Back to the Future: 
How Far We Have Come in a Generation

By Father Anthony J. Salim 
Eparchial Director of Religious Education, Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon  of Los Angeles, and pastor of Saint Maron Parish, in Youngstown, Ohio. 

This talk was delivered on 23 July 1999 at the 36th Annual Convention of the National Apostolate of Maronites, in Anaheim, California. Father Salim may be reached by E-Mail at


"Back to the Future." Perhaps many of you remember the film of that name. In it, the star of the film, seeking to learn something about his present and consequently his future travels back in time to the days when his parents met. The film, of course, is lighthearted, but it made an important point: In order to know our present and future course of life, we must know our past. The Maoris of New Zealand express a similar thought in a saying of theirs: "The past is in front of you, the future behind you." This theme is the focus of my presentation. Therefore at the outset, I would like to make three statements. The first is a question: How has returning to the sources of our Maronite Tradition helped us become a better Church witness in our world? The second is the purpose of the talk: To show how we got to this point today in a generation. The third is to share a vision: A renewed Maronite Church in the United States in the Third Millennium. 


I would like to take us back to the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, 34 years ago, that is, roughly a generation. For many, including myself, this history-making event in the life of the Catholic Church remains a great blessing. The main purpose of this Council was pastoral, focusing on the renewal of the Church and her engagement in the life of the modern world. 

Breathing with Both Lungs 

The Council did not confine itself only to the Western Church, but concerned the Eastern Catholic Churches as well. One of the 16 documents to issue forth from the Council was the "Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches" (Orientalium Ecclesiarum). This important document spoke clearly of the value of the Eastern Churches for the very life of the whole Catholic Communion of Churches. In the now famous phrase of Pope John XXIII of happy memory, the Catholic Church must once again "breathe with both lungs," meaning, of course, Catholic living as Eastern and Western. 


In this document, the Council Fathers also pointedly called on us Easterners to return to the legitimate forms of our Eastern Traditions, especially if our Churches had been influenced by the customs of the Latin Church. Clearly, then, this meant for the Eastern Churches an official end to the latinization process that affected us for so long. In the case of our Maronite Church, this was a near-millennium-long experience with the coming of the Crusaders into Lebanon at the end of the 11th century. 

An Example from Sacred Art 

As a lover of art, especially religious art, I find that the history of the now well-known icon of Our Lady of Ilige instructive. This icon, enthroned in the Maronite monastery at Mayfouq, Lebanon, appeared in this century as a typical Italianate painting of the Madonna and Christ Child. Maronite artists, suspecting that an authentic Maronite icon must lie buried beneath it, began a painstaking removal of eight layers of painted overlay. Beneath these layers lay the 10th-century original we know today, the Theotokos in a traditional pose as the Hodigitria, or "Way-shower" to Jesus, her Divine Son. 

One of Many Catholic Churches 

I see this event as a metaphor for the centuries of latinization in our Church, either imposed on us or accepted by us. The Council asked us to strip away the layers in order to discover the authentic, ancient beauty of our Tradition. 

The "Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches" also influenced us in another important area that of Church Law that would be made concrete with the promulgation of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO) in 1991. 

With the Code of Canons, the Eastern Catholic Churches are now to be seen as self-governing Church bodies under their legitimate, hierarchical authorities in our case, the Maronite Patriarch and bishops while remaining in communion with the See of Rome. For this, the Law uses the term, sui iuris, Latin for "(existing) by its own right." Following the understanding more common in the first Millennium of the undivided Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches are once again to be seen as governing themselves in all things. In the case where events cannot be effectively addressed within a Particular Church, the Bishop of Rome may intervene for the good of the whole Church, acting in an appropriately limited exercise of papal primacy. 

This shift in understanding about the nature of the Eastern Catholic Churches is not new it is very ancient. By returning to this understanding, the Catholic Church hopes to reconfigure its ecclesiology (that is, the structure of the Church) so as to pave the way for reunion with the Orthodox and other Churches. 

