What is the Maronite Church?
The Maronites as an Antioch Apostolic Church within the Syriac family:
The Maronites' name is derived from the name of the Monastery of Saint Maron of Qorosh (who died in 410) that was built right after the Chalcedon Council (451) in Ephemia in Second Syria according to the
Roman regulations in force then.
This monastery is duly considered to be the cradle of the Syriac Church of Antioch that would be built around it as an independent Patriarchate in the eighteenth century. Before organizing themselves in an independent ecclesiastical congregation with a monastic nature, the Maronites were and still are the sons of the Apostolic Church of Antioch with its Syriac branch. In order to know about the theology of the Church with the Maronites, we would rather read the prayers of the Renewal Sunday with which our Church opens its ritual cycle on Christ's mystery in all the salvation events. It is worth mentioning that the Antioch and Syriac roots of our Church constitute for us today a sort of acknowledgment and appreciation of the common heritage to all Antioch and Syriac branches.
Returning to that common heritage is one of the surest ways to restore the expected Antioch unity for a common Christian presence in the Arab Orient and the Spread.
The Maronite Church is Chalcedonian:
By saying that the Maronite Church is of Chalcedonian belief we prove that it has a theological communication with the Monastery of Saint Maron where the monks have been known to defend the Christly teaching (i.e. the teaching related to the person of Jesus Christ) as it was conceived by the fathers of the Chalcedon Council in 451 in accordance with the dogmatic message addressed in this sense by Pope Leon the Great in 449 to Flavius patriarch of Constantinople. This teaching that also constitutes a victory of the Antioch theological trend saying that Christ has two full natures, one divine and one human, united in the person of Jesus Christ and that they remain separate with that unity. This
is an assertion of the human nature of Jesus Christ and the reality of the incarnation of the Son of God for our Salvation.
The Chalcedonian belief was undoubtedly an essential factor for the Maronites in terms of promoting ecclesiastical communion with Rome in the twelfth century after a long period of mutual breaking-off.
It is true that the Chalcedonian belief is one of the constant theological beliefs for the Maronites, however, one cannot forget the ecumenical dialogues that have been taking place for decades between the opponents and followers of the Chalcedonian belief, by virtue of which the two parties acknowledge that the Christly faith is one in its essence and varied in its expressions. This ecumenical situation pushes
the Maronites to remain attached to the theological dialogue and to promote it with the family of the Eastern Orthodox churches (formerly known as non Chalcedonian churches: the Copts, the Syriacs, the
Armenians, the Orthodox Ethiopians) in order to overcome our old theological divergences that hinder the achievement of a common evangelical witness.
The Maronites a Patriarchal Monastic Church:
With the establishment of the Maronite Church within the Monastery of Saint Maron in the eighth century, it emerged as an independent ecclesiastical body within the Antioch Sea while being distinct from the
Orthodox Syriac Church on one hand and the Melkites (Greek orthodox) on the other hand. Such a founding event naturally constitutes a final result of a theological, ecclesiastical and social path in the Melkite Sea of Antioch, the causes and results of which are not yet clarified enough to draw the features of our Church at this delicate stage. In this context, and in accordance with the proposals of the first session in June 2003, competent people in Maronite history will have to clarify this track and its
implications on the division of the Melkite Sea of Antioch into the Melkites and the Maronites. At the ecclesiastical level, the emergence of the Maronite Patriarchate was not the result of separatist monastic
movement in the Antioch Sea. The theological trend represented by the bishop and the monks of Saint Maron monastery was attracting many bishops within the Antioch zone. This is an indication that the monastery of Saint Maron and its monks were not an isolated group; they were rather inside the official Antioch structure via the bishop of their monastery and many bishops. From the above, we notice that the monastic life in the Syriac Antioch vision in general and the Maronite vision in particular was by no means contrary to the ecclesiastical care requirements, it was rather a basis and a source for those requirements. By choosing to serve the episcopate or the patriarchate, the monks continued to pursue the monastic life they had chosen for themselves, which means that the monastic life is a pastoral life, just as much as it is an evangelical life.
