Benedict XVI and Lebanon: a factor of unity and identity against the exodus of Christians
by Fady Noun

In September 2012, the pope emeritus made an apostolic journey to Lebanon, his last visit outside Italy of his pontificate before his historic resignation. His exhortation is the fruit of the synod on the Middle East, entrusted to the Eastern Catholic Churches. The silent invasion of modernity is today's challenge, together with extremist violence.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – It took the capacity to synthesise of the intellectual giant that was Pope Benedict XVI to grasp and integrate the immense diversity of the Catholic world, including the portion of the People of God who live in the Holy Land and across the Middle East.

In Lebanon, where he landed on 12 September 2012, Benedict XVI came for the entire Middle East. His task was to present to the six Eastern Catholic Churches the apostolic exhortation that came out of the Synod for the Middle East held two years earlier: The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness (10-24 October 2010).

He arrived with a handicap, namely the memory of the enthusiastic welcome given to his predecessor, John Paul II, in 1997. Would we relive those days? His clarity and gentleness of expression, so distinct, would work wonders, in their own way.

Lebanon’s civil and religious leaders he met on his arrival, at the presidential palace, gave him a warm welcome. In his address to the pontiff, Mufti Mohammad Rachid Kabbani assured him that, "Our special relations are our message to the world."

In fact, Benedict XVI came to continue what John Paul II had begun with the Synod on Lebanon (1995) and that Francis is methodically pursuing, especially with the Abu Dhabi Declaration (2019), namely to spiritually map the "cradle" of Christianity and “gather into one, the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52).

In the opening Mass of the synod, held in Rome in 2010, the pope emeritus said: “the one Church of Christ is expressed in the variety of liturgical, spiritual, cultural and disciplinary traditions of the six venerable Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, as well as in the Latin tradition."

This was not his first trip to the Middle East. “It is this internal point of view which guided me during apostolic visits to Turkey, the Holy Land Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus, where I was able to experience first-hand the joys and concerns of the Christian communities," he said at that same Mass.

He reached out to the Middle East through Lebanon, a democratic and pluralistic exception in a region ruled by autocracy. First and foremost, we like to think that he came to help the Lebanese of all confessions, starting with Christians, to appreciate at its true value the synthesis of Islamic-Christian civilisation, the "living together" as his predecessor had called it, offering it as a model for both East and West.

In doing so, he rejuvenated the "religious roots" of the Maronite community, who represent the majority of Lebanon’s Christians, which John Paul II described as “the source of their national identity.” This aggiornamento became essential to grasp a history that had become more complex since the creation of "Greater Lebanon" (1920) and the decolonisation that followed the Second World War.

Addressing the thousands of young people who came to listen to him in the large venue set up at the entrance to the Maronite patriarchal seat in Bkerké, Benedict XVI told them again that it was an “honour” for them to live on a land where Christ walked.

On that occasion, he went on to say: “I should like now to greet the young Muslims who are with us this evening. I thank you for your presence, which is so important. Together with the young Christians, you are the future of this fine country and of the Middle East in general. Seek to build it up together! And when you are older, continue to live in unity and harmony with Christians. For the beauty of Lebanon is found in this fine symbiosis. It is vital that the Middle East in general, looking at you, should understand that Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society.”

He did not forget the young Arabs who had come to him. "I understand, too, that present among us there are some young people from Syria. I want to say how much I admire your courage. Tell your families and friends back home that the Pope has not forgotten you.” He spoke to them a year before their country, which he mentioned, would slide into violence in 2013, like an episode of the Arab Spring sage.

The pope was delighted by the exuberant welcome with which young people received him, said Archbishop Paul Sayah, then Maronite patriarchal vicar. Because of that welcome, two Lebanese were tasked with writing the meditations of the Way of the Cross.

Unfortunately, the trip to Lebanon was Benedict XVI's last and did not bear all the expected fruits, and it is the need for reassurance once again about their historic vocation that Lebanon’s communities now await a new papal visit.

Over the past decade, the external landscape has changed enormously, and what Benedict XVI and many feared has happened. Calls for dialogue have come too late. The wicked invasion of Iraq by the United States (March 2003) ended up creating havoc in that country, and so the darkness of the Islamic State group spread over the Nineveh Plain (2014-2019). Syria and Iraq have lost their Christians, a trend that is hard to reverse, and the tragedy of Palestine has become radicalised.

Deserted by its educated generations, Lebanon’s struggle is economic and anthropological. Economically, the country is unable to free itself from the clutches of those who have plundered its resources and assets. Anthropologically, modernity, as a silent yet noisy invader, is all pervasive, challenging the Church and the faithful with its ethical relativism, sometimes from within the institution.