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from issue no. 04/05 - 2011

The Maronite Archipelago

An overview of the Maronite religious houses in Rome.
There are those who host seminarians and student priests and, again, those who have transformed their monastery into a shrine dedicated to the great Maronite saints

by Pina Baglioni

A panorama of the roofs and domes of Rome from the terrace of the monastery of St Antony Abbot, on the Colle Oppio [© Paolo Galosi]

A panorama of the roofs and domes of Rome from the terrace of the monastery of St Antony Abbot, on the Colle Oppio [© Paolo Galosi]


In addition to the Pontifical College, Rome hosts a cluster of procuracies and priestly colleges of the most important Maronite Orders.

The Lebanese Maronite Order is housed in a small monastery not far from the Pyramid of Cestia, near the parish church dedicated to St Marcella, a 4th century Roman noblewoman who, by a curious analogy with the Maronite monks, followed the rule of St Antony Abbot together with her friends.
On the Colle Oppio, opposite the Basilica of St Peter in Chains, a stone’s throw from the Colosseum, there is the convent of Saint Antony Abbot, the residence of the Mariamite Maronites of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They have been there since 1753, after moving from the house and the church of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in via Labicana. And again, between the Via Portuense and the Trullo district, there is the priestly College of the Antonian Maronite Order of Sant Isaiah. Finally, as guests in various ecclesiastical institutions, the priests of the Lebanese Maronite Missionary Order study and work in Rome and, being of patriarchal and not pontifical jurisdiction like all the others, it does not have a General House in Rome.
At the end of the seventeenth century, the Lebanese Maronite and the Maronite Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary constituted a single body, the Lebanese Aleppine Order founded on 10 November 1695 by three young Syrians from Aleppo, Gabriel Hawwa, Abdallah Qara’li and Joseph El-Betn, who had established their residence in the monastery of Our Lady of Qannoubine in the Kadisha valley in northern Lebanon.
In Rome, as early as 1707, the Aleppine Order, obtained from Clement XI the Church of Saints Marcellinus and Peter on the Via Labicana, not least thanks to the success of a mission entrusted by the Pope to Gabriel Hawwa to bring a Coptic bishop back to Roman obedience. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, there was such an influx of young people from Damascus, Jerusalem, Sidon and from many Egyptian cities that it necessitated the move to the larger monastery of Saint Elysées in Becharre and the foundation of other monasteries also outside the country.
The Patriarch Stephen El Douaihy, a strong supporter of the Order, had a decisive hand in redrafting the rule, which had vaguely followed that of Saint Antony Abbot, but had been too leveled down in line with those of the Latin Orders. The Rule was permanently approved on 31 March 1732 by Clement XII.
Deeply attached to rural life, the monks shared its austerity. It was always to these monks that the Patriarch entrusted responsibility for the Lebanese diaspora in Egypt, Europe and the New World. The Maronite Church, totally concentrated in the mountains of Lebanon, owes to them the unwavering attachment of the people to Christianity, the land, and the papacy. And above all the education of peasants and of the poor: village schools often arose in the shadow of the monasteries and parish churches.
Over time, however, serious conflicts arose within the Order that led to the emergence of two positions: one held that the post of Father General should be a lifetime appointment and that the Order should take on a missionary character. The other, however, held that the position should have a term and that the Order should keep wholly to the contemplative life.
The differences were not resolved, and on 19 July 1770 there came the split into the Antonian Aleppine Order of the Maronites, of missionary character, and the Lebanese Maronite Order, of contemplative vocation. Each with its own members, monasteries and possessions. In 1969 the Aleppine Order then took the name of the Mariamite Maronite Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In terms of the situation in Rome, the split meant that the Aleppines remained in Saints Marcellinus and Peter, to then later move to the residence in the piazza of St Peter in Chains, and that the Lebanese Maronite Order moved to Cyprus to give spiritual assistance to the Maronites living on the island. The presence of the Maronites in Cyprus dates from the eleventh century when, after fleeing to Syria because of persecution, some moved on to take refuge there, while the majority fled to the mountains of Lebanon.
The Order of the Patriarch: the Maronites of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The monastery of Saint Antony Abbot, the seat of the Procuracy of the Mariamite Maronite Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the priestly training College is a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. When we went to visit them we found the Mariamite fathers in a state of great euphoria: His Beatitude Béchara Boutros Raï, the newly elected patriarch, in fact belongs to their order. “The choice, in my opinion, comes from the Holy Spirit. He is the right person for every Lebanese, Christian and otherwise, and for the Maronite Church, thanks to his intelligence, his charisma and his ability to dialogue with everyone”, says Father François Nasr, bursar and postulator of the Order, who is busy dealing with the beatification process of the Servant of God Father Antonios Tarabay. “In his priestly life this religious was involved in the spiritual direction of the Sisters of St John the Baptist in Lebanon. Greatly devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, he practiced asceticism and contemplation. Sent, then, to the monastery of Qannoubine in the Holy Valley he lived in perfect and complete union with Jesus Christ. Later he was stricken by a serious illness that he heroically endured for twenty-seven years. He embodies the charism of our Order, that is to say a perfect combination of the missionary life immersed in everyday living and the mystical life of renunciation, prayer and contemplation”.
A case almost more unique than rare, the College is still home to seminarians who come to Rome after having already attended the two-years Philosophy course in Lebanon. “Until some time ago our students could also attend the two year course in Rome. We also welcome bishops and pilgrims from all over the world.” At the College in Rome they do three years of theology and then specialist studies such as Spiritual Theology, Canon Law, Human Sciences, and Mariology: “not least because of our name, adopted during the Second Vatican Council, through the insistence of Father Genadios Mourani (a fellow brother known for his great spirituality who died in a terrorist ambush in Lebanon in 1959), who wanted more than anything to put our Order under the protection of Our Lady”.
Back in Lebanon these students will become rectors of the various university campuses of the Order, which now have six thousand students enrolled, or headmasters of the schools, attended by seven thousand students, or rectors of seminaries, and parish priests. “Our Rome College has always been the place that received the Lebanese Maronites, and students from the other Christian Churches. Many people come to attend Mass in our chapel on Sunday mornings, attracted by the ancient Syro-Antiochian liturgy”.
The monastery-college has a library rich in sacred texts dating from the thirteenth century, among them are many volumes of Arabic literature. In the entrance hall, Father François points out a portrait of St Theresa of the Child Jesus. “In Lebanon, the devotion to her is immense: the first monastery dedicated to her, after her canonization, was a male Mariamite monastery. The father general of the Order had been present at the ceremony at the Vatican and was impressed by her exemplary life. At this moment her relics are visiting Palestine. And St Theresa, from what I hear, is doing great things over there”.
The facade of the monastery in the Square of St Peter in Chains [© Paolo Galosi]

