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from issue no. 04/05 - 2011

A bridge between East and West

Founded in 1584 by Pope Gregory XIII to promote relations between the Holy See and the Maronite Church, the Pontifical Maronite College now offers itself as a place for dialogue between different cultures and religions

by Pina Baglioni

The fresco in the atrium of the Maronite College depicting the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, inspired by the depiction in the sanctuary of Qannoubine

The fresco in the atrium of the Maronite College depicting the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, inspired by the depiction in the sanctuary of Qannoubine


There is a bustle of comings and goings at number 18 of Via di Porta Pinciana, home of the Pontifical Maronite College in Rome: pilgrims complete with flags from Lebanon and the Maronite eparchies of the Middle East. But also from the diaspora scattered to the four corners of the world – the United States and Canada in the lead – which accounts for two thirds of the three and a half million heirs of Saint Maron. On Sunday morning, around ten thirty, you can easily meet the Maronites living in the Eternal City as they walk, with bunches of kids in tow, to the church of Saint Maron attached to the College, in Via Aurora – the street that runs along the east side of the building – where mass is celebrated in the Syro-Antiochian rite, attended also by many Muslim families. Then, after church, people begin to chat around the one bench outside the church, or in the secluded garden, while others choose the Arabic language classes organized for children born in Italy.

All this happens around the stately building in the Ludovisi district, wedged between big extra deluxe hotels, banks and shops for wealthy tourists.

The Maronite College from which the student priests living there swarm every morning to the Pontifical University, is the connecting link between the Holy See and the Maronite Church, the most ancient Church sui iuris of the Syro-Antiochian rite, the only one among all Christian Churches of the Middle East that can boast of always having been in full communion with the Successor of Peter. Tradition dates its origins between the fourth and fifth centuries when, on the death of the Syrian anchorite Maron, his followers began to build monasteries close to his grave, in Apamea, Syria, on the banks of the Orontes River.

In Via di Porta Pinciana, there is not only the Maronite Pontifical College for student priests however, but also the pastoral Mission at the adjacent church of St Maron and the Procuracy of the Patriarchate of Antioch of the Maronites to the Holy See. Institutions that, in recent months, have been at the center of a whirlwind of events: the celebrations, in 2010, for the sixteen hundredth anniversary of the death of Saint Maron; the arrival in Rome of the relics of the great Maronite saints of the nineteenth century: St Charbel Makhlouf, St Rafka Rayes and St Nimatullah Al-Hardini, to whom devotion is spreading like wildfire in Italy; the setting-up, on 23 February last, of the statue of Saint Maron in an outside niche of St Peter’s Basilica, in the presence of Benedict XVI. Not to mention, from 28 February to 15 March, the resignation of His Beatitude Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, after twenty-five years at the leadership of the Patriarchate, and the election of his successor, the seventy-seventh Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, Béchara Boutros Raï, Bishop of Jbeil, Byblos of the Maronites - who then flew twice to Rome within a few days: on 14 April, for a private audience with the Pope, and on 1 May, for the beatification of John Paul II.


The Maronite College: a slice of Middle Eastern Christianity in the Eternal City

“We have experienced a period rich in events the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. We are all a bit dazed, but very, very happy”. Monsignor Antoine Gebran has been procurator of the Patriarchate for two years, and for the last few months rector of the College and chaplain of the migrants in the diocese of Rome who belong to the Syro-Antiochian Maronite Church. In his early forties, he comes, like the majority of Lebanese priests, from the Kadisha Valley, in the north of the country, also known as the Sacred Valley because of the myriad of monasteries lying below the crests of the mountains. There, between the eighth and ninth centuries, the followers of Saint Maron who fled Syria because of continued persecution by the Byzantines, the Monophysites and Muslims, found shelter.

