|Newly-elected Maronite Patriarch Bashara Rai|
This news brings up an important consideration for we Catholics who are so used to thinking only in terms of "Roman" Catholicism. We don't often think about it, but the Catholic Church really is big. Within her, there are actually 23 autonomous "Churches" throughout the world, all in union with the Pope -- the successor of St. Peter and the living sign of visible Christian unity. Besides the Latin Church (the one most of us think of when we think of "Roman Catholics"), there are 22 Eastern Catholic Churches that are also part of the universal Catholic Church. One of these autonomous Churches is the Maronite Church of Lebanon.
Who are the Maronites?
|Maronite icon of St. Maron in prayer|
After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the patriarch of Antioch rejected the Council's decisions on the nature of Christ while the monks and faithful in Lebanon were strong supporters of the Council. The Church of Antioch then separated from the Catholic Church (the birth of "Oriental Orthodoxy" - the first large-scale schism in Church history) and the Maronite Catholics in Lebanon were persecuted for adhering to the decisions of the council and they suffered hardships at the hands of anti-Chalcedon Christians. During the Muslim conquest of Syria in the first half of the seventh century, most Maronite Catholics fled to the mountains of Lebanon. Under Muslim rule over the next 400 years, the Maronites in Lebanon existed in a precarious state: they were largely cut-off from the rest of the Christian world -- so much so that the Roman Catholic Church did not even know that they still existed. During those years, starting in the year 637, the Maronites established their own line of patriarchs to lead their Church. The Maronite Church remained isolated for over four hundred years.
During the 12th century Crusades, Christian soldiers passing through Lebanon were shocked to be greeted by a local, indigenous Christian community: the Maronites. During the Crusades, the Maronite Church assisted the Crusaders and affirmed their loyalty and union with the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter. In fact, the Maronite Church is one of only three Eastern Churches that have never in their history been outside of communion with the Bishop of Rome. (The other two are the Italo-Albanian Church in southern Italy and Sicily, and the Syro-Malabar Church in southwestern India - a community which traces its roots all the way back to the first century missionary activity of the Apostle Thomas!)
|St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church in Birmingham, Ala.|