The facade of the monastery in the Square of St Peter in Chains [© Paolo Galosi]

The Lebanese Maronite Order, forge of saints
The Lebanese Maronite Order, although depending on the Holy See, was granted a Procurate in Rome only very late. “We always had the great desire of coming to Rome. But it was continually postponed because there was a belief that the Mariamite presence in the Eternal City was sufficient”, explains Father Elias Al Jamhoury, postulator of the Causes of the Saints of the Order and procurator general in Rome. What ‘brought’ these monks to Rome was the cause of beatification of Saint Charbel Makhlouf, canonized by Pope Paul VI on 9 October 1977. It became necessary sixty years ago to have a postulator who could follow the cause of Charbel, born in Bkaakafra in northern Lebanon, in 1828 and who died in 1898. Thanks to the harvest of miracles granted through the intercession of this monk the whole of Lebanon and the Maronites all over the world are immensely devoted to him.
“Saint Charbel is like the cedar of Lebanon, by now a constituent part of our country. Every Maronite has to do with him, for one reason or another, though by now he has devotees all over the world. He’s a little like your Padre Pio”, two young monks in the monastery confirm. As chance would have it, they are both called Charbel. One is a doctoral student in Christian Archaeology, the other in Biblical Sciences. They are housed in the College of St Anselm University along with the other four members of the Order in Rome for specialized studies. When study permits, the two Charbels lend a hand to Father Elias. Not least because for some time now phone calls, letters and visitors from all over Italy have been arriving at the monastery to ask favors of St Charbel and two other saints of the Order: St Rafka Rayes, a nun canonized in 2001, and Nimatullah Al-Hardini, a great theologian, made a saint in 2004. The three may soon be joined by a fourth: the friar Estephan Nehmé, beatified on 27 June 2010.
The chapel adjacent to the monastery near the Pyramid of Cestia houses the relics of the three saints, and has become a place of pilgrimage for a large number of people from Rome and beyond who come to ask for favors. “Who would have guessed! Our intention – if the Congregation for Eastern Churches allows it, of course – is to transform the place into a true and proper shrine to St Charbel: the flow of pilgrims shows no sign of stopping”, adds Father Elias. “Saint Charbel began to perform miracles the day after his death. So much so that in 1926 the cause began. In the Holy Year of 1950 there were thirty thousand miracles. In a spiritual tandem with the miracles of Our Lady of Lourdes. Then, in 1951, it was decided there was no point in waiting any longer and we finally came to Rome”.
The Antonians of St Isaiah and the friendship with the Druze people
One of the tasks of the Antonian Maronite Order of St Isaiah – one of great relevance to the times in which we live – is dialogue with and acceptance of other faiths.
“Everything began with Bishop Gebraël Blouzani, the future patriarch of the Maronite Church who, in 1673, decided to found the monastery of Our Lady at Tamica in northern Lebanon, making it the seat of his bishopric”, says Father Maged Maroun. “After having educated many young people in the rules of Eastern monastic life, he sent them out to build the monastery of St Isaiah in Broumana, on top of a hill called Aramta, where, on the feast of the Assumption in 1700, the first mass was celebrated. The area was mainly inhabited by the Druze, a people who had fled from Egypt and followed a religion of Muslim derivation, neither Sunni nor Shiite. They had settled in the mountains of Lebanon in 1300 – about five hundred years after the Maronites – to escape persecution by the Sunnis. The Emir Abdullah Abillamah, leader of the Druze in the area, welcomed the arrival of the monks and decided, along with other emirates in the area, to send their children to study with the Antonians. Many of them asked to be baptized. Not least for that reason Pope Clement XII approved our Order with the Bull Misericordiarum Pater, on 17 January 1740”.
The young aspirants to the priesthood nowadays make their novitiate in the famous monastery of St Isaiah in Lebanon, considered the mother house of the Antonian Maronite Order. Their presence in Rome dates back to 1906, with a first seminary on the Janiculum. Then, in 1958, on the Via Boccea. And, since 1998, in Via Affogalasino, between the Portuense and Trullo districts.
“Today there are seven priests studying in Rome and they are specializing in Sacred Music, and Canon Law”, says Father Maged. “But above all in the Eastern Ecclesiastical Sciences and Islamic-Christian Dialogue at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. In addition to their study, they work in the parishes of the area, visiting the sick. At Easter, for example, they went to bless the homes of local residents”. Back in Lebanon, they will become teachers in the schools and three university campuses of the Order, or parish priests both in Lebanon and among the Maronites of the diaspora. “Faithful to the origins of our vocation they must become ever more a channel of communication with everyone, Christians and others. As our new statutes and our history indicate”, the monk concludes.
The entrance to the monastery of the Lebanese Maronite Order with the statue of St Charbel Makhlouf canonized in 1977 by Pope Paul VI [© Paolo Galosi]

