Pope John Paul II, the Apostolic Churches and Lebanon

+ Gregory John Mansour,
Bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn
Holy Week 2011

One sign of holiness is the desire and ability in a person to love the world as God so loves. This theme is an entire symphony in the life of Pope John Paul II, played out in many of his efforts to reach out to others: his profound insights given over years of Wednesday Audiences and other writings, his fruitful outreach (leading up to the 2000 Jubilee) to all those who have felt they were far from the Church, and his love and insight into the role and importance of the Apostolic Churches. In all these areas, the Holy Father was both prophetic and courageous.
As a Maronite Catholic, I would like to reflect on his love for the Apostolic Churches, especially as this theme played out in his wise and prudent desire to convoke the Synod for Lebanon in 1995.
Pope John Paul II, like his predecessor Pope Paul VI, envisioned the Synod of Bishops as a means to continue the springtime renewal of the Church begun with the Second Vatican Council. There have been twenty five Synods since 1965, some based on different themes, such as the Family, the Eucharist, and the Word of God, others based on territorial considerations, such as the Synod for Africa, Asia, The Americas, Europe and the Middle East. In 1991 Pope John Paul II announced his desire to convoke a Synod for Lebanon, unique because it was the only time a Synod focused on just one country.

Pope John Paul II developed the extremely popular moral conception that “Lebanon is more than a country, it is a mission.” He viewed Lebanese society as a model for religious and cultural plurality, and Islamo-Christian dialogue at the level of life, culture and politics. For a man who grew up in mostly Latin Catholic Poland the Holy Father went beyond his cultural comfort level and developed a love for the Churches of the East and for the country of Lebanon that was refreshing and surprising to say the least. Some attribute his love for Lebanon to his gratitude for having accepted so many Polish seminarians and priests who need shelter during the Nazi and later Communist oppression of the Church. The Holy Father knew of them personally and mentioned this during his Lebanon visit.

Likewise, the Pope expressed his respect for Lebanon in many diplomatic and ecclesial interventions since his earliest days after his pontifical election in October, 1978. However, the succession of wars in Lebanon, started in 1975, and caused by internal, regional and international interferences, prevented any intervention. When weapons were silenced in the Fall of 1990, Pope John Paul II was quick to call for a Synod for Lebanon. He did this June 12, 1991, and followed his convocation by a message to all the Lebanese people as well as a letter to the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon (July 1991).

The Synod’s objective was simple: spiritual renewal with penance and reconciliation within Lebanese society and a new solidarity among all the Lebanese. The Synod was addressed directly to the faithful of the Catholic Church - Maronite, Melkite, Armenian, Syriac, Chaldean and Latin - and indirectly to the four Orthodox Churches - Antiochene, Armenian and Syriac - as well as to Assyrian and Evangelical Christians. The Synod aimed to establish with all Christians a bond of prayer, consultation and cooperation. Also, Muslim communities - Sunni, Shiite and the Druze - were invited to the Synod in order to help both Catholics and Muslims understand the meaning of the Synod and to better cooperate together in overcoming misunderstandings and obstacles.
The Pope’s visit to Lebanon May 10 and 11, 1997 to celebrate the closure of the Synod for Lebanon and to deliver the Apostolic Exhortation had a tremendous effect on promoting Lebanon, the country, as a message and an ideal model to the East and the West. Likewise, on the ecclesial level, a renewal of Christians had begun by their working together in better harmony. They became more aware of their spiritual, social, cultural and political role in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East as well as of their apostolic mission. The upcoming beatification of Pope John Paul II May 1, 2011 will attract thousands of Lebanese.
The recent Synod for the Middle East held in October 2010, an amazing celebration of unity in diversity which brought such hope to Christians of the Middle East, was greatly helped by the Synod for Lebanon held fifteen years earlier (along with the follow-up Special Assembly in Lebanon convoked for all the Eastern Churches in 1999). The solidarity, cooperation and friendships that were formed before, during, and after the Synod for Lebanon allowed the 2010 Synod the special graces needed to deepen communion and make better the witness.
Another grace directly attributable to the intervention of Pope John Paul II in Lebanon was just recently celebrated March 25, 2011: the enthronement of the new Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter Rai. On this day, the Feast of the Annunciation, which for the last two years has been an officially established Christian-Muslim holiday in Lebanon, the background was set for the enthronement and the person enthroned as Patriarch, with his brother bishops surrounding him, with representatives of every Muslim and Christian communities present, and with every political leader likewise present, was the one whom Pope John Paul II had chosen twenty years previously to coordinate the beginning steps of the Synod for Lebanon, and who considers himself, along with the present writer, a spiritual son of Pope John Paul II.

These and many more graces were the result of the prophetic and courageous vision of one holy man who loved the world as God loves, who recognized in the Apostolic Churches of the Middle East a treasure, and who had the conviction and courage to call them not only to a greater Catholic-Orthodox unity, but also to better witness to non Christians the immeasurable treasures of Christ.