Patriarch Rahi in South Africa to reinforce the Lebanese identity in the Diaspora
From 18 to 23 May, the cardinal visited South Africa’s Maronite community. He saw two parishes, opened a gym and laid the first stone of a new hall. The Maronite Foundation in the World’s mandate is to reconnect migrants to their homeland so as to preserve their homeland’s delicate demographic balance.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – The visit by the Maronite Patriarch, Card Bechara Rahi, to Johannesburg, South Africa, on 18-23 May, had two objectives, one pastoral, the other national in scope. As he always does on such occasions, he was accompanied by a delegation of the Maronite Foundation in the World, most notably its president, Nehmat Frem.
At the pastoral level, the cardinal visited two Maronite parishes run by the Lebanese Missionary Order (LMO). This included inaugurating a sports pavilion at a school founded by the order and laying the first stone of a large hall that will serve as a school and parish hall.
In the megacity of Johannesburg, the LMO is involved with two parishes, one north of the city, the other to south. The latter now includes a school that opened in 2010. Five priests led by Father Habib Badawi work there, actively mobilising outstanding teams of laity for the liturgical service and school activities.
Judging by the two Masses and events that were celebrated, the LMO seems to have built on rock since it first started in the 1930s. In view of the crowds of faithful, the well-ordered ceremonies, the quality of the choir that sang during the Mass, and the dedication and sweetness of those who took care of delegations that came from Beirut, we had the distinct impression that the building is holding firm. During one of the Masses he celebrated, the Patriarch anointed the hands of 30 men who helped the priests handing out the Eucharist.
At the national level, the Maronite patriarch opened a new office of the Maronite Foundation in the World, the first since the Nationality Reacquisition Act was adopted in December 2015. The Foundation’s South African chapter will be chaired by John Shalala, a businessman who owns one of South Africa’s largest printing presses.
Like it or not, Lebanon is based on demographics. A proportion of Christians must indeed be there so that Lebanon can remain itself. Below a certain threshold, the political weight of Christians would be questioned. With the backing of the Maronite Patriarchate, the Maronite Foundation set off on a quest in the past few years –with some success – to find the missing numbers from the human hemorrhage that hit the country last century. This human reservoir, which runs in the hundreds of thousands, is spread across the world, but especially in the Americas and Australia, and in some older countries of emigration like South Africa.
By encouraging Maronites and Christians in general to reconnect with their roots, and to have their names added to the civil registers, the Foundation does two things at once. First, it offsets the demographic deficit caused by emigration by sending Christian residents a strong signal that says, “Don’t leave the country, and if you are forced to leave it for economic reasons, do not desert it mentally.” Two, “protect your roots and the rights that go with them."
What is certain is that to succeed we need a concerted effort. Certainly, without the foundation, nothing would happen, but this impulse requires two main drivers: the local Church and the embassies, which are tasked with awakening and nurturing love for Lebanon in the communities they serve.
What the Maronite Foundation does in the world actually is much more than helping people reacquire their Lebanese nationality and establish a legal connection to Lebanon. What it does is a sort of archeology of Lebanon’s identify through the memories of a time in which distance counts less in terms of years than in things that are no longer.
Each trip by the Foundation thus reflects an effort to help build, more or less successfully, more or less promisingly, an identity that is always becoming. Remembrance and adhering to one’s history are the profound issue. The Foundation stands as the guardian of this remembrance.
One’s homeland, like one’s family and nation, is a natural given, whereas the state is project and construction. In Memory and Identity, John Paul II said that patriotism refers to the Fourth Commandment, which commits us to honor our father and mother. The homeland is the common good of all citizens, and as such, it also calls for great duty.
From this perspective, we should better appreciate what the Maronite Foundation does in the world, namely working on remembrance and duty. If the Church’s role is so needed in building the Lebanese identity, it is because it is so easy to confuse sand and rock, and believe that we are building paradise when in fact all we are doing is digging our own grave. In view of this, we must remain vigilant in spirit.