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.