Growing up in the Maronite Church by Bridget Shaia ’15
Although I now attend Mass at AQ every Sunday, I grew up going to a Maronite Catholic church with my family at home in Richmond, Virginia. The Maronite Church is one of 21 Eastern Rite Catholic Churches united with Rome. While most Catholics in the United States belong to the Western or Latin Catholic Church, these 21 rites are also fully Catholic and can be found in certain countries and immigrant communities. Many of the Eastern Catholic churches split from Rome at some point in history and have since resumed union with Rome, but the Maronites are one of two that have never broken from the Roman Catholic Church.
The origins of these Eastern rites can be traced geographically to a specific country or region, although all have ties to one of four major locations: Alexandria, Armenia, Constantinople (now Istanbul), or Antioch. The Maronites trace their roots to the country of Lebanon, and prior to that, to the city of Antioch, where Jesus’ followers were first called Christians. Many of the countries where these churches were founded are also home to an Orthodox branch of Christianity that never resumed union with Rome. For example, the Greek Orthodox Church is a counterpart to the Greek Catholics. Since the Maronites never split from Rome, they are the only Eastern Rite church without an Orthodox counterpart.
The Maronite Church was founded in the late fourth century by a Syrian hermit, St. Maron, and was later strengthened by the leadership of St. John Maron, the patriarch of Antioch from 685 to 707 AD. The Maronites endured a long history of conflict with various empires until 1943 when Lebanon became fully independent. Maronites now make up 22% of the Lebanese population, and Maronite churches can be found on almost every city street corner and in almost every small mountain village. The percentage of Maronites in Lebanon used to be much higher; there was a mass exodus of Christians from the country during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), during which many Maronites immigrated to the United States.
The Maronite Church today is led by Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, who serves under Pope Francis as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. There are now more than three million Maronites in the world, and more of them reside outside of Lebanon than within its borders. There are two eparchies (dioceses) in the United States, comprising around 60 parishes. There are also many Maronites in Brazil, Argentina, France, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Mexico.
So you may ask, what’s the point? Why does it matter that there are 21 other kinds of Catholic churches? Well, in 1995, St. John Paul II called for the Church to “breathe with her two lungs!” and he urged Latin Rite Catholics to bridge the knowledge gap that exists between the Eastern and Western wings of the Church. In the same encyclical letter, he described the Eastern churches as “a special witness to that diversity in unity which adds to the beauty of Christ’s Church.” So it is this richness of tradition and added diversity and history that the Eastern Churches bring to the greater Catholic Church.
These differences in tradition are not differences in doctrine or theology, but simply evidence that the customs of Christianity have evolved in unique ways around the world. To give a few examples, my favorite part of the Maronite Mass is the
consecration, because it is recited by the priest in the language of Aramaic, rather than in English. Aramaic was the language that Jesus and his disciples would have spoken to each other, and the language in which Jesus would have said those words at the Last Supper. Preserving this liturgical language helps to preserve a vital part of Jesus’ culture and heritage. Communion is also given by intinction, where it is dipped by the priest into the wine and then placed on the tongue, rather than in the hands, to further signify its sanctity. The music and prayers during the Mass are rooted in the Eastern tradition, and certain practices like the sign of peace are slightly different.
There are a few other notable differences in the Maronite Church, as seen in the liturgical calendar and the sacraments. Lent begins on Ash Monday rather than Wednesday and includes all Sundays, encompassing fifty days instead of forty. Advent is replaced by the six weeks of the Season of Announcements during which various events leading up to the birth of Christ are commemorated. Additionally, the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, called Chrismation, are often given to a baby at the same time.
While the outward appearance of these traditions is markedly different from the Latin Rite Catholic Church many of us are used to, the principles remain the same. I am still just as Catholic, but the Catholic Church does indeed have two lungs, East and West. And it is by educating ourselves about the Eastern lung of our Church that we may better understand the diversity that lies in the unity of Rome.
Pope John Paul II. “Ut Unum Sint.” Letter. 25 May 1995.