The Patriarchs in Maronite History 

By Chorbishop Seely Beggiani
Rector of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary and Professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
I. The Significance of the Maronite Patriarch
While being one in faith, doctrine, and practice, each Particular Church of the universal Catholic Church has its own unique character and identity.  Each Particular Church was shaped by its history, culture and way of life.  The identity of the Maronite Church is inseparable from the role of the Patriarch.  For the Maronites the Patriarch is more than the juridical leader of his church, and the head of the synod of bishops.  The Patriarch is the embodiment of Maronite history and Maronite identity.
There are many reasons why the Maronite Patriarchate has this predominant role.  The Maronite Church was founded on a hermit and a monastery.  Differing from other churches, its ecclesial model was not based on the structure of a metropolitan see and its suffragan dioceses, nor was it influenced by the civil administrative structures of the Roman Empire.  Rather, the Patriarch was seen at first as the arch-abbot of a federation of monasteries, and subsequently the sole religious leader of his people.  Maronite bishops had responsibilities over certain major towns and monasteries, but they were strictly speaking only representatives of the Patriarch.  It was only in the 17th century that Rome began to urge that individual dioceses with their proper bishops be erected.  This desire was canonized at the Synod of Mount Lebanon in 1736, but not implemented until the middle of the 19th century.
Reinforcing the singular role of the Patriarch was the practice among Moslem rulers, and especially the Ottomans, of giving temporal rights to the spiritual heads of the various religious communities.  Thus the Patriarch became both the religious and civil leader of the Maronite nation.  He was held responsible for the good behavior of his subjects, and for administering the laws of marriage and inheritance.  He supervised all church property which included vast lands and buildings.  Clerics and the faithful went to their religious leaders regarding all church and civil matters.
The many years of suffering and persecution, where the clergy and laity supported each other in their struggle for survival, brought about a convergence of religion, nationality, and patriotism.  The Patriarchs who were persecuted and sometimes martyred along side of their people became the living symbol of the Maronite experience.
The historian, Bishop Peter Dib, observes that having entrenched themselves in the mountains of Lebanon, the Maronites were able to create their own way of life and to enjoy a certain autonomy under the direction of their spiritual leaders.  He cites another observer, R. Ristelhueber who noted: “Strongly grouped around their clergy and their Patriarch, the Maronites constituted a small people with their own identity.  The holy valley of Qadisha, marked with the cells of hermits, and the cedars in the heights were symbols of their vitality and their independence.  The patriarchal Monastery of Qannoubin, perched as an eagle’s nest, summarized their whole history.”

II. The First Patriarch
Inspired by their patron, the hermit St. Maron, and formed by the Monastery of St. Maron that was built in his memory, the Maronite monks and laity gradually became a cohesive community.  They were deeply involved in the religious controversies of the 5th and 6th centuries and were martyred for their defense of the church councils.  In their faith, they distinguished themselves from the Syrian Orthodox Church which had rejected the Council of Chalcedon.  Liturgically, they worshiped according to the traditions of the Church of Nisibis and Edessa as represented by the writings of St. Ephrem and St. James of Saroug, and according to the tradition of the Church of Antioch.  Thus, they also distinguished themselves from the Melkite Church which opted for the Byzantine tradition.
By the 7th century, the Maronites were recognized as an independent religious community with their own bishops.  At this time, the Arabs had conquered Antioch, and the new rulers would not allow a Chalcedonian patriarch to reside at Antioch.  Constantinople appointed titular patriarchs of Antioch, but they resided at Constantinople.  After 702 and until 742, they did not even appoint a nominal patriarch of Antioch.
It should not be surprising that with the religious vacuum that existed in Lebanon and Syria at this time, the Maronites would find it necessary to assume leadership and choose a patriarch from among their own.  According to Maronite tradition, John Maron was elected and consecrated by the Papal delegate to be Patriarch of Antioch.  Some even claim that John Maron traveled to Rome to receive confirmation.  This interest of Rome in the affairs of the Middle East should not be surprising since Pope Sergius I (687-701) was born in Antioch.
Various claims are made about the background of John Maron.  The famous Maronite scholar, Joseph Assemani, states that John Maron had a broad education and that he authored works on the liturgy, on the faith, against the Monophysites (those who claimed only one nature in Christ), on the Trisagion, on the Priesthood, and a commentary on the Liturgy of St. James.

The Patriarchal See in Kfarhay from 687-938
Photo: The Maronite Patriarchate History and Mission
by M. Awit, 1996.

