During this pastoral visit to Lebanon, Msgr. John Kozar and I have met many graceful people — graceful in the truest sense of the word.
On Friday, we traveled to the Armenian village of Anjar, which lies in the Bekaa Valley some 34 miles from the walls of the Syrian capital of Damascus and just miles to the Syrian frontier. The visit to Anjar entailed a drive along the international highway connecting Beirut to Damascus. Stunning scenery competed with smog and car exhaust. Climbing, twisting and turning gave way to a descent into the Bekaa and a mass of humanity shopping, planting, driving, walking.
Anjar was a welcome relief. A drive lined with palms and young geraniums revealed a well-planned town designed by the French military for Armenian refugees in 1939.
“It feels like Palm Springs!” I told the laughing mayor. But Palm Springs it is not.
Anjar is overwhelmed with Syrian refugees — Armenian Syrians and non-Armenians alike.
Evidently, the neighboring village of Majdel Anjar is a hotbed of Sunni extremists. Reportedly including immediate family members of one participant in the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
CNEWA, through its Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission, has deep roots in Anjar, having provided support to its Catholic school and boarding house for orphaned boys founded by Cardinal Gregory Peter Agagianian (1895-1971), former Armenian Catholic patriarch and prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Today, CNEWA partners with the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Cooperation, a lay group that provides a host of services — especially health care — to the Armenian Community throughout Lebanon, Syria and Armenia.
I felt as if the little oasis, with its clinics, its schools, its churches, its restaurants and its palm trees, was as fragile as the tender leaves sprouting from the fruit trees in its fields.
Just as we were leaving, the pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Armenian Catholic parish, Mekhitarist Father Mesrob Topalian, grabbed my arm and said: “Don’t forget us, Michael, and pray for us — especially for the children.”
As I left, another visitor took my place: the 75-year-old sister who runs the parish school, a resident of Anjar who arrived as a penniless refugee from Turkey at 4 years of age.
I looked back as they waved and offered blessings in French as the bells of the newly dedicated church tolled.
“Life goes on,” I thought, “until passion and ideology and fear and hate appear on the doorstep.”
Our drive back to Beirut was rather quiet.
On Saturday, our team, led by Msgr. Kozar, visited the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross at their hospital in Jal el Dib. Led by Mother Marie Makhlouf, these are tough women doing some of the most thankless work throughout the Middle East.
They care for the poorest of the poor: children and adults who are profoundly physically and mentally handicapped, those with mental illnesses, substance abusers and the abandoned.
And they do it with tenderness and compassion. You know it when you see it and when you hear it.
As the sisters took us through their facility that clings to a cliff high above Beirut, beds shook loudly, voices screeched, patients applauded raucously and scores sought their attention.
Things quieted down only when one sister pulled out her rosary, and the elderly and broken men struggling to cope with life and its troubles joined her in praying this familiar Catholic devotion — in Arabic.
Having visited the sisters before, I knew that they have a hard time finding the resources to feed and clothe the 1,000 or so forgotten souls entrusted to them.
But as I pondered this, half listening to the hospital’s rehabilitation therapist, Msgr. Kozar was busy creating commotion from one room to the next. Hugging, laughing, blessing and taking portraits of the patients, he connected with almost every one we visited, focusing on the individuals entrusted to these good sisters and their staff, and the desire of each patient to communicate. The joyful atmosphere roused me from my thoughts.
“Somehow they do it,” I said to myself, and then I thought about Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, especially its final and bloodiest stage in spring 1990, when Christian militia shelled Christian militia and an embargo prevented even bread from getting into the enclave. I asked one sister, “how did you do feed your patients in 1990, when bread did not exist?”
She looked at me over her glasses, and said, “I don’t know how we did it, and I pray we never come to that again.”
And with that she lovingly patted the head of an abandoned boy with autism and cradled him to her side.
Ah, to be this graceful and loving in the face of real adversity and real enemies.
Finally, on Sunday, before spending a lovely afternoon at the home of our regional director, Michel Constantin, his wife Lynn and three children, Peter, Sasha and Mark, we joined Msgr. Kozar in celebrating the Eucharist with the Filipino migrant community in the old church of the Maronite parish of Mar Elias, the largest Catholic parish in the Middle East.
No one knows the true number of Filipinos — almost all of whom are women — living and working throughout the Middle East. “With few job opportunities in the Philippines and families to support, these women come to the Middle East,” we reported in ONE magazine in 2011, “where jobs in the ‘care-giving industry’ are plentiful. Motivated by the promise of comparatively high earnings, most of which they intend on sending home to their families, they often accept without complaint long hours, little personal time or freedom and substandard living accommodations.”
Reporter Nicholas Seeley had also spoken with a local pastor:
“I understood that the first task was to give people a place where they could be at home,” said Jesuit Father Kevin O’Connell, who pastors the large Filipino community in Amman, Jordan. “For these people, just the ongoing, regular liturgy — with Filipino music, with people reading, with them being able to participate in whatever way they want — gives a strand of consistency and continuity. It’s their home. It’s their place. In most cases, there’s no place else they can gather.”
Very much at ease with the Filipino congregation, who spilled outside the doors of the lovely stone church, Msgr. Kozar addressed them directly throughout the liturgy, reminding the women that God hears the prayers of the poor and that “we who are poor always have our God-given dignity.” And he praised them for being a model to the rest of the world in their compassionate response in caring for one another after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the islands last November and killed more than 6,200 people.
Michel and I heard many a sniffle. The Filipinos, as they left Mass, asked Msgr. Kozar to come back next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that!
After the final blessing, as Msgr. Kozar greeted each and every worshiper personally, Michel and I chatted with a young German man, who, with a number of his friends, has committed ten months between high school and college to volunteer with the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross and their hospital in Jal el Dib. Clearly moved by the singing and participation in the liturgy, and the homily directed to the migrant workers, he said that when he returns to Bonn, he will look back on “all of this as if it were a dream.”
I asked him if he was worried that the dream would vanish. He looked at me, showed me the chaplet of St. Charbel he now wears on his right wrist, and said, “I’m now half Lebanese … anything could happen.”