Blending of cultures, veneration of Maronite saint's relics lead to ‘unique experience’

With the veneration of the relics of St. Sharbel at St. Raymond's Cathedral in St. Louis Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 came an opportunity to involve the Hispanic community in a Spanish Maronite Mass there Nov. 1.

Maronite Catholics belong to one of the 22 Catholic Churches that are in union with each other and in full communion with the pope in Rome. The spiritual heritage of the Maronite Church is traced to a fourth-century hermit, St. Maron. St. Raymond's architecture, liturgy and devotions are all part of the Lebanese Christian culture.

St. Sharbel is widely known and honored in his native Lebanon. The holy monk also is venerated among the people of Mexico, who recognize him under the name San Charbel. He is seen as an example of how prayer and silence can bring people closer to God.

Sylvia Flores of Holy Trinity Parish in St. Ann said she enjoyed the blending of cultures, with the Mass and songs mostly in Spanish but also with bits in Aramaic, Latin and English. "It was amazing, a different Mass for sure," she said. "It was a unique experience for me."

Lorena Contreras of Holy Trinity had an impression similar to other Hispanic Catholics there. "I didn't know about him (St. Sharbel), and I wanted to see more about his life, why he's a saint and to know who he is," Contreras said.

Marcos Rodriguez, a Kenrick-Glennon seminarian, said the occasion was a good opportunity to venerate the relics of a saint and also to get to know more about his life. Father Randy Soto, who teaches at Kenrick-Glennon and has a grandparent from Lebanon, said that "when we have the opportunity to venerate the relics of a saint we're joining the universal Church in giving thanks to the Lord. And on the feast of All Saints, it's all the more reason to give veneration."

Chorbishop Moussa Joseph of St. Raymond's, who concelebrated the Mass with Dominican Father Jose Santiago, said he has been impressed by people from the community whose faith has been touched by visiting the relics. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson earlier that day gave the homily at a Mass at St. Raymond's and related the relics to the Feast of All Saints.

"It's a great honor for us that the relics came here," Chorbishop Joseph said. " It's appropriate in the Year of Mercy because St. Sharbel was known for his faith and spiritual renewal. He was not only a saint but a righteous person, known through his deeds, life of prayer and commitment to God. We're very honored to make him known not only to the St. Raymond's community but to all of St. Louis."

A visitor from California, Jeff Watson, was in town to assist an ill family member and heard about the relics. "It was appropriate timing for obvious reasons to pray for recovery," he said.

In the Maronite Voice newsletter, Bishop A. Elias Zaidan wrote that the visit of the relics of St. Sharbel are an opportunity to repent, to receive mercy from the Lord and extend mercy to others. It is an opportunity to evangelize as well, he stated.

Bishop Zaidan noted that the veneration of relics has a long history in the Church. Often, the sites of the burials of early Christians who were martyred became shrines and items associated with them as well as their very bodies were held in great esteem, Bishop Zaidan noted. Even in the time of the Old Testament there are accounts of the relics of holy people, he said.

Relics of the saints, however, are not some type of lucky trinkets or magic objects, he added. In and of themselves they do not have supernatural power — it is only through the power of God that people connect to those now in heaven who we believe are praying for us here on earth.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beatification of St. Sharbel at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

The Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon spans 34 states, ministering to Maronite Catholics from California to Ohio and Michigan to Alabama. 

St. Sharbel Makhluf

• Born Youssef Antoun (Joseph Zaroun Makhluf on May 8, 1828, in Beekaa Kafra, Lebanan.

• Studied at a number of monasteries in preparation for Holy Orders. Ordained in 1859 in Bkerke, Lebanon, and assigned to the St. Maron Monastery.

• Subscribed to asceticism, abstaining from worldly pleasures to pursue a more spiritual goal. This led to a life of a hermit monk. In 1875, he was assigned to the Hermitage of Sts. Peter and Paul, where he lived for 23 years as a solitary hermit.

• Died on Christmas Eve, 1898 and was buried at St. Maron Monastery. Reportedly, lights would be seen over his grave, leading to exhumation of his body, which was found in perfect condition even after having been buried without a coffin. His body was placed in a wooden coffin for veneration and contemplation in a chapel at the monastery. Pieces of worn clothing were being distributed as relices, with a healing effect. Christians and nonChristians began to take pilgrimages to the monastery. Monastery records list tens of thousands of healings by God through the intercession of St. Sharbel.

• Canonized Oct. 9, 1977

Source: St. Raymond's Maronite Cathedral from catholic.org, findagrave.com and saintchabel-annaya.com. 

Saints

Maronite Bishop A. Elias Zaidan stated that the veneration of the relics of St. Sharbel can be a channel of God's grace to His people. The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the Communion of Saints:

"Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness... . They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus ... . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped" (CCC, 956).

"Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life" (St. Dominic, dying, to his brothers).

"I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth" (St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Final Conversations, tr. John Clarke, Washington: ICS, 1977).

"We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always (attentive) to our prayers" (Paul VI, CCC, 962). 

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