Across the world the one Catholic Church is present in various cultures and societies in different ways. Especially in the Middle East we find various Churches which are styled Catholic. Examples are the Armenian Catholic Church, the Coptic Catholic Church and the topic of this blog post, the Maronite Church. These are not separate churches, but churches in ‘full communion’ with Rome. This means what I wrote in my first sentences: rather than different churches assembled under the banner of Rome, they are embodiments of the one Catholic Church in various countries.
These churches, while being Catholic and thus part of the pope’s patrimony, are often led by patriarchs (although the exact title may differ per church). For almost 25 years the Maronite Church was led by Cardinal-Patriarch Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir. Although Maronite patriarchs usually stay on until death, 90-year-old Patriarch Sfeir’s resignation was accepted in late February.
In a conclave that is strikingly similar to the election of a new pope, the Maronite bishops came together in the Maronite heartland of Bkerké, Lebanon and, after five days, they elected Bishop Béchara Raï of Jbeil as the new patriarch. Patriarch Raï will be formally enthroned on 25 March.
The Maronite Church traces its foundation to Saint John Maron, who established the Christian community at Bkerké in the 7th century. Today, the Maronite Church claims between 3 and 3.5 million faithful across the globe. It has 8 archdioceses, 15 dioceses and 2 patriarchal exarchates in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Jordan.
So history and numbers come together to assure the importance of this new appointment. Patriarch Raï is 71 and not unfamiliar with his patriarchal see of Antioch; he was auxiliary bishop there between 1986 and 1990 before being appointed to Jbeil. In Lebanon, the historic heartland of the Maronites, the patriarch is an important political player, although he is not involved in any local or national government himself, of course. Patriarch Raï is considered to be a moderate with good connections with all political players.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein