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Faith and Courage: The Story of Maronite Catholics

by A.V. Crawford and Nora Coyne

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In the fourth century A.D. a devout monk living in Syria became known for his holiness and for the miracles he worked. A friend of St. John Chrysostom, he fought the heresies which were rampant in his time, particularly Arianism, Monophysism and Nestorianism. On the banks of the Orontes River in Syria he converted an old pagan temple into a monastery, and there spent the rest of his life teaching about God. The monk’s name was Maron.

Maron’s fame quickly spread through the countryside, and by the time he died he had brought the Word of God to hundreds of Syrians. His monastery became the principal center of pastoral and spiritual care for the area, and at one time 800 monks were living and working there.

The followers of Maron – the monks and the country people whom they converted – came to be known as Maronites. Their history, it has been said, “is the story of a people who were continually willing to sacrifice their lives and possessions for religious conviction and human liberties.”

In spite of many hardships, the Maronites have always remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. The Most Reverend Francis M. Zayek, first bishop of the Maronites in the United States, proudly says, “We were never separated from the Holy Father.” Because of this unwavering fidelity, Maronites have been called “the Irish of the East.” Unlike all the other eastern rites of the Church, they have no Orthodox counterpart.

The history of the Maronites actually begins long before the time of Maron. The Maronite Church has its origins in ancient Syria, a country which embraced many cultures. Antioch in west Syria was a hellenistic city, while Edessa, to the northeast, was a center of Semitic culture and Syriac tradition. The Maronites, living in the countryside not far from Antioch, resisted the hellenistic influence and retained the Syriac-Aramaic culture and language. Thus Maronite theology and liturgy developed according to Biblical thought forms rather than Greek philosophy.

It was in Antioch that the followers of Christ were first called Christians, although the name was intended as an insult. The Christians of Antioch welcomed St. Peter when he fled the persecution in Jerusalem after the martyrdom of St. James. According to tradition, Peter founded the Church at Antioch and became its first bishop. Early Maronites were the direct descendants of the people who received the faith from the apostle Peter.

The Maronite Church became a formal entity with the institution of the Maronite Patriarchate in the seventh century. The first Patriarch was St. John Maron, who was chosen in 685. But those years brought tragedy as well: conflicts with heretics and the start of the Arab invasions. Faced with the certain destruction of their faith, the Maronites migrated to the mountains of Lebanon. By the tenth century, most of them were settled there.

The Maronites welcomed the Crusaders when they came, fighting alongside them and serving as guides through the Lebanese countryside. The association with the Crusaders was to have a long-lasting influence on Maronite history, liturgy and practice: ties with Rome became closer, some Western practices were adopted, and certain Latinizations were incorporated into the rite.

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Tags: Lebanon Church history Maronite Church