17 September 2012
A crowd of at least 350,000 people is seen in an aerial view as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Beirut on 16 September. (photo: CNS/pool via Reuters)
Yesterday, in the presence of some 300,000 people from all over the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI formally ended his historic visit to Lebanon with a Mass. The main purpose of the trip was to bring to a conclusion the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which began in 2010. He drew that synod to a close when he signed and delivered his Apostolic Exhortation on Friday at the Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa. But Sunday was really the high point of the pope’s pastoral visit and it fleshed out so much of what this trip was all about.
The importance of this Mass was obvious to the government as well: security was tight and traffic, controlled. As Issam and I traveled to the outdoor venue, we passed thousands of soldiers and many more thousands of police, auxiliary traffic and safety personnel and many thousands of most helpful ushers, guides and crowd control volunteers. To put it mildly, Lebanon did itself extremely proud with the amazing organization and planning that was evidenced each day — especially Sunday.
The site chosen for this Mass was itself an amazing story, as it had previously been a garbage dump that was transformed into a flattened landfill alongside the Mediterranean Sea, offering a perfect setting for this liturgy: the sea to the west and the skyline of a growing downtown Beirut to the east and south. The government, Maronite Patriarch Bechara told me, had paid for this transformation, including the newly completed asphalting of the huge gathering area. And there was a magnificent altar built large enough for all the bishops, clergy and special guests.
The sanctuary was beautifully adorned with flora, Arabic art forms and, in a special way, some cedars of Lebanon. Additionally, there were giant television screens that were place hundreds of yards out into the crowds and elevated speakers all around so everyone could be a part of the action.
When Pope Benedict XVI arrived, he was transferred into the popemobile and began circulating and weaving through the throng to emotional cheers and chants. He had come to be with everyone and even a glimpse of him from far away made the long journey and the blazing sun worth it. The congregation loved the pope!
When he finally came to a stop in front of the altar and popped into open view, the throng went crazy; this is the pope in our presence. The Catholic Church is alive and well in Lebanon and in the Middle East.
I was given a most privileged seat right with the bishops and the Orthodox patriarchs and bishops in full view of His Holiness. I also was able to take some great photos. But, to be honest, photos and video did not do justice to this event. As they often say: “You had to be there.”
This liturgy reminded us so completely that this is the unity and oneness that we all want in our church and in our world. Pope Benedict XVI was the celebrant and in a way we were all his concelebrants — celebrating the love that Jesus has for each of us.
In his homily he returned to the oft-mentioned challenge not to be afraid, but to be faithful to the calling of our Christian heritage. He invited especially the young to be vigilant against the culture of drugs, alcohol and violence. He mentioned Syria again and invited everyone to work and pray for peace. He stated very strongly that we Christians in this part of the world do not ask for any special privileges, but the basic right to believe and to freely practice our faith.
I was overwhelmed by the universal character of this Mass: There were Latin hierarchs dressed rather uniformly, Eastern Catholic patriarchs and bishops dressed each in their very colorful and distinctive liturgical robes, Orthodox brother bishops celebrating with us, representatives of government, and most of all, the faithful, mostly Lebanese, but many others who had traveled from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, the Arab Peninsula, Turkey, and other countries. There were Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and Muslims. For this solemn occasion, we were all brothers and sisters who want peace and mutual respect. And one man brought us together.
For the distribution of Holy Communion, a cadre of several hundred priests, accompanied by attendants holding huge white umbrellas over the priests’ heads, made their way through the crowds. Each communion station was thus very visible and distribution was most orderly.
At the end of Mass, the Holy Father summarized the points he had been making at each event and he thanked the Lebanese for their overwhelming welcome. He seemed genuinely touched during this pastoral visit.
Given the violence reported in the news these past few days, his visit and his message of peace resonated in the hearts and souls of Christians and all people of good will in the Middle East.
During these days, so many commented that they have renewed hope and confidence in the providence of God. But Pope Benedict XVI, this soft-spoken ambassador of peace, invited us in celebrating our Christian heritage to follow the example of Christ and be messengers of peace.
This whole experience in Lebanon and with the Christian family from all over the Middle East has been memorable. I have been richly blessed in being here and honored to share my humble reflections with you each day. Now I return to New York, departing late Monday night.
Thanks for being such an important member of our CNEWA family. So many bishops from all over the Middle East have expressed their profound thanks to you for your generosity and for your prayerful support. They have all promised to place you in their prayers.
The Holy Father is now back at his residence at Castel Gandolfo, and I hope he gets a well-deserved rest. But he’s a busy man, and I wouldn’t make any bets on that.
I write this in the midst of the cedars of Lebanon. God bless each of you. God bless Lebanon. God bless the church in the Middle East, and God bless this man of peace, Pope Benedict XVI.
