A Maronite Night to Remember
by Gail Deibler Finke
“We will remember this day as long as we live,” Fr. George Hajj said, near tears, in an address to a banquet hall filled with jubilant Maronite Catholics from Cincinnati and Dayton, as well as visitors from Columbus, Cleveland, Youngstown, Washington, and Lexington; and to the head of the Maronite Church.
His Beatitude Mar Bashara Peter, Cardinal Rai, the Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church on Earth, beamed from across the hall, where he sat at a long table on a raised dais with Bishop Joe Binzer, Maronite Bishop Elias Zaidan, and other distinguished guests.
In between, several hundred cheered and clapped. It was the culmination of a long day that began with morning prayer and a conference at the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Clifton/Cincinnati); continued after a break with a Pontifical Divine Liturgy concelebrated by Cincinnati’s bishops and numerous priests, Roman and Maronite, at St. Anthony of Padua Church (Walnut Hills, Cincinnati); and was ending at a dim hotel dining room after cocktails, photographs with the Patriarch, and dinner — American food, not Lebanese (“I get Middle Eastern food all the time,” a Monsignor from Youngstown’s Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon joked, “it’s the last thing I want to eat while I’m out!”
At the podium, Fr. Hajj was holding back tears. “You are no longer a face on the internet, or a name in the intentions,,” he said. “You have been here, with us.”
One of more than 20 rites that make up the universal Catholic Church, the Maronite Church was founded by St. Peter in the city of Antioch (then in Turkey), and for many centuries has been centered in Lebanon. Many of the diners spoke Arabic, and when His Beatitude finally rose to speak — crossing the hall with his arms outstretched, while men leaped to their feet to twirl their napkins over their heads — he spoke in that language. Another bishop translated and, as he has a lively sense of humor, the laughs came in waves: first from the Arabic speakers, then the English speakers.
Cardinal Rai’s earlier talk had been about war, persecution, refugees, and faith. That night it was all encouragement: for the growing parish at St. Anthony of Padua; for the enthusiastic new mission church, St. Ignatius of Antioch in Dayton (OH) and its young pastor, Fr. Guy Sarkis; for the people from Columbus hoping to form a parish; for the Church’s American headquarters in Los Angeles.
“All these people don’t come to everything,” one diner confided. “Some of them you see just a few times a year,” just like people at Roman rite parishes. They all came out to see the 77th successor of St. Peter — he has more than one — who even today takes the name Peter to symbolize that, like the pope, he is in Peter’s place.
They cheered for their parish representatives, they cheered for Fr. Hajj, they cheered for Fr. Sarkis, they cheered for their lives in a country far from Lebanon that lets them live their ancient faith, and they cheered for their very own Peter.
And so did I, very glad I had the blessing to be among them.
Gail Deibler Finke is Senior Editor of The Catholic Beat.
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