October 26, 2011 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 50, No. 25 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY
This past week the newly elected Patriarch of the Maronite Church came to New York as a part of his pastoral visit to Maronite Catholics in our country. His Beatitude, Patriarch Bechara Peter Rai, was elected by the Holy Synod in Lebanon on March 15 of this year. Since assuming his position as Patriarch, succeeding His Beatitude, Cardinal Nasrallah Peter Sfeir, he has been tireless in his pastoral care not only for Maronites in Lebanon and around the world, but he has also reached out to all religious groups in his own country and been enthusiastically welcomed by other Christians as well as Muslims, Sun’ni, Shi’ah and Alawite, and by Druze and others in every part of Lebanon.
To spend time with him, as was my privilege on two occasions these days, is to be in contact with the current and past history of one of the most important but least recognized parts of the Middle East. Years ago a friend of mine who analyzed U.S. foreign policy said to me that, “in the U.S. State Department, the map of the Middle East has a hole in it where Lebanon should be.” True or not, this country which has so much to teach the rest of the Middle East and the whole world, has been as often overlooked as it has been listened to in the halls of power. Perhaps His Beatitude may become the instrument of God’s providence to change that.
But that is not the reason that brought him to our shores. His concern, as a good Shepherd, is to the people of the ancient Syriac tradition that traces itself back to St. Maron, a friend of St. John Chrysostom in the fifth century. They are the largest Christian tradition in today’s Lebanon. Here in our country the Eparchy (Diocese) of St. Maron in Brooklyn is headed by a young, holy and wise pastor, Bishop Gregory Mansour, and is composed of 40 parishes, a seminary, a convent and a monastery. While staying with Bishop Mansour in Brooklyn, the Patriarch has visited parishes and met with the leaders of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in New York as well as a visit to the United Nations where he was received by the Secretary General.
Wherever he has gone, and with all he meets, he speaks as a pastor to the challenges and opportunities the Church faces in today’s Middle East. He does so in the context of the uniqueness of Lebanon, the one democratic country in the Middle East that has been a beacon of hope and life for those who wish to see all the peoples of that special part of the world live in peace and harmony. In 1943 Lebanon forged a “National Pact” in which various religious confessions committed themselves to sharing responsibility for the governance and common good of the whole country. While there have been strains and a very difficult civil war from 1975 to 1990, the ideal of this harmonious approach to living together has never been abandoned. Today in a country in which Christians are about 45 percent of the population and various Muslim groups make up the rest, the Patriarch of the Maronites has become even more central to maintaining and encouraging the unity of the nation and the spirit of the people. His Beatitude has been welcomed in villages and towns across Lebanon not only by fellow Maronites but equally by other Christians and all the various groups of Muslims and Druse.
One of the reasons for that is his weekly hour long catechesis on a Catholic and ecumenical television channel, Telelumiere or Noursat, that brings his teaching across the Middle East. Recently he was welcomed by a young Muslim in a Lebanese village who told him that he and his neighbors who do not have televisions go to a local school every week to listen to his catechesis. In another Sunni town, he was greeted by the former prime minister and the widow of a prime minister who had been assassinated. The three of them walked the streets of the town together,thinking that this can only happen in Lebanon!
At the headquarters of CNEWA last week he received the press. He referred to himself as “a religious man from a far off land called Lebanon.” He spoke of many things including a call to the world community to implement the UN resolutions about Lebanon. He offered the example of Lebanon as a model for other states in the region, pointing out that their “National Pact” makes Lebanon a “secular country that separates religion from the state and is governed on the basis of a consensual democracy guaranteeing civil liberties and basic human rights, in particular freedom of opinion, speech, religion and conscience where dialogue and consensus prevail.”
Two fundamental lessons follow from his words to the press and the United States. One is the call for a Middle East renewal that respects the traditions and the variety of religious backgrounds of the peoples in all of the countries of the region without exception. Respect for human rights and dignity, especially for minorities, must be the basis of whatever emerges in the future of so many Middle Eastern countries now experiencing the winds of change and the ambivalence of uncertain futures. The second fundamental lesson is the role that Christians have played and can continue to play as mediators in a region too often torn apart by hatred of the other and rejection of coexistence, mutual respect, cooperation and peace.
Blessed John Paul was right in calling Lebanon “more than a country.” Lebanon, and the Christians there and throughout the Middle East, need our prayers and support because they stand in a unique position to show their Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters in the region that there is an alternative to separation and recrimination.
This week, New York was fortunate to hear that message from a blessed and holy leader of the Maronites, Patriarch Bechara Rai. Join me in prayer for him and for our brothers and sisters of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, our country and around the world. May this pastor and his evangelical call to peace and harmony among all peoples under God inspire world leaders as well as all men and women of good will to work and pray for the peace of Lebanon, the peace of Jerusalem and the peace of all the Middle East.