17 September 2012
Tags: Lebanon Middle East Pope Benedict XVI Msgr. John E. Kozar
Pope Benedict XVI looks on as dancers leave the stage during his meeting with young people in the square outside the Maronite patriarch's residence in Bkerke, Lebanon, 15 September.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Saturday was a dramatic and long day — all shared with the youth of Lebanon. What an amazing day it was.
Issam Bishara and I arrived well before all the cardinals, patriarchs, bishops and dignitaries. But the venue was already teeming with young people — thousands of them. Part of the treat in arriving early was to have the opportunity to walk around with my camera and to meet so many of these terrific youth. They were so happy that I came from the United States to be with them and with the pope. Many of them wanted to be photographed with me, and I also enjoyed getting photo shots of many of them with their smiling faces and their spirit of joy and high energy in welcoming the pope.
The setting was itself exciting, located in front of the Maronite patriarchate in a large plaza next to a lovely new open-air chapel used for special ceremonies. The patriarch told me there were 13,000 rented chairs, but there were many more people than that present for this epic event.
Eight musical choirs and singing groups entertained and prepared the crowd for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. Everyone wore a cap with the papal insignia in the blistering sun. And many wore t-shirts with “Benoit 16” printed on the back — French is perhaps the most widely used Western language among Lebanese Christians.
After “warming up the audience” for more than four hours (and no one seemed to complain), the Holy Father arrived to a thunderous welcome as he approached the stage in his “popemobile.” The place went wild and he seemed to love every minute of it.
He was met by the president of the republic, who chose to sit down below the stage with the people, even though a special chair was reserved for him in front of the patriarchs; a nice touch for a man who seems very well thought of by the citizens of Lebanon. He himself is a Maronite Catholic, so this was on his “home turf.”
Speaking of patriarchs, they were all there with beaming smiles. Seeing them side by side, with the major Orthodox hierarchs immediately behind, it really presented a remarkable display of unity occasioned by the visit of this messenger of peace, Pope Benedict XVI.
Prior to the pope addressing all the youth assembled, we heard from two young people. One young man gave an impassioned plea to the Holy Father to bring unity to the church. He even offered a practical suggestion to the pope: “Holy Father, as a first step could you please consider having all the churches celebrate Easter on the same date?” He promised for all the youth present and all the Catholic youth of Lebanon that they would work hard to bring peace and unity to the world.
The pope seemed to be touched by his remarks and gave him a hug and held his hand and spoke to him for a minute or so, which is very unusual.
And how about the pope’s remarks? Well, he gave a very heartfelt talk to the young people reminding them how they are the future of Lebanon and how their efforts toward peace can have great impact for the entire Middle East. He encouraged the young not to be afraid. He also mentioned Syria and said: “The pope has not forgotten our brothers and sisters in Syria. They are in our hearts and are with us here.” We must pray for them and for the Syrian people. He also mentioned working with our Muslim brothers and sisters to make the world a better place. This seemed most timely as there were some ugly acts of violence and destruction on Friday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
An especially beautiful performance followed: A group of about 20 youngsters, all hearing- and speech-challenged kids, did a most expressive dance, using the reverberating beat felt on the stage floor to synchronize their delicate moves. Everyone, including the pope himself, was in awe of these beautiful young people.
I was very fortunate to be given better a better than I deserved, among a group of bishops. Seated next to me was Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop George Bakhouny from Tyre in southern Lebanon. He had hosted me during my previous visit last December and had himself visited us in our CNEWA office in May of this year. We had much to talk about and he introduced me to many bishops, especially Melkite and Maronite bishops. I also enjoyed some conversations with a number of patriarchs I had met and some Orthodox bishops.
To close the program, a famous Lebanese singer brought the crowd to their feet in a rendition of one of her classic hits. She seemed to be so honored to sing for the Holy Father, and the crowd was thrilled that she had been asked to do so.
It was an exhausting day, but one filled with so much joy and hope. And of course, the call to be peacemakers resounded at every turn.
On the way out of the venue, Issam and I had a huge challenge of navigating the crowd of thousands, all trying to fit into a rather narrow exit conduit. Two young girls insisted on being my “bodyguards,” and kept trying to open up the crowds for us, even though we were not in a hurry.
The church in Lebanon is very dynamic, and God rewards it with vocations and very committed youth. We need to pray for them, as they do for us, for we are loved as special friends — CNEWA was on the lips of many bishops and patriarchs. Thanks to all of you for allowing our good works to make a difference in this part of the world.
