Maroniteness ‘is a way of life, of grace’
A CONVERSATION with BISHOP AD ABIKARAM,
spiritual leader of Australia’s Maronite Catholics
Retrieved from Catholic Weekly on January 15, 2008
By BRIAN DAVIES
13 January, 2008
“We Maronites are unique. We are Antiochian, Syriac, Phoenician and Lebanese ... these are our roots
and they should be preserved for our children’s children; but the Maronites of the ‘Expansion’, the great
migration to Australia and the Americas, know that their new homes are permanent homes and their
existence as an integral part of the society they live in. However they remain always in unity with
the mother Church in Lebanon. Migration brought Maronite spirituality to the world, but what defines
a Maronite is not primarily being Lebanese; rather ‘Maronite’ is a spiritual reality that has roots well
beyond Lebanese culture. One does not have to be of Lebanese descent to be a Maronite. In Australia
we are a Syriac Church of the Antiochian tradition in a Western country.”
Q. But we are all mutually Catholics?
Yes, of course; the Catholic Church is made up of a diversity of traditions not all uniform in practice
but all united in one faith. Differences grew up around the four important centres of the early Church
in the then Roman Empire: Rome of course, Antioch in Syria, now Antakya in Turkey; Alexandria
in Egypt and Byzantium, later Constantinople, now Istanbul. Each had a patriarch or leader
of their community
So for a substantial part of the first 1000 years the Roman Latin rite was simply one of many
that flourished in the universal Catholic Church. During that time the Roman rite in western Europe
and Britain was far outnumbered by the congregations of differing rites in the Eastern Church.
Our Maronite church coalesced around St Maroun, a Syriac-speaking hermit on a mountain not far from
Antioch to whom people flocked because of his holiness, miraculous cures and saintliness that inspired
his contemporaries – circa 350–400AD – to establish monasteries and to convert people to Christianity
throughout the Patriarchate of Antioch.
Two hundred years later the Byzantine Emperor, opposed to Antioch’s newly-elected Maronite Patriarch
John Maroun, sent his army to capture him. The Patriarch fled south to Lebanon where the Church many
times was to come under Islamic persecution, but it remained and remained steadfast, a refuge for other
Christians and a stronghold.
Q. A dramatic swoop through history, but now 1500 years has elapsed – what are today’s priorities?
New Times – New Horizons: that’s my pastoral program, how to face challenges … how not to be
absorbed by the secular society surrounding us. For us Maronites, it is our spirituality, culture
and traditions as one – to know it, to love it, to live it and the family is the major place where it can
be lived. John Paul II said the Church is in the family, that the future of the Church passes through
the family. We have to live our faith, our Catholicism, our Maroniteness, our Lebanese-ness in the family.
If they don’t live it there, they won’t live it anywhere
Maroniteness is a way of life: of grace, of thinking, of praying, of talking, of relating to each other.
This is the heritage; and if we live it well, we will be good Australian Lebanese Catholic Maronites
and with grace we will win the future. Transmission of the faith is through the family. A good family
passes the faith onto the next one that grows from the original family. But to get that family we have
to work for it and work on it, pastorally. This is my vision and this is my work in the diocese. In each
Maronite parish in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne we strive to have about 14 different pastoral
committees of priests and lay people working on issues according to the ages or needs
of the parishioners. The faith is lived in the families and the families then flesh out and constitute
Q. So New Times – New Horizons is actually a summons, a trumpet call to families.
The family is the nucleus of society. If we are to follow John Paul II’s guidance that the family
is the bridge to the future of the Catholic Church our pastoral work must stress the family, the place
where the future is being prepared; then what sort of Maronite family should we have? The family is also
the means of the transmission of the traditions of our Maronite Church, because in the family you have
life, natural life – without any artificial elements; in the family we live our faith, and then in the parish,
praying community and a Eucharistic community.
Q. How great are the differences between the Roman liturgy and the Maronite liturgy?
Language of course and different aspects and spiritual emphasis evolved from the Antiochian Church
and St Maroun’s way of life as a hermit – solitary, frugal and austere, with a spiritual and pastoral
ministry to pilgrim visitors. With baptism in the Maronite rite confirmation is also given at the same
ceremony. In the Eucharistic liturgy the Father and the Son are never invoked without the Holy Spirit
being mentioned. After the consecration the Holy Spirit is also invoked to change the elements into
the body and blood of Christ our Lord. The liturgy is very symbolic, with much use of incense and a lot
of singing and chanting. It is marked by a passion for Scripture, poetry and mystery and with fervent
Marian devotion. Blessed Mary is mentioned in every liturgy. Under persecution from their early days,
Maronites always take refuge under Mary’s protection. The Rosary has been a favourite prayer
of Maronites for centuries. Maronites are sometimes called the Irish of the East, similar in tradition
and spirituality to the Irish tradition.
