John Paul II, the “saviour” of Lebanon’s unity
by Fady Noun
Ahead of John Paul II’s beatification, we are publishing today an article on the role he and Vatican diplomacy played in saving Lebanon from possible fragmentation. “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message,” the Pope had said; words that have gone around the world.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West,” John Paul II said in the 1980s. Since then, his words have taken on a life of their own in Lebanon. No week goes by without some religious or political leader, Christian or Muslim, using them to say what our country should be, in lieu of what it actually is, at the mercy of opposing political currents and ideologies.

It is a fact that after his election in 1978, John Paul II became closely involved in Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). The extraordinary attention he paid to us led him to organise a special assembly Synod of Bishops about our country. All this has an explanation. Remembering this can help us see how the work of providence weaves itself into our daily actions, almost without our knowledge.

Some historians have said that the Lebanon set up in 1943 under the national pact agreed by Christian and Muslim communities could have simply disappeared from the map under external pressures or circumstances, or that it might have disintegrated under the weight of internal factors and the heterogeneous nature of its society. Many factors explain why this explosion did not happen.

If we actually gave John Paul II and Vatican diplomacy their due, we would have to devote more than an article to their role in Lebanese affairs. Still, here is an outline of that role.

No one has stressed more the Lebanese vocation to unity than the great Pope. He did so repeatedly and insistently, addressing message after message to Lebanon, going so far as to oppose the aspirations of some of Lebanon’s Christian political parties, who were tempted by partition.

However, for those wondering who might have encouraged John Paul II to be so involved in Lebanese affairs, there is a surprising story, one that might be anecdotal but also quite revealing. The story begins with Gilberte Doummar, a woman member of the Focolari movement, who for many years was Lebanon’s representative on the Pontifical Council for the Laity. As such, she visited the Vatican on several occasions where she met the Pope and his closest aides.

Here is what she said. “It was 1984, during the first assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. We met in the Sala Clementina. Card Pironio, then president of the Council, introduced me to the Pope. I thanked him for what he was doing for Lebanon. He answered me saying, ‘Yes, Lebanon is at the centre of my concerns and prayers.’ The same night, I met one of the Pope’s old friends, writer Stephane Vilkanovitch, and I told him, ‘The Pope has a special love for Lebanon. But why?’ I am meeting him tonight; I’ll ask him,’ he told me.”

“I have the answer,” he said when we me next day. “Here it is. When in October 1978, after his election, he went out to greet the crowds in Saint Peter’s Square, at a time when posters and banners were not allowed, he saw one being raised that said, “Holy Father, Save Lebanon!’ just before it quickly disappeared. Like arrow, that message struck his heart. At the end of the celebrations, after greeting everyone, he came back inside and went to kneel before the Almighty. He asked Jesus, present in the Eucharist, to let him live long enough to save Lebanon.”

Such a simple deed can influence the course of events. In 1978, John Paul II had already decided that Vatican diplomacy would focus on preventing Lebanon from breaking up. Not only did God allow John Paul II to live long enough to “save Lebanon”, but he also saved him, the Pope thought, in the assassination attempt against him on 13 May 1981 so that he could fulfil his mission, which, of course, is part and parcel of a broader design for the world.

“What mattered the most to the Pope,” Gilberte Doummar said, “was the country’s unity. He wanted Christians to work for Lebanon’s unity. On his urging, the Holy See in March 1986 launched a plan to end the civil war. Card Achille Silvestrini, one of the foremost Vatican diplomats during his pontificate, was charged with the task. He tried in particular to organise a Muslim-Christian summit; however, he was not however to breach the wall that divided the Lebanese. Previously, the Vatican had tried many times to stop Christian militias from arming themselves but to no avail, insisting that the paths of peace were better than those of violence. He chided officials in some monastic orders for forgetting their vocation when they supplied weapons to Christians.”

“In 1987,” Gilberte Doummar noted, “after the failure of the Silvestrini mission, a sad Pope, gesturing with his hand, told me, ‘Pray and make others pray for Lebanon.’ When he called Lebanon a ‘message-country’, he prophetically saw what Lebanon could offer, how far its influence could go and what a great mission it could have. Lebanon was made for unity, and the Pope had a gift to see what we could not see.”

The Holy Father saw part of his goal realised, at least in spiritual terms. In 1995, the special assembly of the Synod of Bishops that he had summoned was held on Lebanon. Two years later, in 1997, he released an apostolic exhortation, ‘A new hope for Lebanon’, in which he laid out his vision for our country, come what may.

Many Christians and Muslims felt challenged by this spiritual paper, as it urged them to come to the table of history.

“For Christians,” researcher Fadi Daou said, it meant “going from a phase in which they felt they owned Lebanon to one in which Lebanon, which is part of their identity, became a message to pass on, a project for the future and a model to serve.”

Adapted for AsiaNew, this article is an excerpt from a book by Fady Noun, to be published by the Saint Joseph University, titled Dévastation et redemption (Devastation and redemption).