Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sui Juris Churches II: The Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch

(On sui juris churches generally)

Liturgical Family: Antiochene

Primary Liturgical Language: Syriac (Christian Aramaic)

Juridical Status: Patriarchal

Approximate Population: 3,000,000. It is difficult to get a very exact and reliable number, because Maronites are found all over the world, often in small pockets that are difficult to survey, but there are nearly a million in Lebanon alone, where they form more than a fifth of the population.

Basic History: Eastern Catholic churches are each distinctive, but the Maronites stand out as unusually distinctive in that very distinctive family. The Maronite Catholic Church is the only Eastern Catholic church that has no non-Catholic counterpart; all the others derive from Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches. It is the only particular church named after a saint, and the only one that developed out of a specific religious movement. Its ties with Rome are unusually close, and it emphasizes the importance of monastic and eremitic life far more than any other particular church in the communion. The Maronite Patriarch is unusually central to the identity of the church. And while Eastern Catholic histories can be quite complicated, the history of the Maronite Church is not so much complicated as obscure at important points; even the order of important events is not always clear, and what follows should at times be taken with a grain of salt.

St. Maroun/Maron/Maro was an ascetic hermit who lived in Syria in the late third and early fourth century. The asceticism he practiced, inspired by St. Anthony the Great, was unusually stringent -- he lived in the open air in the very harsh weather of the region. People began to imitate him, and communities of Christians became associated with the Maronite ascetics. In the fifth century, during the Monophysite controversy, the Maronites seem to have opposed the Monophysites, with the result that a significant number of them were forced to flee to the mountains of Lebanon for refuge. Much of our knowledge of the church at this time is from a preserved correspondence between the Maronite monks of Syria Secunda and Pope Hormisdas. The monks appealed to Hormisdas for support in their own support for the Council of Chalcedon; he responds to them with encouragement.

The crisis that would turn the Maronite movement into a church in its own right occurred in the seventh century with the Muslim invasion of Syria, an event that found the Maronites isolated. What exactly happened is one of the obscurities of Maronite history, but a line of Maronite Patriarchs of Antioch arose, independent of the Patriarchs of Antioch recognized by Constantinople. The first Maronite Patriarch is usually considered to be St. John Maron; nobody knows for sure how he became patriarch at all, since the stories that have survived are inconsistent, but we do know that the Maronites had had uneasy relations with the Byzantines for quite some time. Things get only more obscure over time; contemporary outside sources suggest that the Maronite monks were Monothelites, rejecting the Third Council of Constantinople, but we don't really know the foundation for this accusation, and none of the sources seem to have any particular incentive for being scrupulous in making it. It could be a misunderstanding; or it could be that there were both Monothelite and orthodox groups among them, as there were everywhere else; or one could take it all at face value. Whether the Maronites were ever Monothelite is one of the major controversies of Maronite history.

Secure in the mountains of Lebanon, too fortified for Muslim armies to dislodge them, the Maronites remained as the world changed around them. Very little is known about the Maronites during this period; for all practical purposes they had disappeared. And then in the eleventh century they were rediscovered, to everyone's surprise, in the First Crusade. The meeting would change the Maronite church forever. The Crusaders were glad to find a Christian bastion right in the midst of Muslim occupation, and the Maronites were glad in turn no longer to be alone. Throughout the Crusades, Crusader and Maronite worked together quite closely, and in the twelfth century, the Maronite Patriarchs began to be officially recognized by Popes. This recognition has been unbroken ever since.

Times changed yet again, and the Crusades faded away. The Mamelukes dominated, resulting in many, many Maronite martyrdoms. Had Mameluke rule continued for a few centuries longer, there would be no Maronites today. But the Mamelukes too faded, to be replaced by the Ottoman Turks, who reorganized the region into the Principality of Lebanon. The first head of this Principality, Prince Fakher el Din al Maani I, was a man of considerable foresight. He was not Muslim but Druze, but he had supported the Ottomans loyally, and the Principality was his reward for it. He forged an alliance between Druze and Maronite that ended up being extraordinarily fruitful, and which is the soil out of which modern Lebanese culture grew.