Q. What was your own upbringing like?
I was born in 1937 in the village of Cornet Chehwan 600 metres up in the mountains just north of Beirut
, a poor family: my father was a shoemaker and my mother a seamstress. My older sister is a nun
witnessing for Christ in Algeria – a tough task. My brother married a British girl and they and their family
live in England; my other sister, Aida, is with me here in Australia, helping me. When I was 10 I went
to the minor seminary nearby, living in and every three months going home for a week.
Q. So where did your vocation come from?
I think I owe my vocation to my family, especially my mother. She led us in prayer. Every evening, every
single night, we would genuflect and say the rosary before going to bed and when we woke up, each day
we’d say our morning prayers; and when I was seven I served every day as the altar boy at morning
Mass at the parish church …
For Ad Abikaram, after the minor seminary, the major seminary – run by the Jesuits – and university
followed, as did master’s degrees in theology, morals and ethics. Much of his early education was
in French, his second language (owing to Lebanon’s historic French ties). The Jesuits’ presence stemmed
from 1584 when Pope Gregory XIII founded the Maronite Seminary in Rome, under the care
of the Jesuits – “a college-seminary for the Maronites of Mount Lebanon who are holding fast
to the Catholic faith and to unity with the Roman Church”, the Pope declared. Ad Abikaram was ordained
in 1962 and then sent to the US in 1963-65 to complete a Master’s degree in education and philosophy
so that he could open an English-speaking school on his return. His subsequent Australian connection
has an historic synchronicity.
Q. Ten years later, you came to Australia – in 1973 – when the Eparchy or Diocese of St Maroun was
Yes, I did, for about a year as secretary/assistant to the first Bishop, Abdo Khalife, to get the eparchy
going. You have to remember the first Maronites arrived in Australia in the 1850s, landing in Fremantle
or Adelaide because of the shipping routes and routinely tending to join the local Catholic Church,
although in Adelaide from 1888 a Maronite priest, Fr Kayrouz, ministered to local Maronites until 1929.
Meanwhile Sydney overlapped. Maronites there wrote to the Patriarch asking for help and in May 1893
Frs Yazbeck and Dahdah arrived and eventually took over an old chapel in Redfern dedicated on January
10, 1897, as St Maroun’s*. There were scattered arrivals of more priests in the following decades
and in 1950s Melbourne the laity wrote to the Patriarch and Fr Paul El-Khoury arrived and Our Lady
of Lebanon Church, Carlton, was consecrated in 1959. By then however the second or third generation
of Maronites had melted into the local Latin church; indeed many youngsters of Maronite backgrounds
became priests, brothers and nuns in the Roman rite. But the Maronite ‘expansion’ expanded
and it became clear Australia needed a fully fledged, properly organised Maronite church. Enter Bishop
Khalife, his successor Bishop Joseph Hitti in 1991 and now, since 2002, myself – not because of any
talent of mine but simply as a servant of God.
Q. In just over 35 years the Eparchy has opened 10 Maronite parishes, four schools and half a dozen
Mass ‘centres’ and an Australian congregation of well over 150,000. How do you feel about the future?
I am very optimistic about the future; let me give you an indicator. That 2001–05/6 survey that showed
that, except for the Catholic diocese of Darwin, attendance in Christian churches in Australia – including
Catholic churches – had fallen. In the Maronite Church we had an increase of 32 per cent. I think of all
the laity, priests, monks and nuns we have working in our parishes, I feel blessed. I would say we have
about 20 to 25 per cent of our people at church. Every Sunday evening we have between 3000 and 4000
young people at Mass in our churches at Harris Park, Punchbowl, Thornleigh, six or seven hundred
at the smaller churches. At the Easter ceremonies the numbers will swell to seven and eight thousand.
Unique. This year, 2008, on Palm Sunday (March 16) we are going to have the World Youth Day Cross
at Our Lady of Lebanon Church, Harris Park, and on Good Friday (March 21) at St Charbel’s, Punchbowl.
We will have thousands and thousands of people present.
*St Maroun’s, Redfern, now rebuilt as a spacious cathedral and Heritage Centre, was dedicated
a Maronite church 101 years ago this month.