A Personal Reflection
In a Middle East where leaders do not easily give up power, nor do people easily work out differences, something beautiful took place among the Maronite Bishops, which has also refreshed the Maronite Church and in fact all Christians.
The March 2011 Patriarchal Synod of the Maronite Church has been for us a watershed of many graces. Together, we Bishops, for six days in March felt the history of the Church transporting us back to the communion and love present in the first gathering of Christians for the election of Matthias to take the place of Judas. (Acts 1:21-26) In the Chapel, the Bishops prayed for the intercession of Matthias, along with that of Mary and all the Apostles. God met us in our need.
After three days of prayer and fasting, and three days of democratic election and consultation, we elected Bishop Bechara Rai of Byblos/Jbeil as Patriarch. His election has proven to be a real blessing for our Church. Bkerke, the monastic style residence of the Maronite Patriarch, had been flooded with visitors from all parts and all communities of Lebanon, the Middle East and in fact from throughout the world.
On the fifth day of our synod a Bishop proposed that we spend an evening of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. We did, and although there was more reflection and vocal prayer than the silence I was longing for, it was still beautiful and gave us the direction we needed. We were reminded that this is Christ’s Church, not ours! We are stewards devoted to doing His work and His will. By a combination of prayer, conversation and much good will, each bishop was able to put the Church’s needs first and their own needs second. The election process was one of the most respectful and beautiful acts a Church can witness; and by the grace of God, I had the privilege of participating and observing it firsthand.
Our Maronite Church, one of 21 Eastern Catholic Churches is governed by a Synod, which means by a “team” composed of a Patriarch and his Bishops. Our Maronite Church, since the acceptance by the Holy Father of Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir’s resignation letter has been governed by Bishop Roland Aboujaoude, the oldest by rank of ordination in the Patriarch’s Curia. He governed the Church from the time of the Pope’s acceptance of the Patriarch’s resignation up to the enthronement of the new Patriarch. But he did not govern alone, for like the Patriarch, he governed with the “team” of 40 Maronite Bishops.
We voted twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon for three days, until the 13th vote when Patriarch Rai emerged with the required 2/3. No one knew from the beginning who would become Patriarch. Some Bishops came to the Synod having in mind their favorite candidate while others thought that they themselves may have a chance to become Patriarch. Still others were undecided and open to hearing what their brother Bishops had in mind. Slowly hearts and minds were changed until we were able to determine which one of us was the best choice to assume the helm of this holy ship and to lead her to safe harbor. During each of the 13 sessions of voting each Bishop was required by oath to vote his conscience before God. During the final vote, along with each of us, the new Patriarch wrote his secret ballot. He later admitted to us that he was the one who had written the words: “communion and love” (sharika wa mahabba), which he said, and I most heartily agree, described the entire election. These words will subsequently guide his service as Patriarch.
His Homily at the Enthronement was beautiful. While working to help translate it, I told one of the Bishops it was way too long. My brother bishop quickly informed the new Patriarch of what I said. It is a good thing he has a sense of humor! After the enthronement, I greeted the new Patriarch, with, “I was wrong, the homily was perfect.” In fact, it was.
The Liturgy of the Enthronement was stunning with Shiite, Sunni, Druze, Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Christians, political leaders of Lebanon, including the President, the Prime Minister and the Speaker all in attendance. The most significant moment in the Ceremony, which unfortunately was not well seen or understood; was when all bishops, in groups of 7, went to place their hand on the staff of the new Patriarch. This was a sign of our support for him and for all the responsibilities entrusted to him.
If this reflection has helped you feel the beauty of communion and love that were woven in this entire process, perhaps you too will extend your hand to support the new Patriarch in the common labor we have been entrusted with – to build up the Church and society.
+ Bishop Gregory Mansour
(Reprinted with permission.)