The young monsignor, before taking on the triple responsibility, was bursar of the College and worked for seven years at the Pontifical Institute for the Family: “Priests are sent here to us”, he explains, “by the bishops of all the Maronite eparchies. But also from all the other Christian Churches in the Middle East, whether in communion with Rome or not. As happens in Lebanon, for that matter, where the Maronites have always lived alongside the Apostolic Armenians and Catholic Armenians, the Greek Orthodox and the Melkites, the Syro-Orthodox and Syro-Catholics, Assyrians, Copts, Chaldeans, and Latin Rite Catholics. As well as Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Jews and Protestants”.

The College entrance in Via di Porta Pinciana [© Paolo Galosi]

The College entrance in Via di Porta Pinciana [© Paolo Galosi]

The priests come to Rome after completing the first cycle of studies in philosophy and theology in over ninety diocesan and interdiocesan seminaries scattered throughout Lebanon. “Thank God we still have many vocations, also adult ones. So many that it became necessary to establish training houses in Lebanon for mature vocations”, adds Monsignor Gibran. “Here in the College we host priests between the ages of 26 and 40. There are twelve Lebanese, ten Maronites and two Greek-Catholics. The others arrived through the Congregation for Eastern Churches, which grants scholarships for their sustenance in Rome. Currently we host an Orthodox from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, an Assyrian and three Syro-Catholics from Iraq and four Koreans of the Latin rite. Then we have two laymen, a Frenchman and an Italian. In past years there were also many Chaldeans. Let’s say that we consider them justified absentees...”. The communal moments are the Tuesday mass in the church of St Maron – celebrated in Italian, but according to the rite of the officiating celebrant – and breakfast at 7:30am, lunch at 1:00pm and dinner at 7:00pm each day. While the group of Maronites meet on other days for Mass and Vespers at 6.45 pm in a chapel on the second floor of the College; all the others make their own arrangements. “Then, in fact, some also come to attend our Mass with the liturgy written in Syriac, a variant of Aramaic, and pronounced in Arabic.” Like many of their colleagues in the other Colleges of Rome, the Maronite priests are also asked to help in parishes on weekends, at Christmas and Easter. “We have by now stable relationships with some of the parishes of Rome, Milan, Parma and Como, where our priests also go during the summer holidays”, says Don Joseph Sfeir, the bursar of the Maronite College.

Charbel Ghoussoub has been a priest for nine years and comes from the archeparchy of Antelias, not far from Beirut. He is about to gain his licentiate in the Sciences of Education at the Salesian University. “I’m about to return to Lebanon because my bishop has called me home and I’ve already been a parish priest there for five years. I’ll probably be back in Rome again for a doctorate”, he tells us. “In Rome one breathes the universality of the Church, so many rites, such great richness. Only here can you understand how great the Church is. And we take this awareness back with us to Lebanon, where the space, both physical and mental, in which one moves is often the seminary and parish, the parish and seminary, within an entirely Lebanese situation. It’s important to study in Rome not least to help others understand what the Maronite Church is. More than one colleague at the university has asked me if my parents were still dMuslims, and when it was I converted to Christianity...”. Then there is Antoun Charbel, a doctoral student in Canon Law, already with a licenciate in theology and missionary experience in Nigeria, where he worked for years in his own parish. We asked him whether there was hope among the younger Maronite priests that Lebanon will go beyond the concept of religious “communitarianism”, judged by many Lebanese historians to be the greatest obstacle to full development and full democracy in the Land of the Cedars. “For the present it’s only a rather remote ideal, difficult to reach: this is still the time of religious communities, because, for now, we have no other system than this. Suffice to say that at home there is no single history of Lebanon, but as many histories as there are religious communities, which are seventeen. But right now we’re very optimistic about the appointment of the new Patriarch: he certainly will be able at least to calm the spirits of those in our country”.