14 September 2012
Tags: Lebanon Pope Benedict XVI Msgr. John E. Kozar Patriarchs
Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, left, addresses Pope Benedict XVI and other church prelates at St. Paul’s Basilica in Harissa, Lebanon, 14 September. During the ceremony at the basilica, the pope signed the document summarizing the conclusion of the 2010 Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Today is the day that millions of people in Lebanon and the Middle East have been waiting for: The arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. He was scheduled to touch down at 1:45 in the afternoon and the excitement was building. Earlier this morning, there were already many military officials on the highway and at most of the intersections, getting in place for traffic control for the transfers of the pope from the airport to his residence at the nunciature perched high on a hill above Beirut.
I took advantage of the free morning to visit with Issam and CNEWA’s Pontifical Mission staff. We had a wonderful two-hour exchange that afforded me a great opportunity to share with them some of what I have experienced in my first year at the helm of CNEWA. They listened intently and offered some great insights and questions.
Since it is a very special time in Lebanon, I invited the staff to join me for lunch at a nearby restaurant — in honor of Pope Benedict XVI. We walked up the street to a nearby lunch place and enjoyed a meal together and continued with our sharing and telling of stories.
But we enjoyed a real bonus: While we were eating, the pope arrived at the airport and it was being broadcast live on a big screen television (in Arabic) on several local television stations. What a treat to eat and watch as his plane inched its way to the specially constructed reviewing stand. There, he was met by the president of Lebanon and his wife, the parliament’s speaker and his wife and the prime minister. And of course, the first to welcome the bishop of Rome to Lebanon was his own representative to this country, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia.
There were plenty of dignitaries representing all the major faiths and all the political parties and office holders. And there were plenty of excited and vocal youth with their colorful yellow and white matching outfits and hats.
The pope made his way along a parade route to his temporary residence high atop a hill overlooking Beirut, passing multitudes of waving and welcoming crowds. There were Catholics, Orthodox, Armenians, Muslims, Druze — it seemed like everyone was on the streets to greet Benedict XVI.
The first major event took place this evening at 6, the formal signing of the Apostolic Exhortation on the Middle East. Issam and I were privileged to be invited to this grand event, which took place at St. Paul Basilica, which is staffed by the Melkite Greek Catholic Paulist Fathers. The Byzantine-style church offered a beautiful and solemn setting for this formal signing of the exhortation. The Holy Father entered amidst a very strong welcome of applause and shouts in Italian of “Viva il Papa”!
He was surrounded by all the Catholic patriarchs of the Middle East, as well as the major archbishops of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches. Though based in southern India, these two churches of St. Thomas have large numbers of Catholics in the Persian Gulf, and their pastoral needs are considerable. Also prominent were leaders of the Orthodox churches and Druze, Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders. Also near to the pope were about two-hundred bishops from a number of countries in the Middle East. Yours truly was honored to be here representing all of you for this historic gathering with the Holy Father.
Introducing the Holy Father with a very energetic welcome was His Beatitude, Patriarch Gregory III of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. This beautiful church did justice to the solemn occasion as it is adorned with gorgeous mosaics with stunning detail and vivid colors.
Issam informed me that 31 years ago he was married at this lovely basilica, even though then it was not yet finished and lacked the luster of these priceless mosaics. So, this was indeed a special setting for him to join the Holy Father.
The pope did not speak long, but he invited those present, especially the church leaders, to put everything into the context of faith in God. More than his words and more than the document was the visible sign of unity by being in the presence of Peter. The vicar of Christ calls all of us to be one with Jesus and to share that love with all others. God is love, as we were reminded.
Given some of the violence during the past few days in Syria, Libya, Egypt and other neighboring countries, his call carries more meaning than ever. And the Catholic Church has much to contribute to the good of humanity. We do not need to think of ourselves as minorities against majorities, but as peacemakers who have much to contribute.
Joining the pope were some friends and great collaborators of CNEWA: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern churches, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem (who will be visiting us at CNEWA in New York next week) and some other bishops in the region. I had the opportunity to chat with them and Patriarch Gregory after the festivities.
Security is really tight and multilayered. Issam and I have been given the highest level of clearance, but there are still many checkpoints. The Lebanese are doing a wonderful job in all the planning and executing for this visit.
Tomorrow will be a super day for youth. We will gather in the early afternoon for a program by youth and then the pope will join us for the “Big Show” at 6. There will be dramatic music, lighting and lasers, filling the sky and many surprises I am sure — I can’t wait for tomorrow.
You are in my prayers, and I tell everyone that you send your love and good wishes to them and pray with them for the pope and for peace in the Middle East.
God bless Lebanon.
13 September 2012
Tags: Lebanon Middle East Christians Pope Benedict XVI Interreligious Msgr. John E. Kozar
Maronite Patriarch Bechara, left, walks with CNEWA President Msgr. John Kozar at the patriarchal seat of the Maronite Catholic Church in Bkerke, Lebanon, 13 September.
