04/13/2021, 10.27
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Bishop Bou Najem ordained to Antelias: giving hope to a distressed people

by Fady Noun

On April 10, the episcopal ordination in Bkerké, presided over by Patriarch Raï. A pastor, catechist, administrator and chaplain linked to the world of scouts and the Focolare movement. The prelate will have to lead one of the most populous and controversial dioceses in the country. The key is hope and strength for the future.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - He is aware that he is addressing people who are in distress, Lebanese who hesitate between attachment to their home and job security. His words are not chosen at random. He speaks to a population whose number is dwindling and young people who are leaving, out of necessity or disgust. With a strong, confident, prophetic voice, the new Maronite archbishop of Antelias, Msgr. Antoine Bou Najem, ordained last April 10 in Bkerké, launches an appeal to the assembly not to lose hope, the key to their strength and future.

His voice is listened to with attention by the apostolic nuncio, Msgr. Giuseppe Spiteri, and by a delegation from the diocese of Lyon, twinned with Antelias, headed by the auxiliary bishop Msgr. Patrick le Gal. The words of Isaiah, which he evokes forcefully, help to reinforce his appeal: “Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob, little Israel, do not fear, for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. ‘See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff. You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up, and a gale will blow them away. But you will rejoice in the Lord and glory in the Holy One of Israel."

His confidence comes from being a man "surprised by grace" from a very young age. He dreamed of a contemplative retreat on the model of Saint Charbel, behind the walls of a monastery. Here, on the contrary, is what was decided by the Maronite synod which directed him towards new and more burdensome responsibilities.

Born into a modest family of policemen from Zalka (Metn-Nord coast), Antoine Bou Najem's vocation to the priesthood was revealed from an early age. He has always seen himself as a priest. Today, in a video broadcast online, we hear his mother standing before a cast iron plaque in the cemetery of Her-Hraya (Mont-Liban), announcing to her husband Fares that his son “has just been elected bishop”.

An exemplary path has guided him up to here. According to the testimony of the Maronite patriarch Beshara Raï, who presented him to the faithful gathered in the external chapel of the patriarchate, the priest who is about to be ordained bishop has been able to skillfully accumulate the pastoral (in six different parishes), administrative, chaplains (students of the secondary schools, scouts from Lebanon, Equipes Notre-Dame, New Families of the Focolare) and as a catechist in public and private schools.

He took it upon himself to the full, not without having known some empty passage as he himself will recognize. Disciple since the seminary of a bishop of proven faith, Msgr. Youssef Béchara, who later ordained him a priest, who at one time assumed the pastoral care of a national sovereign political movement, the Qornet Chehwan gathering, at the beginning of the civil war (1975-1990), Antoine Bou Najem he heard his mentor tell him that he "confused" some parishioners with an "indecisive spirituality".

The firmness in the faith came after a sabbatical year spent in Loppiano (in Tuscany), place of formation of the Focolare Movement, where consecrated lay people, families, religious and priests live together. The decision in favor of consecrated celibacy tempered his character, knowing that the tradition of married priests has always been recognized in the Maronite Church. His choice was then consolidated by a doctorate in pastoral theology at the Catholic Institute of Paris, crowned by a specialization in Islamic-Christian dialogue. In his speech of thanks, he explained that episcopal ring, the cross and the pastoral staff were those of the bishop who ordained him a priest, Msgr. Youssef Béchara.

A diocese full of contrasts and teeming with young people

His new flock of the Maronite diocese of Antelias, is one of the most populous and controversial in Lebanon. Rich in places, such as Rabiyé, it extends to the belt of misery of Beirut, and has 93 parishes, with about 90 priests, men and women religious. In the area there are some of the most popular private schools in Lebanon, including the college of the Marist Brothers and the college of the “Jesus and Mary” sisters, as well as a large number of hospitals. Many deputies, ministers, former ministers and senior state officials reside there. Finally, two great apostolic movements of lay people, the Focolare and the Charismatic Renewal cast their nets in its waters.

It was in particular his ability to deal with this great diversity, as well as his skills as a pastor and administrator, which earned the bishop his election. A skill based in particular on the trust placed in him by the young people of a region whose center of gravity is represented by the diocesan school of Saint Joseph in Qornet Chehwan, a village equidistant from the coast and from the high mountains. And the new bishop himself traced this "success" to the institution of the daily mass, then to the mass for young people, to which he was able to associate the various currents of spirituality present there, each bringing its own particular charism. People say you need to arrive at mass an hour earlier to find a place.

In a word pronounced during the ceremony, Msgr. Bou Najem thanked the Focolare movement whose spirituality, he insisted, profoundly marked his formation and "is the source from which he draws inspiration" ", as well as the charismatic Renewal with which he said he had led retreats and missions and" forged concrete bonds. "Finally, the Scouts of Lebanon, of which he was chaplain, and of which he holds his" Eagle" totem. Many lay movements aroused by the Holy Spirit, in response to the need to open the institutional Church, starched by clericalism, to the entire people of God.

This is the pastor's voice of which John Paul II is the ideal and never before as today has the Christian community in Lebanon needed to listen to it. It is the voice of hope, the one that announces the end or perhaps the alleviation of suffering, and God knows how great they are. It is the warm and rough voice of the head of a nomadic Church whose spiritual wandering in search of pastures and springs is about to end, and who will settle in the shade of His pergolas, to eat the grapes of the vine He has planted and drink the wine of joy.

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