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A struggle to preserve the faith blossomed in the Maronite Rite

HONG KONG (SE): The history of the Maronite Rite of the Catholic Church is literally a story of keeping the faith.

With its tradition inherited from the thriving commercial city of Antioch, it has direct connections with apostolic times, as St. Paul and his companion, St. Barnabas, both ministered there and St. Peter himself was the bishop.

Although Antioch is in modern day Turkey, it was an ancient city of Syria and the life of the faith flourished among the traders and business people of the day.

A visiting Maronite priest, Monsignor Joseph Takchi, told about 100 people gathered at the Diocese Centre on July 7 that it was not until a monk called Maroun (also spelled Maron) set out to bring the faith to the hinterlands that the early Church got any kind of foothold in the mountainous areas.

The Australian priest said that strangely it was the first taste of political freedom for the Christian people of Antioch that saw the beginnings of trouble.

He explained that with the arrival of a Christian emperor in Rome, the Christians experienced a new freedom, which brought debates about who Jesus was, was he really God and man, or truly God began to erupt.

Many of these disputes may have been settled theologically by Church councils where teachings began to be defined, but Christians continued to persecute each other in the midst of their arguments until in around 600 a new enemy arrived.

A flourishing Islam in the Antioch area saw new challenges and a persecution of a different kind.

The patriarch of Antioch fled and took refuge in Rome and in 687 and, as the city of Antioch lay in ruins, a monastery that St. Maroun had founded in the mountains ceased being merely a place of fostering sanctity and became a refuge for the preservation of the faith.

But the spread of the armies of Islam throughout the land saw the first of what Monsignor Takchi called the three great exoduses of the Maronite people.

“The people left and fled to Lebanon, where they lived in refuge among the cedars spoken of in the scriptures,” he explained. “The Muslim forces controlled the coastline, so they stayed in their mountain caves and eked out a livelihood in the harsh surrounds.”

This was the people’s lot until the Crusades came from Europe. “They were seen as liberators,” Monsignor Takchi said, “and their presence allowed the people to renew their contact with Rome and official recognition was given by the pope when he presented the patriarch with the pallium of a metropolitan archbishop as a sign of belonging.”

Maronite churches always incorporate a bell, sometimes two or three. The custom dates back to this time of liberation, as in freedom, the bells can be rung and there can be public rejoicing.

Monsignor Takchi said that Maronite archeology tells the stories of times of freedom and persecution, as when things were good churches and monasteries were built on hilltops and in times of persecution in valleys, where they could be hidden.

The continued ebb of fortunes throughout the history of the Maronite Rite also means that the people built plain, simple churches and gathering places. “Even today we do not have ornate buildings,” the priest said, “as our history tells us we never know when we will have to move on and they will be destroyed.”

However, the freedom derived from the crusades came to an end in 1291 and Lebanon came under the control of Muslims from Egypt. Nevertheless, the Christian people had some freedom, but they continued to live in isolation while preserving their cherished faith.

It was not until 1203 with the coming of patriarch who had graduated from a Roman university that any documentation of manuscripts became possible and during the ensuing centuries the work of codifying was carried out.

Today, the Maronite Church stands as a fully fledged rite within the Catholic Church, with documented theology, spirituality, canon law and liturgy, all of which are quite distinct, while it shares a profession of faith, mysteries (sacraments) and hierarchy with the rest of the Church.

Its patriarch is appointed by the pope, as are its bishops, and its priests are ordained and its people baptised into the same faith shared with the Latin and other rites within the Church.

But again the peace was not destined to last, and the arrival of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey in 1516 brought a long period dotted with persecution and oppression, with the great persecution of the 1860s in which 20,000 people died, raging until France and other European nations intervened.

“This brought on the second exodus,” Father Takchi explained. “This time the people mostly found their refuge in Latin America, with a few going to Australia and Canada.”

But with successive wars, Lebanon’s borders began to retract as acre after acre was carved out of its territory by warring nations. Today it is only 170 miles at its longest point and 50 miles wide.

Father Takchi said maybe the most stable time the Maronite people enjoyed was under the French from 1919 to the end of World War II, when independence came to the country.

But in 1975 there was civil war, this time instigated by interests from outside the country as it is the one country in the Middle East with plenty of water and this prompted a third exodus.

“But this time it was not just the Christians,” Monsignor Takchi said, “Muslims joined them in flight.”

This time Australia was the main destination and later Canada began accepting the people on the run from violence.

Monsignor Takchi said that today the scattered Maronite people are still struggling to preserve their faith, as there are more of them living outside Lebanon than among the cedar trees.

He explained that the cedar has become a symbol of their faith, as it is among the strongest of trees with the hardest of woods, yet only grows in tiny bursts over centuries, but can survive in a hostile terrain. “It has become a symbol of the struggle of our people to preserve our faith,” he said.

However, the Maronite Rite has outgrown its ethnic identity. “I was born in Lebanon,” Father Takchi explained. “But I grew up in Australia and I’m Aussie through and through.”

But, as with many like him, his love of the Maronite way is as strong as his loyalty to the struggling people of Lebanon.

He said the love of the homeland is shown in the money continues to flow from the millions living in the diaspora back the struggling people of their motherland.

“We are minority people in Lebanon now,” Monsignor Takchi said. “Lebanon still has the only Christian constitution in the Middle East, but we do not know how long that will last. With a Muslim majority, we wonder if sharia law will come, but if it does, it will be the end of Christianity in what has long been the preservation ground of a faith that has seen the development of a unique Catholicity and a courageous faith life.

But as the monsignor says, “We are a people of the resurrection. In our liturgies we celebrate life and the resurrected life of God within us.”