Over 18,000 Maronite Catholics made their pilgrimage to Rome to join thousands of Catholics of other churches for the canonizations of several men and women whose lives exemplified the life of Jesus Christ. It was a memorable, sunny Sunday on May 16, 2004 when three Patriarchs, forty-five bishops, several abbots and superior generals, over 1,000 priests and numerous religious with thousands of laity joined Pope John Paul II for the solemn declaration of six Catholics in the service of the Gospel as saints.
St Peter’s Basilica was adorned with six large colorful tapestries of the new saints and the Square was filled with 200,000 eager worshippers awaiting the historic moment in the Catholic Church. In preparation of the Pontifical Liturgy a brief history of each of the saints was read followed by a prayer and meditation hymn. Then Holy Father entered into the Square to the enthusiastic cries of Viva Il Papa , and approached the altar as the choir and community sang Psalm 97: “ Sing a new song to the Lord, Alleluia !”
As the Liturgy began the Cardinal Prefect for the Causes of Saints requested that the names of the six Blessed be inscribed in the Church as saints . The Litany of the Saints, which included the names of Maron, Sharbel and Rafka, was chanted and finally Pope John Paul II made the solemn pontifical declaration saying: “To the honor of the holy and glorious Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and Christian life, and by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, our blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, after long reflection and deliberation and having called upon the wisdom of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define them Saints:
- Luigi Orione
- Hannibal Mary Di Francia
- Josep Manyanet
- Nimatullah Kassab Al-Hardini
- Paula Elizabeth Cerioli
- Gianna Berreta
And inscribe their names in the Litany of the Saints for the universal Church’s honor and pious devotion as saints, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The canonization of St. Nimatullah gave the May 16 ceremony a Maronite flavor. After the Gospel reading, the colonnade around St. Peter’s Square reverberated with Maronite hymns and chant.
The same passage from the Gospel of John was also chanted in Arabic. The Holy Father took part in chanting, “peace be with you” in Arabic.
St. Nimatullah Al-Hardini was born in 1808 to George Makhlouf Kassab from the village of Hardini (North Lebanon) and to Marian, the daughter of Fr. Joseph Yacoub Raad from Tannourine (North Lebanon). At Baptism he was given the name Joseph. At the age of twenty he joined the Lebanese Order of Monks in the Monastery of St. Anthony in Kozhiya in North Lebanon. He then took the name Nimatullah which means “Grace from God”. He received the monastic habit in 1830. He was then sent to the monastery in Kfifane to prepare for the priesthood, and in 1833 he was ordained by Archbishop Simon Zouain. He was well versed in moral theology and was a constant example to his fellow monks and novitiates.
Fr. Al-Hardini led an extreme life practicing the vows of poverty and humility. In his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, Fr. Al-Hardini knelt for hours in adoration.
Fr. Al-Hardini died on December 14, 1858. Years later, his tomb was opened and his body was found to be uncorrupted and dry. His tomb rapidly became a shrine, and many miracles have been attributed to his intercession.
St. Nimuttallah is Lebanon’s third canonized saint (St. Sharbel in 1977, St. Rafka in 2001) and the second to be canonized by Pope John Paul II
The community of believers broke out into cheers and applause as they waved banners and flags of exaltation.
The Maronite Church was especially blessed, honored and acknowledge in varying and unique ways throughout the Pontifical Solemn Canonization Liturgy on that ‘forever-to-be-remembered’ and ‘never-to-be-forgotten’ Sunday: 1)The entire Canonization Booklet, printed in full color, depicted beautiful contemporary icons of the Syriac Maronite tradition; 2) The booklet was published in several languages including Arabic; 3) The Pope himself greeted the worshippers before the Gospel in Arabic; 4) St. Nimutallah was singled out as a model of faith and Christian life for all Christians during the Pope’s homily.
Pope John Paul II called St. Nimatullah “an example for all monks of the Lebanese Maronite Order, … as well as for Christians of the world.”