The Maronite Church in the Roman Communion:
The Communion between our Patriarchal Maronite Church and the Roman Holy Sea is one of the most basic and ancient elements of our ecclesiastical identity. The beginnings and causes of this Communion
are controversial, but for our church tradition it is one of the theological established conditions for a correct understanding of the Church mystery and mission in the world. While the Maronites consider that the one, universal, sacred, apostolic church of the Christ is present in their Church, as it is asserted by their liturgical prayer, they also follow an old ecclesiastical tradition common to the East and the West, by entrusting the Bishop of Rome, the heir of Peter, crown of the apostles, with the task to preserve the unity of the seeable Church of the Christ and to serve the communion among Churches. However, the idea of Communion between the Roman Sea and the Maronites during the second millennium gave them a dual concept of the Church that was actually a complex mixture of an Eastern concept by the independent patriarchal Church that they had followed during the first millennium on one hand and a Roman concept by the Catholic Church by virtue of which they become an integral part of it, with all its consequences in terms of submission and obedience to the Bishop of Rome, the one who has the
authority and the dominion over all Christians, clergy and parishioners. The interventions in the first session of our Patriarchal Council stressed the numerous positive aspects of the history of Communion between the Maronites and the Roman Sea that allowed our Church to accomplish its mission in its milieu with great dynamism and efficiency through its openness to the West with all its scientific and intellectual potential. These interventions also revealed that the adoption of the Roman concept of the Church, in some cases, as the sole standard in this Communion practice had a strong impact on introducing "latinization" to the different ecclesiastical sectors especially the theology of sacraments;
which made the Maronites feel out of place as far as their traditions and liturgy are concerned. The application of this concept contributed to a weaker unity of the local patriarchal Church for the Maronites by limiting the authority of the Patriarch, symbol of their unity. However, the principle of Communion between the Roman Sea and the Catholic Eastern Churches, including our Maronite Church, has opened a new era since the Vatican II (1962-1965) that established a theological concept of the Church – Communion, which represents in all its aspects a biblical tradition of the Fathers of the Church that was common to the East and the West during the first millennium. The interventions of the first session of our Council wished, on the basis of the teachings and ecclesiastical orientations of Vatican II, to pursue the work with the competent Roman authorities in order to restore complete authority to the Maronite Patriarchate over the Maronites in the Antioch space and the Spread while taking into consideration the principle of Roman primacy. This asserts the principle of unity in diversity and a promotion of the spirit
of communion among the followers of the united Maronite Church as a contribution to the mission it was entrusted with in its environment."
Maronite Synod 2003
Opening address of his Beatitude and Em. Nasrallah-Boutros Sfeir «The Maronite Church in its Worldwide Expansion»
Reverend Mother Superiors and Father Superiors,
We have seized the opportunity of the presence of the Maronite Archbishops of the United States among us to hold this meeting which revolves around four issues:
- The Maronite Identity in the past and the present, and in Lebanon and the World of expansion.
- Pastoral and apostolic work as to the role of the clergy, orders, ministerial formation, the situation of the parish, and the laity.
- The Structures; that is, organizing periodical meetings of Archbishops in the Expansion and coordinating with other Bishops.
- The Strategies, in order to reinforce the role of the Maronite Church in the countries of expansion.
These issues are to be dealt in our meetings in order to reach ideas that will enable us to set an applicable plan of action. For that, we have chosen that our speech be restricted to some approaches to the before-mentioned issues, without delving into them, so as not to forestall the discussions which will take place in the dialogue committees or in the public meetings.
First: The Maronite Identity
The Maronite Identity is by no means simple; it has become rather complex especially after the Maronites have spread to the four corners of the world. Since identity denotes the person whom one is dealing
with, it is essential to familiarize oneself with that person’s origins, background, country, religion, culture, position, and other characteristics. Thus, the identity of a Maronite can be defined as one who belongs to
the Maronite Syriac Antiochene Catholic Church.
It is well-known that Maronitism was established in the East and then spread to the world. So, in order for Maronitism to remain Maronite, we must differentiate between essence and appearance.