“It would be nice if the Maronite College could play, in ever more obvious manner, its part in the delicate situation in the Middle East: to retrieve, that is, the role of cultural, religious and political intermediary that it had from the sixteenth century on”, says the rector, Monsignor Gebran. “This year we also celebrate the eleventh anniversary of the 2001 reopening of the College after the long break that began with the Second World War. During the long, terrible years of civil war in Lebanon our priests continued to come to Rome, staying here and there, especially at Propaganda Fide and the Capranica College. Thanks to the hard and intelligent work of my predecessor, Monsignor Hanna Alwan, immediately after the 2000 Jubilee the College was able finally to resume its journey.” There is also a hint in Monsignor Gibran’s words of regret for the many treasures lost over the years: “Hundreds of very valuable books are no longer here. Many took their way to the library of the Pontifical Oriental Institute. When I was studying for a doctorate in Oriental Ecclesiastical Sciences at that institution, it was heartbreaking to find in my hands a volume with the stamp of the Pontifical Maronite College. But we had Jesuit rectors for a long time...”

In the archway of the entrance to the building, a brightly colored fresco depicts the Coronation of the Madonna, at the base of which runs an inscription in Syriac praising the Virgin. “The Coronation does not correspond to our traditional iconography”, explains Don Joseph Sfeir. “This image is taken from that of the shrine of Qannoubine in the Kadisha Valley, home of the patriarchs from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, among the most venerated in Lebanon and the oldest of the Holy Valley”. Immediately below the fresco there is a small replica of the statue of Saint Maron set up last 23 February in an outside niche of St Peter’s Basilica. “The righteous will flourish and grow like the cedar of Lebanon”, says the Psalm inscribed in Aramaic, on the stole of the founder of the Maronite Church. Moving ahead, then, one comes to a large hall at the far end of which can be seen, the throne of the Patriarch where obviously His Beatitude sits on the occasions he finds himself in the Eternal City.

Benedict XVI with the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, at the unveiling of the statue of Saint Maron in an outside niche of St Peter’s basilica, 23 February 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI with the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, at the unveiling of the statue of Saint Maron in an outside niche of St Peter’s basilica, 23 February 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]

On the walls there is a series of portraits of the patriarchs and the most significant figures in Maronite history, all alumni of the Maronite College: the servant of God His Beatitude Stephen El Douaihy, father of Maronite historiography and promoter and supporter of the great religious orders, now on his way to beatification. Then Joseph Simon Assemani, who lived between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the most prestigious representative of the dynasty of the Assemani orientalists who enriched the Vatican Apostolic Library with thousands of volumes of Eastern patristics. And then the portraits of Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, for twenty-five years – politically extremely dramatic for Lebanon – at the head of the Maronite Church. And very recent photos of Béchara Boutros Raï. “A great pastor, our new patriarch, who has already shown concretely his desire to pacify souls in Lebanon”, says the rector. “As, for example, gathering together, as soon as he was elected, all the representatives of the country’s political forces. Including Hezbollah, a party made up of Lebanese like us. Who certainly didn’t come from outside to occupy us, but managed to defend the land in the last war with Israel in 2006”.

And, speaking of the role of liaison between the Church of Rome and the Maronite Church, we asked if the College had not paradoxically encouraged the Latinization of the ancient Syro-Antiochian rite, not least in the light of the dispatching, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of the Western religious orders to check on the doctrine and liturgy of the disciples of Saint Maron. “It is clear that, being the only Middle Eastern Church that has always been in communion with Rome, we have undergone a certain assimilation”, says the rector, “mostly however in externals, such as in liturgical vestments, rather than in substance. We have adopted the chasuble. But we saved our Syrian-Antiochian liturgy.” Don Joseph Sfeir is of a slightly different opinion: “Let’s not attribute blame to anyone, God forbid, but the papal legations scrutinized our liturgical texts very closely, one by one. And what in their opinion was not quite in line with the Latin liturgy was burned, destroyed”.

Coming back to today, we finally ask the rector, for a judgment on an issue that many Maronites consider the problem of problems: the emigration of Maronites from Lebanon because of political instability and the population explosion of Muslims: “It would be foolish to deny what’s happening”, he replies. “It must also be said, however, that many of us are going back. And also that many Muslims are leaving. But the fate of the Maronite Church is in the hands of our Lord: He has kept us for sixteen hundred years. If He still wants us there, we’ll stay. What can I say: His will be done”.

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