Minneapolis pastor says papal visit to Lebanon brings hope

| September 12, 2012 | 0 Comments

A boy lights a candle at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon Aug. 26 in Harissa, east of Beirut. Catholics were preparing for the Sept. 14-16 visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Lebanon. CNS photo / Dalia Khamissy

Msgr. Sharbel Maroun smiles when he recalls a journey to his native Lebanon 15 years ago.

The pastor of St. Maron in Minneapolis is used to making the trip — he now goes three times a year. But, that visit was special. Pope John Paul II was there to encourage the people of this hub of the Middle East.

“I went by myself,” said Msgr. Maroun. “I attended the pope’s youth liturgy [with] probably about 20,000 to 30,000 youth that were gathered. We finished at night and we walked to Beirut, about 25 miles. We walked all night in order to go and be ready for the Mass in downtown Beirut the next morning. I attended the liturgy. Close to 700,000 people were present.”

There was palpable excitement then that he was hoping to recapture this week as he prepared for another papal visit to Lebanon, this time by Pope Benedict XVI. Msgr. Maroun took a group of 45 with him, including a dozen of his parishioners. He returns from his 10-day trip Sept. 20.

St. Maron’s parish is one of two Maronite-rite parishes in the archdiocese; the other is Holy Family in St. Paul. As is the case of the other “Eastern rites” within the Catholic Church, the Maronite rite is in full communion with Rome. Since the rite took shape in Lebanon, most Maronite Catholics are Lebanese.

Msgr. Maroun is greatly encouraged that the pontiff is landing on Middle Eastern soil to spend three days and not yielding to fear based on the ongoing violence in the region, which includes the current civil war in Syria. The pope’s words, the priest said, will in turn help persuade the Christians of Lebanon to resist the temptation to leave the volatile region.

“There’s so much division, violence, discrimination and bloodshed, and the pope is coming with a message of peace,” he said. “The pope is going there to say, ‘You stay here.’ And, I think his Mass with the youth on Saturday the 15th will play a very big role.”

Many Christians from the Middle East have left due to the violence, persecution and the lack of economic opportunities. Msgr. Maroun is hoping the pope’s visit will create the resolve to remain, plus point a much-needed spotlight on the plight of Middle Eastern Christians and their need for support, especially from their fellow Christians in the West.

“The pope is trying to bring it to the front and I think the whole Catholic Church should adopt a way to try to support the Christians of the Middle East,”?he said. “We need to pray for them, first of all. . . . There is a minority there that is helpless. Their churches are being either bombed or they [Christians] are being displaced.

“Take Iraq. Ten years ago, before the American invasion, we had a million Christians, but it’s 200,000 now. Where are the other Christians? Eighty percent left, which means the other 20 percent that are still there, with time, they will follow.”

‘Be not afraid’

Msgr. Maroun said that Lebanon is unique in striving to achieve political and spiritual balance. He noted a constitution that requires the president to be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister be Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the house to be Shiite Muslim. In addition, the parliament is split 50-50 between Christians and Muslims.

“Only in Lebanon in the Middle East, Christians have freedom, only in Lebanon true freedom,” he said. “Only Lebanon would allow a patriarch to stand up on Sunday and say anything from the pulpit concerning justice and freedom, and criticizing the government. Only in Lebanon are the priests allowed to practice their faith freely with no persecutions and not being looked at as second-class citizens.”

When the pope has left and the flowers and rice are cleared from the streets where he has traveled, Msgr. Maroun hopes the Christians of Lebanon and throughout the Middle East will take to heart the message John Paul II delivered in 1997 and Pope Benedict reiterated last week:“Be not afraid.”

For Pope Benedict in Lebanon, the pastoral is political

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Category: This Catholic Life