We are only just beginning to see the concrete implications of being a sui iuris Church; that is, a new way of experiencing what it means to a Catholic on appropriately specific terms. For example, it means that I may no longer use the well-known but inaccurate, pre-Conciliar phrase, (to be) "under the Pope." As a Maronite I am governed by the Maronite Patriarch and my whole Church sui iuris is in communion with Rome and its Bishop. Nor may I any longer claim that I am a "Roman Catholic." Rather, I am an Eastern Catholic of a specific Tradition (Antiochian-Syriac Maronite). It means that any other sui iuris Church including the Latin Church is as Catholic as we are. 

It means that since I understand that I belong to a Particular Eastern Catholic Church and am not merely a liturgical entity, I tell others that I am a member of the Maronite Church and may no longer say that I am of the Maronite "Rite." It means that I don't refer to Maronite eucharistic worship as the "Mass"; rather, I attend the "Divine Service," or Qoorbono; or the "Divine Liturgy," or simply, the "Liturgy." Incidentally, in this understanding of Particular Eastern Church, our Maronite Church is the second largest Eastern Catholic Church, unless, with the phenomenal growth of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church of India, we have been displaced to third largest! 

How did we come to the present stage in our journey, and what was the process? 


Early commentators on Vatican II spoke of two great influences that drove the Council: réssourcement and aggiornomento. The first, a French term, means "going back to the sources." Even though the Council was called as a pastoral look at today's Church, many of the Council Fathers realized that there is a great wealth of wisdom in the Church's Tradition that has nourished the Church throughout the ages, but that had been neglected. In particular, the Council focused on the Bible, the Fathers of the Church and the Liturgy. By returning to these sources, the Fathers taught that new life could again be breathed into the Church. The Maronite Church was called to look back to its proper sources. The second term aggiornomento means "looking to the day," or updating. 

The Holy Bible 

After the ground-breaking papal document of 1943 on the Bible, Divino Afflante Spiritu, the Catholic Church moved into the mainstream of biblical studies long dominated by Protestant thought. Today, with scholars like the late Father Raymond E. Brown, Catholics actually lead the field. There is no excuse for the average Catholic to be ignorant of solid Bible interpretation, because the market is filled with good resources. 

Maronites now have a clearer sense that our yearly life with the Bible is guided by what is known as the "Lectionary." And even though the final version is yet to be published, the interim Lectionaries in use signal to us that there is a Maronite way to read the Scriptures, following the pattern of the Liturgical Year. Many of us actually rejoice in special liturgical seasons such as the Season of Happy Announcements (Season of the Glorious Birth of the Lord) or the magnificent Miracle Gospels of the Season of Great Lent. 

In addition, we have come more widely to appreciate the role of the Hoosoyo in demonstrating and celebrating in a fruitful way the theme(s) of a particular liturgical celebration. Works like the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, listed in the Bibliography, help us to recover how the Fathers of the Church (including the Antiochian and the Syriac Church) interpreted God's Word. 


The technical word for the study of the Fathers is "patristics." The writings of the early Fathers of the Church were seen as an important font that could again inspire Catholic Christian living. The last 50 years, especially in Britain and in the United States, have seen a flourishing of studies in English of the Syriac Church Fathers, people such as Saint Ephrem, "Harp of Holy Spirit," Aphrahat, "The Persian Sage," James of Saroogh (Serug), Isaac of Nineveh (or, of Syria), Philoxenus of Mabbough, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus (or, of Cyr); not to forget the previously mentioned abundant works of Saint John Chrysostom. 

All of these are now quite accessible in English. We should be indebted to scholars like Sebastian Brock, of England. I also acknowledge Father Joseph Amar, of our own American Maronite Community. As Chairman of the Department of Classical Languages at Notre Dame University in Indiana, he has contributed much toward Syriac studies, having organized the annual Syriac Symposium at Notre Dame (The 3rd Symposium was held this last Spring). Reading the works of the Syriac Fathers, we can get a sense of their deep spirituality, and through them we can deepen our own. We also discover the Syriac roots of our liturgical tradition, as Chorbishop Seely Beggiani has shown in his invaluable work, Early Syriac Theology: with Special Reference to the Maronite Tradition. 

