The devotion began on Sunday and will end on 14 September, feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. A restless Church is preparing for hard times after exhausting itself trying to get a new government put in place. Amid the divisions among the Churches of the East, Maronites feel alone. The rifts between Christian forces have drained the patriarch.
All hope is lost and we are left with only prayers and fasting, the Assembly of Maronite bishops stated last Wednesday at the end of their monthly meeting.
In their statement, they called for “a novena of prayer, fasting and conversion for Lebanon’s salvation”, which begun last Sunday until 14 September, feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a day marking the discovery of the relics of the Cross of Christ by Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine (4th century).
In making their request, the Maronite bishops added: “All we have left are prayers and supplications to God. Let us therefore pray in our homes, families, churches, parishes and convents, asking God to give us the strength and courage to resist and bear witness to the truth.”
Vague terms were used to say things so that we can replace the dotted lines with what we want. They reflect the mindset of a restless Church that is preparing for hard times, times of deprivation of some of the essential freedoms she continues to enjoy.
This appeal also reflects the state of mind of a Church adrift, that no longer knows what to say or do to get a new government set up, a Church that has vainly exhausted all the means of human recourse at her disposal to change leaders’ heart, or obtain a healthy shift in their political line, whose only weapon left is spiritual.
We know that Lebanon has been without a government since August 2020 when Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned after the criminal explosions at the Port of Beirut, on 4 August 2020, staying on only as caretaker.
But why is this appeal coming only from the Maronite Church? Why was it not been made jointly by all Eastern Patriarchs, in a show of unity, like the one was shown on the day of reflection and prayer held in Rome on 1 July at the invitation of Pope Francis?
“This appeal is similar to many others," said a non-Maronite episcopal source, who wishes to remain anonymous, and who candidly admits not being aware of the Maronite bishops’ appeal.
“This kind of press releases is multiplying, but remains without follow-up. The bishops are adrift. They were not prepared to deal with such a complex situation," the source added.
“The Eastern Patriarchs who met in Rome have diametrically opposed political views on the Syrian regime,” the source explained. “The same applies to Lebanon. This is an unavoidable obstacle.”
“Divisions among Christian political forces have drained the patriarch. Christian leaders do not talk to each other, while the Maronite patriarch is required to be the patriarch of all.”
The state of bewilderment is such that some Maronite bishops refrained from revealing, on Monday, perhaps out of human modesty, that Patriarch Bechara al Rahi left Beirut on Sunday for Budapest (Hungary) to attend the 52nd Eucharistic Congress which will last until 12 September, in the company of his vicar, Bishop Paul Sayah. Thus, he will be absent from the country for most of the announced novena.
Among the faithful in Lebanon, the reactions to the appeal by the Maronite bishops are varied. For Roula S., a mother and member of a lay apostolate movement, praying comes at the top of the Virgin's requests wherever she appears, and the Rosary should be the first and most constant of our prayers.
The mother of five would like this prayer of supplication to be based on the promise contained in the second book of Chronicles, where it reads: “if then my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray, and seek my face, I will pardon their sins and heal their land.”
“This is how we defend the rights of Christians,” she noted, “not by blocking for months the formation of a government, while people are starving. Yet, God is the Lord of history. In due course, he will respond. Does the one who shaped the ear not hear? We are talking with a living God!”
For university Professor Amine-Jules Iskandar, however, "if praying is necessary, it must be part of a global vision.” For this architect and activist, “What are needed are concrete actions!” In his view, the Church should invest more in social and humanitarian action.
“We need concrete acts of solidarity so that Christians can go through the ordeal with as little damage as possible. The Shia community does it much better than we do," he said.
He cites as examples of what can be done the decisions taken by Holy Spirit University, which comes under the Lebanese Maronite Order, and the Sisters of the Rosary, who run a hospital of the same name, in Beirut.
The university has decided to maintain tuition fees at 1,500 Lebanese pounds per US dollar, while the current rate on the open market hovers around 20,000 pounds to the dollar, Prof. Iskandar explained.
The university also decided to pay its teachers in "fresh dollars". Obviously, this takes on the character of a mission, a struggle of resistance.
The OLM itself compensates the university for its financial shortfalls, dipping into its own funds, and getting help from the diaspora in Europe and the Western Christian community.
The Sisters of the Rosary, for their part, have decided to waive fees for those who lack social security coverage without distinction of religion. Here too, such a humanitarian effort is made possible thanks to the support of the French NGO Chaîne de l'Espoir.
To resist is to help the Lebanese stay, while everything pushes them to seek their future elsewhere. Resistance is not always done with weapons. It is all one can accomplish when not packing to leave.