For the first time in 35 years, the leader of the worldwide Maronite Catholic Church paid a visit to Western New York.
"We're all excited," said Father Elie Kairouz, pastor of St. John Maron Church in Williamsville, where more than 600 parishioners turned out for Mass on June 23 to welcome Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rai from Lebanon. "It's a great visit to the Maronite Catholic community here. It's great to see that the Shepherd comes to see his flock, and everybody was longing to do that," said Father Kairouz. "It's a source of renewed faith in our heritage."
The Maronite faith is one of the oldest of the 23 rites that make up the Catholic Church. It dates back to the fourth century disciples of St. Maron, a hermit who, by his holiness, attracted many followers in the area which is now Lebanon.
"It's a reminder the Catholic Church is always something larger and more wonderful than we sometimes realize," said Bishop Richard J. Malone. "The Church breathes the air from the Holy Spirit with two lungs; the Western lung and the Eastern lung. We're the same in our creed. Some of the traditions and customs and liturgical rituals vary in some ways but both are part of one Holy Catholic Apostolic Church."
Bishop Malone was presented with a medal stamped with the patriarchal coat-of- arms on one side and a depiction of Mary in the holy valley of Qannubin in Lebanon on the reverse side. Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai also gave Bishop Malone a personal invitation to visit Lebanon.
The worldwide leader of the Maronite Catholic Church also dedicated a plaque at the back of St. John Maron Church commemorating his two day visit. On the morning of June 24, Bishop Malone had a discussion with the Patriarch about world affairs. The two were then greeted by children of the parish singing songs in Arabic.
"The Church here and the people ought to help strengthen the Christian presence in the Middle East precisely because that presence offers the values of freedom and human rights," said Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai. "If the West wants to cultivate those cultures, they should support the Christian presence in Lebanon because Christianity will help a great deal in bringing about a democratic setting. This is an absolute necessity for the Muslim world to see that. Christianity will stop terrorism without arms. This is the greatest contribution that Christianity can offer to that part of the world."