There are indications that John Maron might have also been a military leader because of necessity.  Emperor Justinian II Rhinotmetus was involved with various military campaigns against the Arabs.  In 694, the Emperor sent troops against the Maronites.  Soldiers attacked the Monastery and reportedly killed 500 monks, and went towards Tripoli, Lebanon to capture John Maron.  However,

they were ambushed on the way and two of their leaders were killed.  This was only one of many persecutions which forced John Maron to flee several times.  He died c. 707 in Kfarhay near Batroun, Lebanon.
III. Contacts with Rome
While proud of their Eastern roots, the Maronites have seemed always to have a universalist attitude.  Even in the earliest centuries, they did not hesitate to appeal to the Pope of Rome, as they did to report the massacre of the 350 Maronite monks in 517.  A significant turn to the West occurred at the time of Crusades.  Sharing the same faith as the Church of Rome, and not aligning themselves with the Church of Constantinople or the separated churches of the East, it was natural for them to turn to the West for support and to reinforce their independence.  For this, they paid a price.  Their Muslim rulers and Arab neighbors often questioned their allegiance to the Arab world, and at times considered them with suspicion as traitors.  However, it would seem that the Maronites instinctively realized that their Christian faith should not be hemmed in by only one way of thinking or to an attitude that was closed to foreign ideas.
The first documented trip of a Maronite Patriarch to Rome was that of Jeremias El-Amsheeti (1199-1230).  He participated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.  It is claimed that while he celebrated the Divine Qorbono in Rome a miracle took place.  We are told by the 17th century patriarch and historian, Stephen Doueihi, that this miracle was celebrated by a painting depicting a consecrated host hovering over the head of the Patriarch.  This painting was ordered restored by Pope Innocent X in 1655.
It was also during the reign of Patriarch Jeremias that Pope Innocent III addressed the Bull Quia Divinae Sapientiae to the Maronite Church.  This major Papal document praised the Maronites for their faith, but also tried to urge them to adopt Latin customs in the liturgy and the sacraments.
Beginning in the middle of the 15th century communications and delegations between the Maronites and Rome began to occur on a regular basis.  Patriarch Moses El-Akkari (1524-67) sent a bishop to represent him at the last session of the Council of Trent in 1562. In 1867, Patriarch Paul Mas’ad (1854-90) went to Rome to assist at the centenary feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul.  He did not go to the First Vatican Council but was represented by a mission headed by Peter Bustany, Archbishop of Tyre and Sidon.
Patriarch Paul Meouchi (1955-75) and the Maronite bishops were active participants in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).  Since that time the visits of the Patriarchs to the Vatican have occurred on a regular basis.
A significant event for the Catholic Churches in Lebanon was the convening of the Special Assembly for Lebanon of the Synod of Bishops which was held at the Vatican from November 26 to December 14, 1995.  Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir was a co-president of the meetings.  The Synod was seen as an opportunity for the six Catholic communities of Lebanon to seek spiritual renewal by rediscovering their religious roots, and implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.  Representatives of the non-Catholic Churches, the Protestants, Muslims and Druzes were invited observers.
From the 15th century on, the Popes have sent a number of Papal representatives to the Patriarchs.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, Papal delegates presided at a number of special synods that dealt with issues of liturgy and pastoral practice.  The work of these missions and synods culminated in the Synod of Mount Lebanon of 1736.  It was approved by the Holy Father and became the particular law of the Maronite Church.  In response to requests from a number of Patriarchs, the Papacy was instrumental in sending various religious orders to Lebanon.  These religious communities were instrumental in establishing a large number of schools which resulted in Lebanon’s becoming the most literate country in the Middle East.
Relations between the Papacy and Lebanon were dramatically symbolized by the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Lebanon in May, 1997.  On that occasion he delivered his post-synodal exhortation, “A New Hope for Lebanon.”
IV. Persecution and Martyrdom
As already noted, as visible symbols of their people, many of the Maronite patriarchs were persecuted and sometimes martyred.  This is why many of the patriarchal residences were located in places that were obscure and inaccessible.  Whenever a Muslim ruler wished to punish the Maronites, the Patriarch was the one who was sought out.  Also, there were times when Patriarchs were kidnapped and held for ransom as a means of extortion.
In order to avenge the raid of Pierre de Lusignan, King of Cyprus, on Alexandria, the Mameluk governor of Tripoli ordered the capture of Patriarch Gabriel of Hajjoula and had him burnt alive at the gates of the city in 1367.

