Who and what are "Maronite Catholics"?

In the first place, we are Catholics: our orders and sacraments are recognized as valid by Catholic churches throughout the world.  Any Catholic can fulfill his obligations to attend mass at any Maronite church, just as we are admitted to communion in all Catholic churches throughout the world.  We are an Eastern "rite" of the universal Catholic Church, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, there are nine different Eastern rites practicing in the United States.

What does the "Maronite" mean?


That calls for a bit of history:  After the Ascension of Christ, the disciples went, as commanded, all over the world, teaching the Gospel, baptizing in the name of Trinity, and founding new churches.  One of those places was Antioch in Syria, where, as noted in The Acts of the Apostles, the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.  These churches, founded locally, used the local languages and, in addition to baptism, celebrated the Eucharist as Christ has commanded.

These churches kept in contact with each other through visits and correspondence, the most notable correspondent and visitor was Apostle Paul.  When St. Paul was returning to Jerusalem from his third apostolic journey, he found a thriving Christian community at Tyre in Lebanon and stayed there for a week.  This shows how busy the early Christians were in founding local churches. Some were under the authority and direction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, some under the Patriarch of Antioch, and later, under the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Rome.  Just as the first Disciples acknowledged the primacy of Peter, the Patriarchs generally acknowledged the primacy of his successor, later known as the Pope.  Today, our church looks to the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, who, in turn, is subservient to the Pope of Rome. Our present patriarch, Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, has been elevated to the rank of Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

Now, back to the question.  A very saintly man named Maron decided to devote his life to God in solitude of a mountain.  This was some time prior to the middle of the fifth century A.D. That much is known because his biography was written in 440 A.D.   His solitude did not last long, for all kinds of people came to him to be cured, both physically and spiritually.  He re-dedicated a nearby pagan temple to God, and spent much time preaching the gospel and converting pagans. On account of his miracles and saintly life, he was canonized a saint. Because of the intensity of his teaching and the example if his holy life, many converts organized themselves into monasteries and called themselves 'Maronite" to show the ideal which they attempted to follow.  The earliest ones were trained and directed by St. Maron himself.  Among those he trained were St. Simon Stylites and St. Eusebius.  His influence spread over a large area of Asia Minor, including Lebanon and Syria.  It is no surprise that many Christians called themselves "Maronites."

In the early days of the spread of Christianity, theological questions were often fought over wither bitter intensity.  In the years preceding 451 A.D., many Christians pondered over the nature of Christ.  Was he God?  Some Christians reasoned that the divine nature of Christ was so powerful that it annihilated the human.   They were called the "Monophysites," meaning "one nature".   The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 decreed that monophysitism was a heresy and that Christ was both fully human and fully God.  That is the doctrine of the Catholic Church to this day.  However, after the Council, some of the monophysites attempted to coerce the others to believe in the single nature of Christ, and to prove their point, they slew 350 Maronite monks and wounded an equal number.  Such is the stuff from which unyielding martyrs are made, and Chalcedonianism and Maronitism became, and remain, synonymous.  The Superior of the Monastery of St. Maron addressed an appeal to Pope St. Hormizdas, relating the event and asking him to rise up and defend them.  The letter is addressed to "Hormizdas, the Universal Patriarch, who sits in the See of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles."

That was the first document showing the fact that the Pope was acknowledged as the supreme pontiff.  During later years, there were occasional strains in the relationship between the Maronites and the Roman pontiff.  Some of them were caused by the language barriers: neither side understood the other.  Also  in those days, travel and correspondence were fraught with many dangers and delays.  In order to cultivate better correspondence between the Church of Rome and the churches of the East, two successive popes, Paul III and Pius IV, to found a Maronite College in Rome, where Maronite priests could study Western languages and liturgy.  Finally, on July 5, 1584, Pope Gregory XIII, acting on further instance of Patriarch Sarkis, founded the Maronite college of Rome, where Maronite priests could study.

In recent years ("recent," in the context of the history of Christianity), Pope Leo XIII wrote the Apostolic Letter Orientalium Dignitas (1894), in which he sought to safeguard the significance of the Eastern traditions for the whole Church and 100 years later (1994), Pope John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen, in which he states: "Since ... we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ's Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it ..."

The persecution mentioned above was unfortunately typical of what happened to the Maronites over the centuries.  As it happened to almost all practicing Christians under the rule of Islam and the Turks, the Maronites had to endure persecution.  But persecution from without has been the secret that motivated Christians from the very beginning.  In part due to the need for survival, the Maronites took refuge in the mountains of Lebanon.  Like any refugee community, they jealously guarded and cultivated their age-old traditions.  Today, most of the Maronites are Lebanese, or of Lebanese descent.

One of the most precious traditions that they kept was the use of Aramaic (the language that Christ and his disciples spoke among themselves) in some parts of the liturgy.   Today, during the mass, at the moment of consecrations, the priest chants the narrative of the Institution in Aramaic so that we presumably are hearing not only the story of the Last Supper, but we hear it in the language the Christ Himself used!