Here is a sample quote from Saint Ephrem's Hymns on the Resurrection, #1, strophes 2-3. Pay attention to how closely the language resembles the Transfer Chant, "The Lord Reigns," from the Divine Service, especially the second quoted strophe:

The Shepherd of all flew down
in search of Adam, the sheep that had strayed;
on His shoulders He carried him, taking him up: 
he was an offering for the Lord of the flock.
Blessed is his descent!
He sprinkled dew and life-giving rain
on Mary the thirsty earth.
Like a seed of wheat He fell again to Sheol,
to spring up as a whole sheaf, as the new Bread.
Blessed is His offering!
The Reformed Qoorbono

The third source, the liturgical tradition especially the Qoorbono (the Divine Liturgy) is one that all five Eastern Traditions acknowledge as a fundamental source of spirituality, prayer and catechesis. In the last generation, the Maronite Church has come a long way in attaining a more authentic form.

Since 1972, there have been in the United States, three versions of the Qoorbono. The second version, used from 1972 to 1992, allowed us to see what the Divine Service should more properly look like. Under the leadership of Archbishop Francis Zayek, with his bold, prophetic liturgical vision, we accommodated quickly and prayed it well, especially at eparchial gatherings. 

The introduction of the current form of the Divine Service in 1992 for the most part caused little problem for our American Maronite Community, for we had been already acclimated to the main lines of this "new" version for 20 years. Once again I refer you to the work of Msgr. Beggiani, his helpful Commentary on the Divine Liturgy (now in its second revision). 

Two Other Considerations 

In our réssourcement I would like to add to these three previously mentioned sources two other examples of this new-yet-old way of thinking: catechetics (i.e., religious education) and inculturation. Remember, our goal is to discover how looking back can aid us in our journey forward as Maronites. 


Recently, the Vatican has published a revision of the former General Catechetical Directory, now known as the General Directory for Catechesis. This Directory sets forth the rationale and principles for transmitting Catholic Teaching through effective catechesis. In the 21 October 1998 issue of L'Osservatore Romano, the Pope addressed the members of the Oriental Congregation and spoke of the need for proper catechesis for the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Pope suggested that a Catechetical Directory specifically for the Eastern Churches be composed. In his words: 

"It would likewise be helpful to prepare a Catechetical Directory that would take into account the special character of the Eastern Churches, so that the biblical and liturgical emphasis as well as the traditions of each Church sui iuris in patrology, hagiography and even iconography are highlighted in conveying the catechesis" (CCEO, can. 621, §2). 

In this regard, the catechetical method of the Fathers of the Church, which was expressed in "catechesis" for catechumens and in "mystagogy" or "mystagogical catechesis" for those already initiated into the divine mysteries, is enlightening. 

Thus, such a Directory would more appropriately use, in addition to the Bible, the Eastern Fathers (in our case, the Syriac Fathers, among other Eastern Fathers); the Divine Liturgy (the Qoorbono, the Divine Office and the seven sacramental Mysteries); hagiography (i.e., the lives of the Eastern saints); and even iconography. What this tells me is, negatively, the current General Directory (and the companion document with which it is paired, the Catechism of the Catholic Church) is not completely adequate to express the depth and method of Eastern Catholic thought; and, positively, that we must see ourselves as the Particular Churches the Council called us to be, even in the area of catechesis. 

Of note during the last generation was the publishing of an elementary-grade-level religious education series, "Faith of the Mountain" (a revision of which is currently being completed) and a high-school-level series also by the same title. 

In general, it has taken the more conservative Eastern Churches more time to assimilate the urgings of the Council. Specifically, while it has also taken some time for the Council's impetus to be felt more fully in our Maronite Church in general, in one generation the Maronite Church in the United States has made a good deal of progress. 


There is one other important aspect that must be acknowledged before moving on to a consideration of how the progress mentioned above happened. It is the aspect of Middle Eastern culture, specifically Lebanese culture, particularly as an element that has shaped American Maronite consciousness up to the present. 

This consideration of what has happened to Lebanese culture over the last two generations in the United States has been documented elsewhere, and many of you are familiar not only with this discussion but you are also aware of the impact that being Lebanese and American is experienced in your homes and families. As with other cultures exported to new shores, over time the mother Culture -- this case, Middle Eastern -- becomes diluted as new generations are born. When ethnic concerns are too tied to ecclesial and ritual experience, the latter (Church and worship) will suffer with the loss of cultural living unless the religious experience is redefined. One thinks of the creation of the Septuagint by Jews of the Diaspora, for example. 