The Patriarchal See in Qannoubin from 1440-1823
Photo: The Maronite Patriarchate History and Mission
by M. Awit, 1996

Bishop Dib, cites a report sent from Qannoubin to the Pope in 1475 by the legate Brother Alexander of Arioste describing the situation in Lebanon at his time:  “In the midst of this nation live the Saracens ...  Their tyranny knows no rest.  Under the pretext of raising a certain tribute that they call gelia, they [the agents of the authority] despoil the poor mountain people of all that they have.  Against these vexations, there is only one recourse possible, apostasy.  Many might have fallen if it had not been for the charity of their pious Patriarch [Peter Ibn Hassan] who came to their aid.  Dismayed at the peril to the souls of his sheep, he gave over all the revenues of his churches to satisfy the greed of the tyrants.  The door of the [patriarchal] monastery was walled up; sometimes he was obliged to hide in the caves hollowed out of the earth.”
In Lebanon in 1571 and again in c. 1634, there were severe persecutions by the Ottomans.  The Turks looked upon submission to the Pope as to a foreign power.  This was aggravated by the communications that the Maronites had established with Western European Catholic nations.  The result was that when they were not undergoing persecutions, they were still subject to annoying harassments.
An eyewitness report about the precarious situation of the patriarchs is given by Chevalier d’Arvieux in the last part of the 17th century.  He writes: 
“He [the Patriarch] was hidden in a grotto far away, very secret, of difficult access and well covered, where he does not go out during the day but only at night.  This is because the inhabitants of these mountains were at war with the Pasha of Tripoli, who had asked for a large sum of money which they judged was not proper to give him.  The Pasha would often send the Turks to take the Patriarch and lead him to him, not doubting that when he would have him in his hands, all the Maronites would sell everything to ransom him from prison. ... Their [the patriarch and bishops] life was ordinarily extremely frugal; they fast often and very austerely; they work very hard and rise at night to chant the Office. ... They have crosses of wood, but they are bishops of gold.”
During his term as Patriarch, Stephen Doueihi (1670-1704), suffered many persecutions and had to flee to Kesrawan and to the Chouf.  There are many who say that many miracles took place during his life and after his death.  
V. The Patriarchs and Scholarship
The Patriarchs have not only taken the lead in religious administration and personal courage, but have also been dedicated to the intellectual life.  Here are a few examples.  Patriarch Joseph Habib al-Aqouri (1644-48) wrote a defense of the Gregorian calendar, a Syriac grammar with interpretation in Karshuni (or Garshuni, Arabic written with Syriac letters), various hymns in Arabic, and perhaps a tract on the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.  Patriarch John Safrawi (1648-56) did a study of the Divine Office and prepared an edition of the Fenqitho (the Proper of fixed feasts) which was published in two volumes in 1656, 1666.
As a student in Rome and in his travels throughout the Middle East, the future Patriarch Stephen Doueihi (1670-1704) collected and consulted manuscripts regarding all areas of Oriental studies.    Patriarch Doueihi wrote several volumes on the history and doctrinal fidelity of the Maronite Church.  He also produced a chronology of the Maronite patriarchs.  Because of the quality of his research and the scholarship of his writing, he is considered the “Father of Maronite History.”  Patriarch Doueihi’s work, Lamp of the Sanctuary, provides a comprehensive and definitive commentary on the Maronite liturgy.  He also wrote works on the sacraments and other aspects of theology.
Patriarch Joseph Estephan (1766-1793), besides being the author of liturgical hymns, took the initiative to establish the seminary of Ain Warqa.  This national seminary became famous for its excellence in learning and produced many patriarchs and bishops.  Among the many works of Patriarch Paul Mas’ad (1854-90) were: a refutation of the position taken by Melkite Patriarch Maximus Mazloom regarding the antiquity of the Maronite Church, a work on the procession of the Holy Spirit against the Orthodox position, and a treatise on the perpetual virginity of Mary.

VI. Patriarchal Leadership in Lebanon of the 19th and 20th centuries
Depending on the vagaries of Ottoman rule, Lebanon in the 19th century was an arena where its various religious communities were caught in constantly shifting alliances, and where foreign powers were interfering to advance their own particular agendas.  In this chaotic condition, it became necessary for the Maronite patriarchs, not only to act as the religious and political heads of their people, but also on behalf of the nation.  This new and larger role is already seen in the person of Patriarch John el-Hajj (1890-98).  Trained in civil law, Father el-Hajj was chosen to be the Maronite judge in the Majlis (Supreme Judicial Tribunal) which was established in 1845 in response to the massacres of 1841 and 1845.  The jurisdiction of the Majlis was not limited to judicial affairs, but extended to financial and administrative matters.  Dismayed by the Christian massacres of 1860, Father Hajj drafted a report containing a detailed account of these evils and spread it throughout Europe, especially France.  As a result, a conference was assembled in Paris, which decided upon intervention to help the victims and punish the perpetrators.  In the meantime, there was an attempt in Beirut to draft a treaty between the Maronites and Druzes which would give Turkish authority the sole responsibility and exclude all foreign intervention.   The historian, Bishop Dib, reports that despite extreme pressure to sign the pact, el-Hajj refused.  Therefore, when this treaty was presented to the international commission, it was considered not binding, because it did not have the ratification of the Maronite judge.  El-Hajj continued to manifest these qualities of leadership and courage as Patriarch.  

