“Marie, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!”
In my family, we often speak to each other with movie quotes. The first time my parents attended Mass in the Maronite Church, when the priest began the liturgy chanting in Syriac, my father leaned over to my mother and said with trepidation and confusion, “Marie, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!”
Both of my parents are from small towns in Western New York. My mother is one of thirteen children raised in a devout Catholic family. My father grew up on a dairy farm and was baptized and raised Presbyterian. A few years after they were married my father converted to Catholicism. A couple of years later my father enlisted in the Army, and we began moving all over the world.
Now my father was stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, and my parents had just bought a house in Fayetteville. They saw a sign down the road for a “Catholic Church,” and that first Sunday they attended Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Maronite Catholic Church. Ironically, my parents had just moved to the area from Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas!
For sure, they were not in Kansas anymore, but now my father wasn’t sure where they were! The sign outside the Church said it was Catholic, but this was something completely foreign to my father. My mother, on the other hand, responded, “I think it is Eastern Rite. I remember reading about them when I was young.” Thankfully the priest at St. Michael’s was accustomed to new people coming by, so he quickly put their worries to rest before the liturgy continued by stating, “As our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, always says, ‘Be not afraid.’ For those of you joining us for the first time, you are in a Catholic Church.”
This is how my parents first discovered the Maronite Church. At this time, both my two brothers and I were grown and out of the house. I was also in the Army and stationed overseas in Germany. I remember my mother calling and telling me about St. Michael’s, to which I quickly and adamantly told her, “Mom, you are in an Orthodox Church. You can’t go there!” My mother gently corrected me and began to explain about the Eastern Churches within the Catholic Church, something I had never heard of until this time.
Not only did I learn more about the Maronite Church from my parents, but when I returned to the United States and was stationed in Atlanta, Georgia, I happened to buy a house not too far from the Maronite Church there. I immediately became a parishioner of St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, hoping to simply learn more about the Eastern Rites and experience their liturgy for a little while. But like my parents, I too fell in love with the Maronite church myself.
Coming to know the Maronite Church really helped me to grow in my faith and in my love for our Lord and His Church. As I began to learn more about all the different “churches” within the Catholic Church, I was delighted to see the great variety of expression of the faith we actually have. Most importantly, I soon found my true spiritual home is within the Maronite Church as I connected with the liturgy, spirituality and the community in a way I never had in the Roman Rite Mass.
What is the Maronite Church, and how is she different from the Roman Church?
First it is important to note that the Catholic Church is comprised of twenty-three Church traditions that each embrace a particular spirituality, cultural identity and liturgical practice, while sharing the same dogmatic faith and unity with the Holy Father in Rome. The Maronite Church is one of the twenty-two Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris (self-governing), and she follows the Antiochene-Syriac tradition.
In the early Church, Antioch was a major center of Christianity. Not too far from Antioch, during the late fourth century, there lived a holy hermit, Saint Maron, who resided on a hilltop in prayer, living a radically ascetical life while seeking union with God. Because of his great holiness, numerous people came to him, and many began to imitate his way of life. These disciples of St. Maron eventually began to form monasteries living in community while following his example of holiness. A great monastery then grew in the region known as “Beit Maroun,” or “House of Maron.” Even after St. Maron’s death around the year 410 AD, this monastery continued to grow and flourish in the region and became a great center of the faith.
In the late seventh century, however, the Christians in this region faced persecution and turmoil. The Patriarchal see of Antioch became vacant, and so the people, in need of a spiritual leader, elected a monk, John Maron, from the monastery of St. Maron as their Bishop and Patriarch of Antioch. St. John Maron then led the people into the mountains of Lebanon, now known as the Qadisah Valley, or Holy Valley. It was here that the people began to identify themselves more formally as the Maronite Catholic Church.
They lived in this region for almost four hundred years being physically separated from Rome with no communication with the Holy See. Because they were isolated, the Maronites did not take part in the Schism and always remained faithful to the Church in Rome. It was not until the arrival of the Crusaders, however, that they were able to reestablish communication with the Holy Father and the Catholic Church at large. Once they were reconnected, the Vatican gave them formal permission to remain in their tradition as the Maronite Church sui iuris within the Catholic Church, and the Holy Father formally recognized John Maron and his successors as Patriarch of Antioch.
A unique aspect of the Maronite Church is that she is the only Catholic Church who identifies herself with a person other than Jesus Christ. Because she takes her name from the holy hermit, Saint Maron, and she grew and formed around the monastery of “Beit Maroun”, we recognize how monasticism is not merely a part of her identity, as you would find in the other Catholic Churches, but is her core and foundation. From the time of St. Maron, the “Maronite” people grew in their faith around the monastery, and the monastery was at the heart of their spirituality and way of life.
In Lebanon today, where the core of the Maronite Church resides, this monastic reality is easily seen and lived. The country of Lebanon is itself very small (the CIA factbook compares it to one-third the size of the state of Maryland), but for such a small country it is overflowing with monasteries. One does not have to travel far in Lebanon in order to reach a monastery, and the majority of people could get to one on foot. The mountains, valleys, and coastlines are literally dotted with monasteries, old and new. For a Maronite living in Lebanon, seeing and experiencing their monastic spirituality is not difficult. Where ever one is, they are sure to hear monastery bells ringing daily for the time of Divine Liturgy (Mass), times of prayer, and specific hours of the day.
For Maronite communities outside of Lebanon, however, this monastic reality is not as visible or easy to find lived. In the west, as we see here in the United States, the Maronites are currently formed around parishes, as is the norm in this part of the world. While the parish provides the liturgical and communal support for the people, the monastic spirituality is lacking. One can see some aspects of the monastic roots in the liturgy and with the traditional Syriac melodies, as well as in the traditional dress of the priests. Perhaps these things can be addressed in some future articles!
For now, if you have never experienced the Maronite Church, or any of the other Eastern Catholic Churches, I would like to encourage you to find one close to your home and join them some time for Divine Liturgy. The different liturgical expressions found within the Catholic Church at large beautifully reflect how we as people throughout the world have our differences, and how our Lord seeks to speak with us in different ways. May each of us find our Lord more fully within our diverse and inspiring Catholic Church.
Guest author Tresa VanHeusen is a Maronite Catholic (and sister of Catholic-Link priest extraordinaire, Fr. Ian VanHeusen).
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