(photo: CNS/courtesy of Maronite Patriarchate)
I arrived at the Beirut Airport yesterday afternoon, where I was warmly welcomed by Issam Bishara, our regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. It was good to see Issam, and good to be back with my Lebanese family.
Along the route from the airport — which included passing through some obviously Hezbollah-friendly neighborhoods — there were many vivid reminders of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit, which is both pastoral and state, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Many papal flags adorn buildings and hang from poles, while huge banners featuring the pope’s portrait are seen everywhere. Front-page stories feature him, accompanied by glossy photos of the pope and major religious and political leaders. The press seems excited to welcome this messenger of peace.
And even at my hotel, located some 50 meters from our CNEWA offices in Beirut, I am welcomed and immediately asked as they see my Roman collar: “Are you here to be with Pope Benedict?” At breakfast, several waiters struck up a conversation, eager to hear more about this man of peace; they could not contain their excitement about his visit!
Issam had arranged a morning visit to a health dispensary in Rouweissat Ideidet, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. This very humble health care clinic is located in a very poor neighborhood, which is a microcosm of Lebanon — it has every religious and political group living in proximity, but not together.
Sister Hanan Youssef, who directs the dispensary, showed us a simple sign above the entrance of this facility that states: “Religion is for God; this facility is for everyone.” And that is the warm and loving tone set by these sisters, who care for the more than 100 refugees a day. About half of them are Iraqis. The others are mostly Syrians who have fled the violence there. Some of the Iraqis have been routed and victimized twice: once from their original homeland of Iraq after the persecution of Christians began following the 2003 war in Iraq, and now since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, where many took refuge. They come as exhausted strangers and refugees.
I was very touched by the gentle manner of the two sisters there and a cadre of doctors, 16 in total, who work mostly pro bono. Their priority is to determine those in greatest need and assist those with chronic mental or physical needs. There are also social workers, who specialize in mental health concerns. They help sort out the types of psychological trauma that typically affects many displaced people. There is also special care given to pregnant women and newborns and young children, as they are so vulnerable.
There is also a new wave of refugees coming from Syria. Technically, they are in Lebanon illegally. They have no rights and are even afraid to register. They pay outrageously high rents to live in extremely poor conditions and are not on anyone’s radar. So the church offers them a warm welcome and the compassion of Jesus. CNEWA’s national office in Canada has recently offered some financial assistance to this clinic, for which the poor are so humbly thankful.
In the early afternoon, Issam and I had a delightful visit and did an interview with some of the Catholic press corps based in Rome. One of the writers is doing some pieces for Our Sunday Visitor and they were both very interested in learning from Issam some of the background leading up to the pope’s pastoral visit. They were delighted with his knowledge and insight and were very interested in hearing all about how CNEWA partners with the churches in Lebanon and Syria.
We explained to them how our “extended family” offers us the most reliable conduit for assistance — that is, through the local eparchies (dioceses) and then through local parishes. Issam shared with them how parish priests in Syria, for example, are in the best position to know who are those most in need and how to reach out to help them.
I have just returned from a family visit with the head of the Maronite Catholic Church, Patriarch Bechara. He had invited us to join him and a few archbishops for a delightful dinner. But what a surprise greeted us as we arrived at the patriarchate: hundreds of young people working into the night on construction, sound systems, lighting and rehearsals for the big youth event with the Holy Father on Saturday.
Before visiting with some of these wonderful young people, we enjoyed a meal with His Beatitude. He was in rare form. I told him I was surprised by the scale of the setting for this youth event in his front yard. He said it was like New York, and then let out a hearty laugh.
After dinner, we went outside to get the flavor of excitement from the hundreds of young people working hard in preparation for the pope’s visit. I took some photos, and they were honored and were so happy to greet me, especially when they heard I was from New York. Always, the patriarch proudly introduced me as the president of CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission. He holds all of you — members of this family — in highest esteem and is so grateful for your solidarity and generosity.
Before saying goodnight, I gave him a big hug and thanked him for such a warm welcome. I assured him, too, of the prayers of our entire CNEWA family that all will go well over the next three days. As president of the episcopal conference in Lebanon and head of the largest Catholic Eastern church in the Middle East, he is the chair of the organizing committee. It is through the kindness of his invitation that I am here, representing all of you.
I will close for now on the eve of this historic visit by Pope Benedict XVI. Please keep him in your prayers and pray for all in the Middle East. May our Holy Father inspire us to be effective peacemakers and may the Holy Spirit guide us always.
God bless all of you for your generosity to those in need in this part of the world.
Tags: Pope Benedict XVI Msgr. John E. Kozar