854-90) moderating influence endeared him to Mount Lebanon’s diverse population. The first wave of Maronite emigration to Canada, France and the United States occurred during Massaad’s patriarchate.

The French occupied Mount Lebanon as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, stabilizing an uneasy population reeling from the horrors of World War I.

Representing all Lebanese, Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoyek (1898-1931) in 1919 traveled to the Versailles Conference, where he effectively called for the right of Lebanese self-determination. The next year the League of Nations, in addition to rubber-stamping the French occupation of the region, carved from Syria (despite the objections of Muslims) the borders of a future independent Lebanese state, ensuring a Christian majority. The French assured the Maronites a leadership role in the future republic.

In the summer of 1943, the leaderships of the Maronite, Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities negotiated an agreement, forging the National Pact. Among the key points of the agreement were:

  • The Maronites would accept Lebanon as an Arab state and not seek foreign intervention
  • The Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities would abandon their aspirations to be reunited with Syria
  • The president would always be drawn from the Maronite community
  • Parliament membership, based on the census of 1932, would favor Christians.

While laying the foundations for an independent Lebanon, the formal sectarian division of power also sowed the seeds for the civil war (1975-1991) that nearly destroyed the republic.

Modern developments. The fortunes of the Maronite Church are often tied to those of Lebanon; to separate either of these symbiotic entities would do neither of them justice. But equally inaccurate is the suggestion that to be Maronite is to be Lebanese, or vice versa.Some 10 million Lebanese live elsewhere, in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania; as many as half are Maronites.

Like all immigrants, they left their homeland for opportunity or security. And while many Maronites in the West have retained ties to their ancestral land, providing financial, moral and political support, most have lost ties to their ancestral church, intermarrying and assimilating.

Nevertheless, the Maronite Church, particularly in the United States, flourishes. Two eparchies, one centered in Brooklyn and a second in Los Angeles, shepherd some 56,000 Maronites in more than 75 parishes. U.S. Maronite scholars have initiated a number of liturgical reforms, restoring for example the traditional Maronite eucharistic liturgy (Qorbono in Syriac). They have also preserved some of the Latin elements introduced by the West over the centuries.

The Maronite Church in the United States is strengthened by the steady arrival of Maronite immigrants from Lebanon, who continue to leave their homeland in search of better lives.

The Maronite bishops in Brooklyn and Los Angeles have launched a census to locate and identify these immigrants, as well as the tens of thousands of Maronites who, having lived in the country for a generation or two, are no longer formally associated with the church.

The glue that binds this worldwide church is the Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, Cardinal Nasrallah Peter Sfeir. Elected patriarch as Lebanon’s civil war entered its bloodiest stage, Patriarch Nasrallah’s tenure has been marked by his constant appeals for justice, peace, reason and, at times, even sanity.

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Eastern churches by Executive Editor Michael La Civita.

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