Blessed Pope John Paul II often talked about the two lungs of the church.  He was referring to Catholics of the Eastern Church and Catholics of the Latin Church.  He insisted that the church breathes best using both lungs! On July 24 we shall be celebrating the feast of St. Sharbel Makhluf, a hermit saint from the Eastern Church’s Maronite tradition. There is a Catholic parish here in Portland with good Saint Sharbel as its titular.  Parishioners of St. Sharbel are Maronite Catholics.  I take this opportunity to greet those folks and to assure them that we Roman Catholics welcome them in our midst and are eager to learn more about them.  

Who are these Maronites?  Back at the beginning of Christianity, several local churches were established which developed different liturgies and disciplines while maintaining the one same Catholic faith. In today’s world there are over 50 million Eastern Catholics belonging to different churches but in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. In addition to the Maronites, other Eastern Catholic Churches are the Melkites, Armenians, Chaldeans, Copts and Syrians. All of these coexist with the Latin Church today in the Middle East.  Our Latin Church there is the largest, approximately 2.7 million members, but the Maronite Church comes in second with 1.7 million Catholics. The Maronite Church is strongly concentrated in Lebanon.  Undoubtedly any of your friends who are Lebanese are in one way or another connected to the Maronite Church.

During our recent archdiocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we learned how the Christian population is indeed dwindling in the Middle East. Interestingly, there are almost as many Maronite Catholics in Latin and South America as there are now in Lebanon.  In the United States and Canada there are some 158,000 Maronite Catholics.  Maronites in this archdiocese rightfully belong to St. Sharbel Parish in Portland.

The Maronite Church can trace its history back to a community formed around St. Maron, a fourth century monk.  The Maronites here have never lost communion with the Holy See ever since their formation. The Maronite Patriarch of Antioch resides in Bkerke, Lebanon. There are two Maronite bishops here in the United States, Bishop Robert J. Shaheen of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, with offices in St. Louis, Missouri, and Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn, New York. Obviously each bishop has considerable territory to cover when he visits parishes of his eparchy. Eastern Catholics use the term “eparchy” the way we use the term “diocese.”  

Maronites share the same beliefs as other Catholics.  But they do have their own liturgy, spirituality, discipline and hierarchy. Before our own liturgical calendar was revised after the Second Vatican Council, there used to be a feast in honor of the chair of St. Peter at Antioch.  Both the Church of Antioch and the Church of Rome claim Peter as their founder. But because both represented different cultures and languages, traditions developed which varied in both centers.  The Maronites come out of the Antioch tradition but they have been considered the most Latinized of the Eastern Catholic Churches. In other words, they resemble us Roman Catholics more than the other Eastern Churches.  

St. Sharbel, the Titular Saint of the Maronite Parish in Portland, had spent most of his life near the Lebanese village of Beka-kafra, where he was born. He was baptized Joseph, but when he joined the Monastery of St. Maron in Lebanon he took the name Sharbel in honor of a second century martyr. He was ordained a priest in 1859.  He lived as a hermit in the latter years of his life. But as a hermit priest, he willingly administered the sacraments when there was no other parish priest available. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1965 and canonized 12 years later.

The feasts of many better known saints are celebrated in July, but I call your attention to Sharbel to highlight the diversity and unity which are present in our Catholic Church. The present pastor of St. Sharbel Parish in Portland is Father Jonathan Decker, a hermit priest, like Sharbel, who cares for the Maronite Catholics here in the Portland area. He too seeks to devote his life to the discipline of prayer and solitude, but with an openness to the needs of sisters and brothers around him. Such has been the tradition of saintly hermits of the church from the very beginning.

Here in the archdiocese we have two other Eastern Catholic parishes, Saint Irene, of the Ruthenian Byzantine tradition in Portland and Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Church in Springfield.  All three of these churches are established in communion with the Holy See and serve as partners with Roman Catholics in carrying out our evangelizing mission here in western Oregon. Reception of the sacraments in these churches is permitted to all Roman Catholics. Often I see some of the Maronite parishioners at the cathedral for weekday Masses, which are not often available in their own parish.

Our U.S. Eastern Catholic bishops visited Rome for their ad limina in May of this year. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, told them that, even though their members are relatively few compared to Roman Catholics, they have much to offer our country because of their fidelity to Christ in spite of persecution and their deeply religious cultures. Eastern Catholics in this country “are a bridge” who support Catholics in their homelands by prayer, advocacy and financial support.  

As Blessed John Paul reminded us, Eastern Catholics are the other lung we use to breathe the fresh and varied scents of Catholic life in the world today. It is now time to pray for Christians in the Middle East for whom a life of faith these days is not easy.  Together with our Eastern Catholics sisters and brothers, we pray for the grace to become a true communion of saints in a society with such great need of the witness of holy lives.