Pope Benedict XVI has written a personal letter to the retiring Cardinal Patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic Church, thanking him for his “service for the greater glory of God and the good of all his faithful.”
On Feb. 26, the 90-year-old Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir of Antioch retired from his position as the leader of more than three million Maronite Catholics. He has served as a bishop for 50 years – 25 of them as his Church's patriarch – and as a priest for 60 years.
Although the outgoing patriarch – like most of the Maronite faithful – resides in Lebanon, difficulties in his homeland transformed his ministry into a global one. Pope Benedict took note of the fact in his letter, recalling how war had dispersed some Maronite Catholics throughout the world.
“You started this noble ministry of the Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites in the turmoil of the war that bloodied Lebanon for too many years,” he wrote, referring to the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. “With the ardent desire for peace for your country, you have driven this Church and traveled the world to comfort your people forced to emigrate.”
The Pope recalled how Patriarch Sfeir was chosen, in April of 1986, to lead one of the oldest Christian communities in existence. The Maronite Church, unlike most of the other Eastern Catholic Churches, was never formally separated from communion with the Holy See. Their primary liturgical language, Aramaic, is the language of Jesus himself.
During the 1990s, the Pope noted, “peace finally came back” to Lebanon – a peace that he observed was “always fragile, but still present.”
Pope Benedict drew attention in the letter to other key moments in Patriarch Sfeir's ministry, such as his 1994 appointment to the College of Cardinals, and Pope John Paul II's visit to Beirut in 1997. Looking back on these moments, the Holy Father said they signified the patriarch's depth of “communion with the Church Universal” and the “constant link” between the Maronite Church and the Church of Rome.
Maronites take their name from their patron, St. Maron, a priest and monk whose life and example established the traditions of the Syriac Church within present-day Syria and Lebanon during the fourth and fifth centuries. During 2010, Maronites celebrated a jubilee year marking the 1,600th anniversary of their patron saint's death.
Shortly before the patriarch's resignation on Feb. 23, Pope Benedict blessed a statue of St. Maron that was recently installed at St. Peter's in honor of the jubilee year.
“You have chosen to forego the burden of Patriarch of Antioch for the Maronites on this very special occasion,” the Pope acknowledged. “I welcome your decision, which is a free and magnanimous expression of great humility and deep detachment.”
“I am confident you will always accompany the path of the Maronite Church in prayer, wise counsel, and sacrifices.”