He gave himself completely to God “in a life of great sacrifice, showing that the love of God is the only true source of joy and happiness for mankind,” The Holy Father said.
“May his example show us the way and may it especially spark in young people a true desire for God and holiness in order to proclaim the Gospel to the world,” the Pope added.
On Monday, May 17, another historic event took place, when Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir of Antioch and the entire Maronite Church celebrated the Holy Mysteries at the Altar of St. Peter in the Basilica, which is reserved only for the successor of Peter.
This unique privilege granted by the Successor of Peter to the Patriarch of Antioch has occurred two times previously, the Canonization of St. Rafka and Beatification of Nimutallah. His Beatitude was joined by fifteen Maronite bishops from around the world and fifty priests who concelebrated the Liturgy in honor of St. Nimutallah. The first-class relic of the monk-saint, which was encased in a gold Cedar of Lebanon and presented to the Pope the previous day, was placed on the altar along with an Icon during the Maronite liturgy. The Choir of the Holy Spirit University at Kaslik chanted the liturgy in Aramaic and Arabic.
Approximately 2,500 people attended the Patriarchal Liturgy including the President of Lebanon, Mr. Emile Lahoud, and the entire delegation of 75 pilgrims, priests and laity, from the Eparchies of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, and Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles. It was a moving and awesome moment to see and experience our Patriarch standing at the Altar of St. Peter for the Maronite Holy Mysteries, and to hear the concelebrants filling the basilica with the ancient Aramaic chant of the Words of Institution.
His Beatitude Dawood, Cardinal Prefect of the Eastern Churches, spoke briefly following the Maronite Liturgy. In his remarks he acknowledged the Maronite Catholic Church as “the most precious jewel in the crown of the Eastern Church of the Catholic Church.” He praised the Maronite Church and people for its rich spirituality and for the memorable patrimony of three glorious examples of sanctity coming from the Maronite Church and Lebanon within the last thirty years. After thanking the Maronite Church, the Patriarch, monks and people for nurturing holy men and women in the service of the Gospel. He exhorted the Maronites of the world not to let the light of Christ shining so brightly in Lebanon ever go dim or be extinguished. Needless to say, these impassioned remarks received a significant ovation of grateful approval from all in attendance.
Following the Patriarchal liturgy all in attendance made their way to St. Peter’s Square for the specially planned Papal Audience of Pope John Paul II. As the Holy Father made his way on the “Pope-mobile” through the crowd of 50,000 pilgrims he smiled and waved as he received the chants of “Happy Birthday.” His Holiness highlighted the lives, sanctity and example of each of the six new saints as models for Christian life and urged the pilgrims to stay the course of a virtuous life of faith, hope of love in the example of Jesus Christ.
Later that evening in the Pope Paul VI Hall the Kaslik Choir presented a concert in Arabic, French and Aramaic. Nearly 5,000 people were in attendance including His Beatitude Sfeir.
The entire Canonization event was a moment that took the pilgrim’s breath away. The liturgical celebrations of the Pope and Patriarch transcended the believer into the realms of mystery and wonder. For the Maronite Catholic Church the canonization of St Nimatallah Al-Hardini was a once in a lifetime encounter in which the divine embraced the human and transformed it. God, the Triune Mystery-Presence, blessed the pilgrims to the Eternal City with a glimpse of heaven on earth as Maron, John Maron, Sharbel and Rafka and Nimatullah were acknowledged, affirmed and honored.
On a final note, the 75 pilgrims of both Maronite Eparchies of the USA enjoyed a week of spiritual journeying through churches and holy sites of Loreto (house of Mary), Rome (burial sites of Peter and Paul), Casia (St. Rita) and Assisi (St. Francis). As the faithful made their way on buses and through alleyways to historic ruins and holy grounds both Bishops Gregory Mansour and Robert Shaheen and the people of God of both Eparchies were lovingly remembered in prayer. May Jesus, the Lover of humankind, who called from among us Sharbel, Rafka and Nimatallah, ever enrich us a holy people, a saved gathering and a royal priesthood chosen from the among the nations.