Yesterday, in the presence of some 300,000 people from all over the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI formally ended his historic visit to Lebanon with a Mass. The main purpose of the trip was to bring to a conclusion the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which began in 2010. He drew that synod to a close when he signed and delivered his Apostolic Exhortation on Friday at the Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa. But Sunday was really the high point of the pope’s pastoral visit and it fleshed out so much of what this trip was all about.
The importance of this Mass was obvious to the government as well: security was tight and traffic, controlled. As Issam and I traveled to the outdoor venue, we passed thousands of soldiers and many more thousands of police, auxiliary traffic and safety personnel and many thousands of most helpful ushers, guides and crowd control volunteers. To put it mildly, Lebanon did itself extremely proud with the amazing organization and planning that was evidenced each day — especially Sunday.
The site chosen for this Mass was itself an amazing story, as it had previously been a garbage dump that was transformed into a flattened landfill alongside the Mediterranean Sea, offering a perfect setting for this liturgy: the sea to the west and the skyline of a growing downtown Beirut to the east and south. The government, Maronite Patriarch Bechara told me, had paid for this transformation, including the newly completed asphalting of the huge gathering area. And there was a magnificent altar built large enough for all the bishops, clergy and special guests.
The sanctuary was beautifully adorned with flora, Arabic art forms and, in a special way, some cedars of Lebanon. Additionally, there were giant television screens that were place hundreds of yards out into the crowds and elevated speakers all around so everyone could be a part of the action.
When Pope Benedict XVI arrived, he was transferred into the popemobile and began circulating and weaving through the throng to emotional cheers and chants. He had come to be with everyone and even a glimpse of him from far away made the long journey and the blazing sun worth it. The congregation loved the pope!
When he finally came to a stop in front of the altar and popped into open view, the throng went crazy; this is the pope in our presence. The Catholic Church is alive and well in Lebanon and in the Middle East.
I was given a most privileged seat right with the bishops and the Orthodox patriarchs and bishops in full view of His Holiness. I also was able to take some great photos. But, to be honest, photos and video did not do justice to this event. As they often say: “You had to be there.”
This liturgy reminded us so completely that this is the unity and oneness that we all want in our church and in our world. Pope Benedict XVI was the celebrant and in a way we were all his concelebrants — celebrating the love that Jesus has for each of us.
In his homily he returned to the oft-mentioned challenge not to be afraid, but to be faithful to the calling of our Christian heritage. He invited especially the young to be vigilant against the culture of drugs, alcohol and violence. He mentioned Syria again and invited everyone to work and pray for peace. He stated very strongly that we Christians in this part of the world do not ask for any special privileges, but the basic right to believe and to freely practice our faith.
I was overwhelmed by the universal character of this Mass: There were Latin hierarchs dressed rather uniformly, Eastern Catholic patriarchs and bishops dressed each in their very colorful and distinctive liturgical robes, Orthodox brother bishops celebrating with us, representatives of government, and most of all, the faithful, mostly Lebanese, but many others who had traveled from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, the Arab Peninsula, Turkey, and other countries. There were Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and Muslims. For this solemn occasion, we were all brothers and sisters who want peace and mutual respect. And one man brought us together.
For the distribution of Holy Communion, a cadre of several hundred priests, accompanied by attendants holding huge white umbrellas over the priests’ heads, made their way through the crowds. Each communion station was thus very visible and distribution was most orderly.
At the end of Mass, the Holy Father summarized the points he had been making at each event and he thanked the Lebanese for their overwhelming welcome. He seemed genuinely touched during this pastoral visit.
Given the violence reported in the news these past few days, his visit and his message of peace resonated in the hearts and souls of Christians and all people of good will in the Middle East.
During these days, so many commented that they have renewed hope and confidence in the providence of God. But Pope Benedict XVI, this soft-spoken ambassador of peace, invited us in celebrating our Christian heritage to follow the example of Christ and be messengers of peace.
This whole experience in Lebanon and with the Christian family from all over the Middle East has been memorable. I have been richly blessed in being here and honored to share my humble reflections with you each day. Now I return to New York, departing late Monday night.
Thanks for being such an important member of our CNEWA family. So many bishops from all over the Middle East have expressed their profound thanks to you for your generosity and for your prayerful support. They have all promised to place you in their prayers.
The Holy Father is now back at his residence at Castel Gandolfo, and I hope he gets a well-deserved rest. But he’s a busy man, and I wouldn’t make any bets on that.
I write this in the midst of the cedars of Lebanon. God bless each of you. God bless Lebanon. God bless the church in the Middle East, and God bless this man of peace, Pope Benedict XVI.