Thursday, July 24, 2008

Breathing with Both Lungs -- East & West -- among Arab Catholics

Today we Catholics celebrate the memorial of St. Sharbel (or, Charbel) Makhlouf, a Lebanese monk, hermit and priest from the 19th century (1828-1898). His reputation for sanctity preceeded his death and he apparently was widely respected by Christians and non-Christians in his native land.

Pope John Paul II wrote back in the 1990s, Lumen Orientalis (Light from the East), that the Catholic Church "breathes with two lungs, East and West." Probably for most Catholics in the USA this is a pretty foreign concept. Perhaps some Catholics, young and old, have a kind of abstract notion of this. They may know that it exists, but it's pretty exotic and not part of their daily lives, or even their general awareness as practicing Catholics.

St. Sharbel was from the Aramaic Maronite Syriac Catholic Church, oftentimes abbreviated as the Maronite Rite. It is from the Syriac liturgical family which traces its roots to the earliest Christian communities in what is now Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. They have a patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir, who is the rightful successor (among others) to St. Peter of the Church of God which is in Antioch (Syria). Today, sadly, it is only a historical site of Roman ruins in a wee corner of southern modern Turkey. The patriarch has his see in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. And he has been an outspoken advocate for peace in the region, the common respect of human rights for all the inhabitants in the region, especially for Christians, who comprise about one-third of the population of Lebanon.

Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, serving since 1986

But to label these folks as "Arabs" is not entirely just. They are also Phoenecians, descendants of some of the oldest known inhabitants of the Lebanese coastland (predating Greek civilization). Their form of the Syriac Rite is attributed to St. Maron (hence, the name), a 5th century bishop in what is now Lebanon, and they have been in continual communion with the Church of Rome these many centuries.

One challenging thing I have found is that when I mention that there are thousands of Arab Christians, even millions in Arab lands (e.g. Egypt) -- Orthodox, Catholics and even Protestants -- people seem to be stunned. I remember one person commenting, "I had no idea there were Muslim Christians!" I tried to explain (I think I was successful!) that these were not Muslims; they were Christians, and they were Arabs (or, living in Muslim lands, having inhabited the lands predating not only Muhammed and the subsequent Arab invasion, but even the Christian era).

Christian Syriac script of Bible text from the Book of Exodus

So, our Catholic Christian heritage is truly rich, thanks be to God, with such a plurality of practice and profound diversity of ritual, language and customs, even from ancient times of the early Church!

We do breathe with two lungs, East and West. Here in the USA, I encourage our young people, especially in the Roman Rite (and the vast majority of Catholics belong to this Rite in our country) to become familiar with the Eastern Churches, especially if there are some in your area.

The Eastern Catholic Churches (i.e. in communion with the Pope of Rome, as opposed to the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, who are not) are quite diverse -- Byzantine (Ruthenian, Melkite, Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian, Bylorussian) and Syriac (Maronite, Syriac, Chaldean, Syro-Malankara, Syro-Malabar), Armenian, Alexandrian (Coptic, Ethiopic) -- and you can receive Holy Communion (according to their respective tradtions) in these Churches, too!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia -- remembering and celebrating

And, next time (2011) in Madrid, Spain!

"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses "(Acts 1:8) was the theme of this year's WYD 08 in Sydney, Australia.

Guy Sebastian and Paulini, Catholic recording artists from Australia, sang the theme song, You Will Receive Power (echoing the above text). This was apparently popular among the pilgrims as evidenced by its rather extensive use throughout World Youth Day and, by looking at the cameras sweeping the crowd, the number of people (at least attempting in English) singing its refrain.

Pope Benedict XVI seemed to emphasize to the participants that all the baptized are missionaries, and encouraged all the youth present physically and virtually to be missionaries of Jesus' Gospel.

The Franciscans, of many stripes, were well represented at this year's events. Our General Minister, Fr. Jose Carballo Rodriguez, OFM (originally from Spain) was present with a delegation of OFMs from around the world, including Australia itself.

The Holy Father exhorted all the participants to let their light shine, and that light is Jesus Christ! I was deeply impressed by the missionary emphasis given. Our own General Minister has been likewise encouraging us Franciscan Friars to remember our missionary charism, whether we work in our native lands (like me!) or far from our respective homes in lands abroad.

The prospect of being Christ's witnesses (martyrs! -- from the Greek) to all the world is a fundamental and radical invitation and call, don't you think? What do you think about witnessing for Jesus -- at home, at work, at school? It can be pretty scary! And, pretty exciting!

And yet, the promise of the Risen Lord, preceeding Pentecost, is that we will receive the very power of God, the Holy Spirit! And we have received him at our Baptism and were sealed with the same gift of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation. So, we can be witnesses, effective witnesses, even if others reject us (remember Jesus!).

Hope you get a chance to see the video footage and to hear the song, You Will Receive Power. Both are very encouraging and uplifting. I felt so blessed to be a Catholic Christian, as well as a Franciscan Friar and priest!

So, Spain is going to be the sight for new pilgrims and repeat pilgrims in 2011 for WYD! And the Franciscans will be there -- again -- as pilgrims and participants!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia! July 15-20, 2008. Thousands of Catholic youth from all over the globe converged Down Under to gather with Pope Benedict XVI for prayer, fellowship and learning.

What a marvelous event to see on-line or via TV, thanks to EWTN's coverage. Did you have a chance to see it? If not, you can download the various events under "World Youth Day 2008". Lots of video to view. Apparently this was the first time that WYD had live feed on-line. How great that technology can serve us so well to proclaim the Good News of the Lord Jesus and help build up the Body of Christ!

As a "virtual" participant, it was thrilling to see so many young adults gathered to worship God within our Catholic traditions. Cardinal Pell of Sydney welcomed all the pilgrims and the Holy Father to Australia, and the Prime Minister of that country welcomed the youth of the world on their pilgrimage of peace. He had noted that many -- all too many -- times such a physical movement of young people from one location to another was associated with warfare. (Curiously, while he mentioned the words "faith", "Christian" and "Catholic" he omitted the word "God"! It seems to speak of the obvious reality of Australia's secular culture.)

At the end of World Youth Day, when addressing both Pope Benedict and all the participants at the Sunday Mass, Cardinal Pell noted that WYD has now become part of the Catholic reality and is an eagerly anticipated event in the life of the Church world-wide.

Pope Benedict XVI, continuing the tradition of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II
in promoting and participating in World Youth Day 2008, at Sydney, Australia (15-20 July 2008)