Saturday was a dramatic and long day — all shared with the youth of Lebanon. What an amazing day it was.
Issam Bishara and I arrived well before all the cardinals, patriarchs, bishops and dignitaries. But the venue was already teeming with young people — thousands of them. Part of the treat in arriving early was to have the opportunity to walk around with my camera and to meet so many of these terrific youth. They were so happy that I came from the United States to be with them and with the pope. Many of them wanted to be photographed with me, and I also enjoyed getting photo shots of many of them with their smiling faces and their spirit of joy and high energy in welcoming the pope.
The setting was itself exciting, located in front of the Maronite patriarchate in a large plaza next to a lovely new open-air chapel used for special ceremonies. The patriarch told me there were 13,000 rented chairs, but there were many more people than that present for this epic event.
Eight musical choirs and singing groups entertained and prepared the crowd for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. Everyone wore a cap with the papal insignia in the blistering sun. And many wore t-shirts with “Benoit 16” printed on the back — French is perhaps the most widely used Western language among Lebanese Christians.
After “warming up the audience” for more than four hours (and no one seemed to complain), the Holy Father arrived to a thunderous welcome as he approached the stage in his “popemobile.” The place went wild and he seemed to love every minute of it.
He was met by the president of the republic, who chose to sit down below the stage with the people, even though a special chair was reserved for him in front of the patriarchs; a nice touch for a man who seems very well thought of by the citizens of Lebanon. He himself is a Maronite Catholic, so this was on his “home turf.”
Speaking of patriarchs, they were all there with beaming smiles. Seeing them side by side, with the major Orthodox hierarchs immediately behind, it really presented a remarkable display of unity occasioned by the visit of this messenger of peace, Pope Benedict XVI.
Prior to the pope addressing all the youth assembled, we heard from two young people. One young man gave an impassioned plea to the Holy Father to bring unity to the church. He even offered a practical suggestion to the pope: “Holy Father, as a first step could you please consider having all the churches celebrate Easter on the same date?” He promised for all the youth present and all the Catholic youth of Lebanon that they would work hard to bring peace and unity to the world.
The pope seemed to be touched by his remarks and gave him a hug and held his hand and spoke to him for a minute or so, which is very unusual.
And how about the pope’s remarks? Well, he gave a very heartfelt talk to the young people reminding them how they are the future of Lebanon and how their efforts toward peace can have great impact for the entire Middle East. He encouraged the young not to be afraid. He also mentioned Syria and said: “The pope has not forgotten our brothers and sisters in Syria. They are in our hearts and are with us here.” We must pray for them and for the Syrian people. He also mentioned working with our Muslim brothers and sisters to make the world a better place. This seemed most timely as there were some ugly acts of violence and destruction on Friday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
An especially beautiful performance followed: A group of about 20 youngsters, all hearing- and speech-challenged kids, did a most expressive dance, using the reverberating beat felt on the stage floor to synchronize their delicate moves. Everyone, including the pope himself, was in awe of these beautiful young people.
I was very fortunate to be given better a better than I deserved, among a group of bishops. Seated next to me was Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop George Bakhouny from Tyre in southern Lebanon. He had hosted me during my previous visit last December and had himself visited us in our CNEWA office in May of this year. We had much to talk about and he introduced me to many bishops, especially Melkite and Maronite bishops. I also enjoyed some conversations with a number of patriarchs I had met and some Orthodox bishops.
To close the program, a famous Lebanese singer brought the crowd to their feet in a rendition of one of her classic hits. She seemed to be so honored to sing for the Holy Father, and the crowd was thrilled that she had been asked to do so.
It was an exhausting day, but one filled with so much joy and hope. And of course, the call to be peacemakers resounded at every turn.
On the way out of the venue, Issam and I had a huge challenge of navigating the crowd of thousands, all trying to fit into a rather narrow exit conduit. Two young girls insisted on being my “bodyguards,” and kept trying to open up the crowds for us, even though we were not in a hurry.
The church in Lebanon is very dynamic, and God rewards it with vocations and very committed youth. We need to pray for them, as they do for us, for we are loved as special friends — CNEWA was on the lips of many bishops and patriarchs. Thanks to all of you for allowing our good works to make a difference in this part of the world.