This redefinition of our Maronite Church has begun in the last generation, in conjunction with the understandings of Church renewal. We are coming to see more clearly that what defines a Maronite is not primarily that he or she is a Lebanese; rather, being Maronite is a spiritual reality that has roots well beyond current Lebanese and Syrian culture(s). In other words, one doesn't have to be of Lebanese or Syrian descent to be a Maronite. Only when this is better realized will we Maronites of the United States make progress in our own self-understanding as a Syriac Church of the Antiochian Tradition living in a Western country. This holds true for Maronites wherever they are in the world today. 

The second dynamic driving the Council was Pope John XXIII's idea that there was an urgent need for the Church to begin to look outward to the needs of the modern world and actively to engage itself in an effective way to those needs. Reform of the Church was needed. The Italian word that the Pope used was aggiornomento, which means "looking to the day," or updating. This embracing of the soul of the world was needed if the Church was to be the effective sign of the abiding Presence of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit. 

A key document of the Council that expressed this idea was entitled, Gaudium et Spes, "Joy and Hope." Also known as the "Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," this document spoke in soaring language about integrating the joys and hope, the grief and anguish, of humanity into what it means to be truly human in the best sense. 

This is, of course, not a new idea. Rather, it has always been the mission of the Church, even if at times in history this mission became obscured. By going back to the thought of the Church Fathers (réssourcement), we can be once again inspired in our present and future mission (aggiornomento). 

Saint John Chrysostom, as Patriarch of his Church in Constantinople, makes a bold challenge to the royalty and the rich of his day in this quote: 

"How ridiculous and absurd to thread your shoes with silk laces... What form of madness can be worse? He who ought to bend his thoughts and eyes heavenward casts them down upon his shoes instead. His chief care, as he walks delicately through the Forum, is to avoid soiling his boots with mire or dust. Will you let your soul grovel in the mire while you are taking care of your boots? Boots were MADE to be soiled: if you cannot bear this, take them off and wear them on your head instead of on your feet! You laugh when I say these words, but I rather weep for your folly."

Saint Isaac of Nineveh, in a less biting way, teaches us the Gospel as he writes about caring for another: "If you give something to someone who is in need, then let a cheerful face precede your gift, along with kind words and encouragement for his suffering. When you do this, the pleasure he feels in his mind at your gift will be greater than the needs of his body. A person who, while having God in mind, honors everyone, will find everyone to be his helper, thanks to the hidden will of God. Someone who speaks in defense of a person who suffers injustice will find an advocate in his Creator. Whoever gives a hand to help his neighbor is helped by God's own hand. (Compare the American aphorism, "God help those who helps themselves." But the person who accuses his brother for his evil deeds will find God as his accuser. 

The Fathers though are not merely writers of words. Caring for the many victims of earthquakes in his adopted city of Edessa, Saint Ephrem died in their service in 373 A.D. Ephrem would have related to the words (and deeds) of a much later Western saint, Francis of Assisi, who is reputed to have said, "Preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words." 

The mission of the laity has gained impetus in the last generation with the organization that is hosting this very Convention: The National Apostolate of Maronites (NAM). Since the early 1960s N.A.M. has matured in many ways, seeking to unite lay persons all across this vast land. Its successes have not been achieved casually, and many goodhearted people have dedicated much of their busy lives to making an effective apostolate a reality. 


I would like to close this talk with a word about the challenge of living in cyberspace that living in the Third Millennium will present to us. I begin by asking you to recall how difficult it was at the time of Saint Paul and the early Church (the First Millennium) to get a message to someone over a relatively small distance. This sometimes took months. Think of what that meant for the formation and sustenance of the fledgling Churches and the spread of the Gospel. 

Next, think about how much that had changed at the dawn of the Second Millennium. I dare say not much. It was actually only near the very end of this Millennium that communications media have taken on the speed and convenience we now take for granted. 

Cyberspace is the keyword for the Third Millennium. How will the Church that is, you and I use cyberspace to advance the cause of Christ and his mission in the next 10, 100, 1000 years? That is a big question as we look ahead. Yet in this matter we must always remember that the Church is more than a Web page. Faith sustained the first Christians and those that followed them; it will sustain us Christians well. Recalling the saying of the Maoris, "The past is in front of you, the future behind you," Christians rely on God's Word, "Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever!"

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