Turkish rule, too, eventually passed, and was replaced by the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon after World War I. Ever since, a great deal of Maronite history has been bound up in the fortunes of Lebanon. Maronite Catholics and French Catholics had much in common, and thus the Maronites did quite well under the Mandate; this is one reason why Lebanon was the only part of the Mandate that wasn't mostly a disaster (although even that might be questioned) -- Muslim resistance to French plans for dividing the region was itself counterbalanced in Lebanon by Maronite support for them. This solidified Lebanon as a state -- for a while, the one and only Arabic state that was not predominantly Muslim. The opposition between Maronite and Muslim came to a head in 1958 with a civil war, which the Maronites won with American assistance. But as time has passed, Lebanon has become increasingly Muslim and decreasingly Maronite, for reasons not entirely clear -- the usual explanation is that Maronites are more likely to emigrate and that Muslim birthrates are slightly higher, but we don't even have good numbers on the relative proportions, and you will find that different sources say different things on the subject.

So Maronite history, obscure in its beginning, still has its obscurities even today. But the Maronite Church is unquestionably and enthusiastically Catholic, and has clearly been in continuous communion with Rome for nearly a thousand years -- and while we have to lose the 'clearly' if we are being cautious, Maronites themselves will insist quite vehemently that they have always been in communion with Rome. And there is no definite evidence that they have not been. They certainly have not been formally excommunicated at any point, and the only period in their history where there is any room for doubt at all is that relatively brief period in which we have a few outside observers calling them Monothelites, a small scrap of evidence whose significance is debated; and the heresy shows no identifiable influence at all on anything in Maronite spirituality, liturgy, or theology. Regardless, it's an essential part of how the Maronite Church sees itself: alongside Rome as one of the two most stable pillars of the Catholic communion.

Notable Monuments: Many of the most notable monuments of the Maronite Church are in or near the Qadisha Valley of Lebanon, also known as the Holy Valley: Bkerke, the official seat of the Maronite Patriarch and the patriarchal winter residence; Dimane, the patriarchal summer residence and former See of the Maronite Patriarch; Our Lady of Lebanon Sanctuary at Harissa. There are also a number of famous Maronite monasteries, like that of Qannubin, probably the oldest, which goes back to the fourth century. Perhaps most significant of these monasteries is the Monastery of Saint Anthony at Qozhaya; it includes the monastery proper, a number of hermitages, the Cave of St. Anthony (which is associated with a number of healing cures), and the Church of the Monastery of Saint Anthony, which is literally set into the mountain, being partly a cave. The national church of the Maronites in Rome, San Marone, is also notable.

Notable Religious Institutions: Lebanese Maronite Order (Baladites), Mariamite Maronite Order (Aleppians), Antonin Maronite Order.

Notable Saints: Maroun (February 9), John Maron (March 2), Rafqa (March 23), Charbel (July 24), James the Solitary (November 26), Nimatullah Kassab al-Hardini (December 14). There are a number of beatified, like the Blessed Massabki Martyrs. The beatification process for Venerable Istifan al-Duwayhi, a seventeenth-century Patriarch, is currently in process.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: Ten eparchies (dioceses) and four vicariates in Lebanon itself, three eparchies in Syria, one eparchy in Israel, and nine eparchies throughout the world (Brooklyn, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Cypress, Los Angeles, Mexico, Montreal, Sao Paolo, Sydney). (Sphere of influence always extends beyond the official jurisdiction due to members of the church living outside any official jurisdiction of the church.)

Online Sources and Resources:







  1. Ye Olde Statistician8:20 PM

    There is a Maronite church in my hometown: Our Lady of Lebanon; and I went to high school with people named Shumar, Koury, et al. My next-door neighbor is named Charbel, but will answer to Charlie.

  2. branemrys10:20 PM

    There are a surprising number of Maronites in the U.S. We have a Maronite church here in Austin, as well: Our Lady's Maronite. (It's part of the Eparchy for Los Angeles, while I imagine the one in your town is in the other 'diocese', out of Brooklyn.)

  3. By amusing coincidence, all Maronites I have known were named Charbel. St. Charbel exists in my mind as one of those super-mythical saints who must exercise enormous power indeed! I don't seek out information about him so as not to spoil the imagination.


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