The entrance to the monastery of the Lebanese Maronite Order with the statue of St Charbel Makhlouf canonized in 1977 by Pope Paul VI [© Paolo Galosi]

The Missionaries of the Patriarch
Scattered throughout various ecclesiastical institutions in Rome, the priests of the Congregation of Lebanese Missionaries constitute a male religious institution of patriarchal jurisdiction. They are also called Kreimists because they were founded on 22 May 1884 at the monastery of Kreim, in Ghosta, on Mount Lebanon, by Youhanna Habib, a priest of the Eparchy of Baalbek, with the purpose of educating young Maronites and proclaiming the Gospel to non-believers also. Its members take a vow not to aspire to ecclesiastical titles. The Lebanese Missionaries are active not only in Lebanon but also in the Maronite communities of Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, the USA and Australia.
“We send our priests to study directly in the mission areas. Thus in the meantime they already begin to assist the Maronites of the Diaspora. Only those who are to specialize in disciplines that are only studied here, such as Dogmatic Theology, Canon Law and Biblical studies, come to Rome”. Monsignor Hanna Alwan, whom we have already met in the role of rector emeritus of the Pontifical Maronite College, is, among many other things, responsible for the Congregation of Maronite Lebanese Missionaries in Europe. He, too, comes from northern Lebanon, the cradle of the Church of Saint Maron. And he entered the Congregation at age 16, along with his twin brother. “The Maronites settled in the north, after coming away from Syria to escape first the Byzantines and then the Muslims. And the choice was very wise: when they arrived in Lebanon, the Turks stayed on the coasts and in southern cities because they were terribly afraid of the mountains. Thus, the Maronites were sheltered”.
The founder of the Congregation of the Lebanese Maronite Missionaries, Youhanna Habib, was a judge in the Turkish Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. When the Empire’s officials saw how difficult it was to make the Maronites obey Islamic law, they instituted a tribunal for them and another for Muslims, so that cases did not all end up in the tribunal in Istanbul. Habib was appointed as a judge for the Maronites. But, having fallen into disgrace with the emir, he left the court in order to become a Jesuit. The patriarch would not permit him. He ordained him priest, assigned him some priests as support and sent him on a mission. It was a time when the Maronites were emigrating to the Americas, and the Patriarch feared that, once there, they would lose the faith.
Then Youhanna Habib was appointed bishop. And when the patriarch died, the Synod chose him as his successor. He refused but on his proposal a friend was chosen in his place, in 1899. The friend was Elias Boutros Hoyek, a bishop who in 1890 had come to Rome to buy land for the rebuilding of the Pontifical Maronite College.
Not only that, Hoyek also founded the Congregation of the Holy Family, nuns whose primary mission is to the family through the education of children and assistance to parish priests in the family ministry. The spiritual direction of the Congregation of the Holy Family is entrusted to the Congregation of Lebanese Maronite Missionaries.

“One feature of the Lebanese Missionaries is great application to study. A little like the Jesuits”, Monsignor Alwan adds, with some pride. Finally, we ask him whether the work of the missionaries will become increasingly onerous as a result of the steady emigration of Maronites. And what course should the Holy See adopt: “The interest of Rome was reinforced when it realized that the Muslim shock wave was becoming ever stronger, in Lebanon as for other Churches of the Middle East. In short, when they studied the numbers, the awareness grew. The Synod of the Eastern Churches celebrated last October was important. If only because the media all over the world discussed the state of things. We are all awaiting Pope Benedict XVI’s exhortation. It’s not inconceivable that what’s happening in the Middle East and North Africa will bring some good. I’m convinced that the young people we’ve seen in the public squares want freedom and work. Rightly so. And that this yearning for democracy could also help the Cristians”.

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