Essence means being Maronite in faith, dogma, conduct, and culture – knowing that culture emanates from religion and forms civilization. Language is a tool for expression and differs from country to country
and from condition to condition. It is a cultural element and not culture itself. Consequently, a Maronite is a Maronite regardless of his/her spoken or liturgical language. Whether in Latin America, North
America, or Europe, as long as one is following the Maronite faith and tradition; he/she is a Maronite.
Appearance is all that is acquired from the milieu one is present in. So, it is not surprising that we do not find complete social congruence between the Maronites living in the expansion who are of Syrian,
Egyptian, or Cypriot descent, and those who are of Lebanese origins.
Scientists have proven that this differentiation holds true not only in humans, but also in the world of fauna and flora. It is said that if a certain animal inhabits an environment different from its own, it looses
some characters of its appearance, yet maintains its own nature. A sheep in Lebanon, per say, has a fat tail. When moved to Argentina, for example, the fat tail is replaced with an ordinary tail. The same goes
for plants: If we take the Italian fenocchio (commonly known as Florence fennel) and plant it in Lebanon, it remains as is in the first year; but changes in the second to become more of an onion! These examples
were merely stated for your amusement, but they are apparently true, nonetheless.
Anyway, this differentiation must be taken into consideration in all identities, since the Maronite identity does not differ from others.
Second: Pastoral and Apostolic Work
The parish plays an undoubtedly central role in transmitting religious principles onto the new generations and in reminding the current generations of the importance of preserving these principles. In our
opinion, the parish and apostolic work remain the same whether in the East or the West even though methods, organization, and languages differ. Liturgy, with its prayers, hymns, and movements, distinguishes the Maronite Church – A Maronite cannot but be influenced by it, and feel more harmonized to it than other liturgies. Its translation into different
languages does not touch upon its essence; Nonetheless, Syriac preserves its authenticity. We do wish to safeguard this language, at least in the East, just as the Armenians held on to theirs (although they have mastered several other languages) making it an essential element that kept them from not fully melting into their new environments.
As for the role of priests and monks, it is primordial. Despite the laity’s necessary role in the Church, they cannot replace the clergy in all parish issues. Since monastic formation is different from ministerial
formation, monks serving the parish must be trained to perform such service so that it may be fruitful and successful.
We mean by structures the way to arrange periodical meetings of the Archbishops of the expansion, organize eparchies, and coordinate between Bishops. All are important matters that the Canonic Law
Journal has already looked into and advised on how to apply them. The Maronite Archbishops in the countries of expansion are members of the Bishops’ Council of the country they are in. So, the Maronites
in the expansion are not alien to their country of dwelling. They have the duty of allegiance to the State, citizenship, and others.
We all know that periodical meetings of the Maronite Archbishops in the expansion might be beneficial, but are they feasible and practical especially those vast distances exist between the countries of expansion? Yearly meetings do present an opportunity for the Archbishops to look into issues of common interest, but this should only be done if they desire so. I consider that the yearly meeting held
between all Archbishops, here and in the expansion, is highly constructive for all.
As to organizing eparchies and coordinating between Bishops, we all know that the Canonic Law Journal has laid down the means and methods to be followed.
Fourth: the Strategies
It is meant by strategies the search for a way to reinforce the role of the Maronite Church in the countries of expansion; this task is by no means easy. The Maronite Church, as all other Eastern Churches
established in the expansion, has faced many hardships in locating its children and identifying them due to the vast distances that separate them and the insufficiency of priests. We would like to note that there
are still vocations to priesthood in Maronite families in the expansion although not as many as in the past, and they often join the Roman Catholic Church which facilitates attaining their calling: The Maronite Church does not have a seminary nor elementary schools that aim at upbringing students on the Maronite spirit and tradition other than in the United States. This is so because the immense number of emigrants to the United States, and their gathering in some specific cities, made it possible for the Maronite Church to find new parishes to tend to and to help in maintaining faith and tradition.
May God crown your efforts, research, discussions, and studies by success. Perhaps they might help in decreasing emigration from Lebanon and the East.
And may your efforts reach their intended results by the grace of God, so that Maronites adhere to and live by Maronite Catholic principles wherever they may be.