Patriarch Elias Howayek (1899-1931)
father of modern Lebanon.
Photo: The Maronite Patriarchate
History and Mission
by M. Awit, 1996.

Besides his extensive achievements in his religious role of Patriarch including the building of the Shrine of Our Lady of Harissa and in founding the Maronite Congregation of the Holy Family, Patriarch Elias Howayek (1899-1931) is in reality the father of modern Lebanon.  He headed the Lebanese delegation to the Peace Conference of Versailles in 1919.  The collapse of the Ottoman Empire had aroused various nationalistic ambitions in the Middle East and some attempts to compromise Lebanon’s sovereignty.  The Lebanese national identity had existed for centuries.  Throughout the succession of various Muslim rulers, the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon had struggled and been martyred to preserve who they are.  After World War I, some elements were attempting to reconfigure Lebanon for their own dynastic and political purposes.  Thanks to the prestige and courage of Patriarch Howayek, his proposals for a sovereign and independent Lebanon were accepted by the assembly at Versailles.  Lebanon was granted independence under French mandate, with the restoration of its natural and historic borders.  
The survival and evolution of the Republic of Lebanon has been a great challenge to its various religious constituencies.  It is the only country in the Middle East where Christians have at least an equal role in the political, economic, and civic life of the country.  Being a small country, Lebanon has always been affected by the interests of its larger and more powerful neighbors.  Certainly, in recent years the Arab-Israeli conflicts have had a direct impact on Lebanon.  The presence of several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees, a significant number of whom are armed, are a constant threat to the stability of the country, and were a prime factor in the hostilities of the 20 year conflict which began in 1975.  The presence of several thousand Syrian and Israeli troops during this same period have had a chilling effect on the political and social life of the country.
In the midst of all these trying circumstances, there is the desire, expressed recently by the Special Synod for Lebanon and the Holy Father himself, that Christians and Muslims in Lebanon seek ways to build a country which is a true democracy where all religions and peoples are free to exercise their fundamental human rights on an equal footing.
The tragic events of the last 25 years have resulted in the assassination and exile of many political and civic leaders.   This vacuum of leadership has required the Maronite patriarch to take on a national role, even larger than that of his immediate predecessors.  Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir (1986-) has fulfilled this challenge with a powerful eloquence and personal courage.  He has become the conscience of the nation.  At great personal risk, he has questioned the presence of foreign occupiers in the country.  He has challenged the world community to guarantee Lebanon’s independence and restore its sovereignty.  He has been the constant spokesman for the thousands who have been displaced because of the war, and for economic justice for the hundreds of thousands who have become impoverished.  While especially concerned with the welfare of his people, Patriarch Sfeir has sought to solidify the bonds and increase relations with all the religious communities in Lebanon.
The history of the Maronite Church reveals both times of struggle and persecution, and periods of progress and glory.  Its rich tradition and vibrant way of life is the result of 1500 years of labor, sagacity, and perseverance.  The constant throughout its history has been the leadership of its Patriarchs, in all aspects of Maronite life.  Now a world-wide Church, it faces the future with new threats to its survival, but with abundant internal resources and realistic confidence.  It lives in the hope that God will continue to provide her with Patriarchs of stature and qualities able to meet and overcome the greatest of challenges. 

This article is reprinted with permission from the “Maronite Voice”, Eparchy of Saint Maron USA, Special Issue Summer 2000, Volume 6.
For further reading on the subject, consult the following references: History of the Maronite Church, by P. Dib, translated by S. Beggiani, Diocese of Saint Maron: Detroit, 1971; Tarikh al Azminat, by I. Duwaihi, Edited by B. Fahd, Lahd Khater: Beirut, n.d.; The Power of the Patriarch - Patriarchal Jurisdiction on the Verge of the Third Millennium, by Rev. Francis John Marini, J.C.O.D., Maronite Rite Series Volume VI, 1998. The Maronite Patriarchate, by M. Awitt, Arab Printing Press: Lebanon, 1996; The Maronites, Roots and Identity, by W. P. Tayah, Florida: Beit Maroon, 1987.