Risky trip – Pope to Lebanon

A week from today, on 14 September, Pope Benedict XVI will depart on what is, in some ways, one of the most risky apostolic journeys of his papacy. He will be returning to the Middle East for the fourth time – after Turkey (2006), Jordan, Israel and Palestine (2009) and Cyprus (2010) – and this time the ever-looming spectre of local tensions is very concrete in the form of the civil war raging in next-door Syria. And with Lebanon’s recent history firmly tied up with that of Syria, the papal journey has been in limbo until recently.

Lebanon is the most Christian country in the Middle East, with almost 40% of the population belonging to several Christian churches, with the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch being the largest of these. Other Churches in union with Rome that have a significant presence in Lebanon are the Greek Melkites, the Armenian, the Chaldean, the Syrian and the Roman Catholic Church. All these Churches have their own circumscriptions, which makes for an intricate landscape of dioceses, patriarchates and vicariates. There are 33 active bishops and patriarchs in the country, headed by   the Patriarchs Béchara Pierre Raï (Maronite), Nersès Bédros XIX Tarmouni (Armenian) and Ignace Youssif III Younan (Syrian). Also of note are Lebanon’s only cardinal, Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir (Maronite emeritus) and Ignace Pierre VIII Abdel-Ahad (Syrian emeritus).

The upcoming papal visit will be a three-day affair, with major events careful spaced over the available time. On 14 September, the Holy Father will obviously be welcomed in Beirut, and he will sign the Post-Synodal Exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops (which he himself kicked off during his visit to Cyprus two years ago). On 15 September, Pope Benedict will meet with representatives of the government, diplomats, religious leaders (always interesting in a country with a strong Muslim presence) and the world of culture. He’ll also meet with young people, another staple of papal visits abroad, at the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkerké. The last day, 16 September, will see a public Mass and the presentation of the Post-Synodal Exhortation, as well as the recitation of the Angelus and the departure ceremony.

A fairly short visit, but an important one, as its impact will not be limited to Lebanon. Countries like Syria and Iraq, which also have fairly significant Christian minorities, are no doubt also a focal point of this visit.

In the meantime, let’s pray for safety for the Holy Father during his journey to a place where tensions run high, and for a fruitful apostolic journey, for Christians in Lebanon and abroad.

Unhappy priests?

Local news outlet RTV Noord reports unhappiness among some of the clergy of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. The reason? A string of new appointments which came into effect this month.

In general, parish priests remain in one parish (or, as is the case in the diocese in question, a cluster of parishes) for six to eight years. Among the priest that were reassigned were Father Peter Stiekema, who wrapped up twelve years in the south east of the province of Drenthe for Leeuwarden, the Frisian capital; and three young priests who are heading to their second assignment: Fathers Victor Maagd, Jos Deuling and Albert Buter. Fr. Bert van der Wal is also one of the reassigned priests. In an interview following the news of their reassignments, Fr. Stiekema and Maagd (pictured) commented on their move. “I go where I’m needed,” Fr. Stiekema said after admitting that the news had some emotional undertones for him. Fr. Maagd said, “the priesthood is a matter of being called and sent.”

Fr. Jos Deuling called the rumoured grumblings “misplaced”, and calls it “refreshing” for both priests and faithful to relocate every now and again.

While it is certainly understandable that leaving a familiar parish and beloved faithful behind is hard, it comes with the territory. As times change, so do the demands of the faithful and the diocese. Personally, knowing some of the priests in question to a certain extent, I have my doubts about the nature and extent of the unhappiness.

EDIT: Later today, Bishop Gerard de Korte offered a response that was much along the lines of what I wrote above. He understands the pain of leaving a familiar parish, but adds:

“We are of course also a Catholic Church in which the bishop can send his priests to where they are needed. So accepting that does have something to do with a bit of priestly spirituality.”

Photo credit:  DvhN/Duncan Wijting