Messenger of Peace: The Pontiff Arrives

Today is the day that millions of people in Lebanon and the Middle East have been waiting for: The arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. He was scheduled to touch down at 1:45 in the afternoon and the excitement was building. Earlier this morning, there were already many military officials on the highway and at most of the intersections, getting in place for traffic control for the transfers of the pope from the airport to his residence at the nunciature perched high on a hill above Beirut.

I took advantage of the free morning to visit with Issam and CNEWA’s Pontifical Mission staff. We had a wonderful two-hour exchange that afforded me a great opportunity to share with them some of what I have experienced in my first year at the helm of CNEWA. They listened intently and offered some great insights and questions.

Since it is a very special time in Lebanon, I invited the staff to join me for lunch at a nearby restaurant — in honor of Pope Benedict XVI. We walked up the street to a nearby lunch place and enjoyed a meal together and continued with our sharing and telling of stories.

But we enjoyed a real bonus: While we were eating, the pope arrived at the airport and it was being broadcast live on a big screen television (in Arabic) on several local television stations. What a treat to eat and watch as his plane inched its way to the specially constructed reviewing stand. There, he was met by the president of Lebanon and his wife, the parliament’s speaker and his wife and the prime minister. And of course, the first to welcome the bishop of Rome to Lebanon was his own representative to this country, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia.

There were plenty of dignitaries representing all the major faiths and all the political parties and office holders. And there were plenty of excited and vocal youth with their colorful yellow and white matching outfits and hats.

The pope made his way along a parade route to his temporary residence high atop a hill overlooking Beirut, passing multitudes of waving and welcoming crowds. There were Catholics, Orthodox, Armenians, Muslims, Druze — it seemed like everyone was on the streets to greet Benedict XVI.

The first major event took place this evening at 6, the formal signing of the Apostolic Exhortation on the Middle East. Issam and I were privileged to be invited to this grand event, which took place at St. Paul Basilica, which is staffed by the Melkite Greek Catholic Paulist Fathers. The Byzantine-style church offered a beautiful and solemn setting for this formal signing of the exhortation. The Holy Father entered amidst a very strong welcome of applause and shouts in Italian of “Viva il Papa”!

He was surrounded by all the Catholic patriarchs of the Middle East, as well as the major archbishops of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches. Though based in southern India, these two churches of St. Thomas have large numbers of Catholics in the Persian Gulf, and their pastoral needs are considerable. Also prominent were leaders of the Orthodox churches and Druze, Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders. Also near to the pope were about two-hundred bishops from a number of countries in the Middle East. Yours truly was honored to be here representing all of you for this historic gathering with the Holy Father.

Introducing the Holy Father with a very energetic welcome was His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregory III of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. This beautiful church did justice to the solemn occasion as it is adorned with gorgeous mosaics with stunning detail and vivid colors.

Issam informed me that 31 years ago he was married at this lovely basilica, even though then it was not yet finished and lacked the luster of these priceless mosaics. So, this was indeed a special setting for him to join the Holy Father.

The pope did not speak long, but he invited those present, especially the church leaders, to put everything into the context of faith in God. More than his words and more than the document was the visible sign of unity by being in the presence of Peter. The vicar of Christ calls all of us to be one with Jesus and to share that love with all others. God is love, as we were reminded.

Given some of the violence during the past few days in Syria, Libya, Egypt and other neighboring countries, his call carries more meaning than ever. And the Catholic Church has much to contribute to the good of humanity. We do not need to think of ourselves as minorities against majorities, but as peacemakers who have much to contribute.

Joining the pope were some friends and great collaborators of CNEWA: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern churches, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem (who will be visiting us at CNEWA in New York next week) and some other bishops in the region. I had the opportunity to chat with them and Patriarch Gregory after the festivities. Security is really tight and multilayered. Issam and I have been given the highest level of clearance, but there are still many checkpoints. The Lebanese are doing a wonderful job in all the planning and executing for this visit.

Tomorrow will be a super day for youth. We will gather in the early afternoon for a program by youth and then the pope will join us for the “Big Show” at 6. There will be dramatic music, lighting and lasers, filling the sky and many surprises I am sure — I can’t wait for tomorrow.

You are in my prayers, and I tell everyone that you send your love and good wishes to them and pray with them for the pope and for peace in the Middle East.

God bless Lebanon.

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