A church of many languages thrives in Brooklyn

The sounds of Arabic and Syriac could be heard at Our Lady of Lebanon, the Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights on Sunday, Feb. 10, as the church celebrated the annual feast of St. Maron.

 

At the 11:30 a.m. Mass, the cathedral was brimming with worshipers, some who joined the Mass at different intervals after it had begun. They padded across the church’s red carpets, with grand chandeliers suspended from the arched blue ceiling overhead. Mother Mary, painted above the altar, is crested by the mountains of Lebanon.

 

Unlike Roman Catholic churches, which largely say Mass in English in the United States (some parishes offer other languages, like Spanish, according to their parish needs), Maronite churches such as Our Lady of Lebanon have a Mass (or “Qurbono”) that combines English, Arabic and Syriac. The readings, for example, are recited first in English and then in Arabic.

 

The Rev. Bishop Gregory Mansour’s Sunday homily was one of the only parts of the Mass that was solely in English. On Sunday he spoke on the gospel reading, John 12:23-30. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Mansour quoted. The passage is often used by Christians to explain why Jesus died. Mansour used this scripture to address the feast day the cathedral was celebrating. “This could very easily apply to St. Maron,” Mansour said, given how the saint’s influence and following grew following his death.

 

In his homily, Mansour described how the legacy of St. Maron lives on. The saint, he said, was an “open air hermit” who travelled into the mountains to be closer to God, and went on to build a church there in the elements. But he said he wanted to highlight the lessons that can still be learned from the saint. He said there was something special about the “particular feeling” you “might be doing God’s work”—a feeling he suspected St. Maron had when he was building his community.

 

Mansour also drew attention to unique history of the Maronite Church. “We are the only church named after a person,” he said of the various Catholic churches, which also include the Roman, Chaldean and Melkite churches. He noted that the Maronite Church is unique because it has no Orthodox or protestant counterpart—Maronites say it has remained united since its founding, and has always been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. (Some scholars are in disagreement on this latter point.)

 

Mansour said the Maronite church never had the “luxury” of the corruption of the Middle Ages, obliquely referring to the period in which European Catholic leaders sold indulgences, forgiving sins for money. Meanwhile in Lebanon, Maronites were not in positions of power, and instead faced waves of persecution. St. Maron himself was an ascetic who chose a life of poverty. “This great church,” he said, “grew up in simplicity.”

 

This isn’t to say the Maronite Church is in conflict with the Vatican or with Roman Catholics—the Maronite Church is considered  “in full communion” with Roman Catholic Church.

 

But the Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic church with its own customs. For example, Communion is taken by mouth only and is dipped in the wine that Catholics say has been transformed into the Blood of Christ. While in many Roman Catholic parishes, the Sign of Peace consists of greetings, handshakes and hugs shared by congregants at will, in the Qurbono the Sign of Peace is offered at each pew by an altar server, who clasps his hands over those of the person closest to him. That person brings their hands to their mouths and turns to cover the hands of their neighbors with their own, and the chain of peace offerings continue down the pew.

 

The Maronite church also has its own local jurisdiction. Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral, for example, does not fall under the diocese of the Rev. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, but rather under the eparchy (or province) of St. Maron. Bishop Mansour presides over this area, which covers about 45 Maronite parishes in a vast area that includes the states of New York, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Maine. Both DiMarzio and Mansour serve on the United States Council of Catholic Bishops which reports to the Vatican.

 

In addition to highlighting the distinctive legacy of the church, Mansour seemed to temper outsize devotion to St. Maron. “Some people say St. Maron founded the Maronite church, but that’s not true,” he said. “Jesus is our founder, St. Maron was the follower.”