Monastic traditions are foundation of Maronite Church

YOUNGSTOWN — St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church is no different from many other churches observing Lent with services of prayer and reflection.

But its approach showcases its Maronite heritage, unique in its liturgical foundation, language and theology.

The Rev. Gary George is pastor of the church at 1555 S. Meridian Road, one of only 100 Maronite churches and related institutions in the United States. “The Maronite church is the only Eastern church named after a saint, St. Maron,” Father Gary said. “We’re part of the Eastern Catholic church with no Orthodox counterpart.”

The Maronites are an Eastern rite Catholic church that never split with Rome; Patriarch Nasrallah Peter Sfeir oversees the Maronite Church based in Bkerke, Lebanon.

St. Maron church is part of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon in St. Louis, Mo., with Bishop Robert Shaheen. The other is Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn, N.Y. A Web site on Maronite heritage offers an array of statistics including that Maronites number about 200,000 in the United States, 1.4 million in Lebanon and 3.5 million worldwide.

Father Gary explained that the church founder, St. Maron, was a monk and hermit who was born in the middle of the fourth century. His holiness attracted followers to “preach and pray” in his community. “The foundation is monastic traditions,” Father Gary said. The liturgy is simple but rich in scriptural references.

Another element is the church design, which resembles a tent for a reason. “The church is constantly moving, it’s not stagnant,” Father Gary said. He also noted that the tabernacle resembles a basket to recall the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

“The altar is a central focal point. Our altar is from the foundation here,” he said. “The altar should face East. In the psalms, East is the beginning of the day. East is the beginning of prayer.”

The Maronite liturgical calendar is based on seasonal arrangement with observances beginning on Sundays. Among them are the season of the birth of our Lord, Epiphany season, Resurrection season, Pentecost season and Holy Cross season. “The liturgical seasons are based on pattern of Scriptures found in the Lectionary [a systematic pattern of Scripture readings for Sundays, weekdays, feasts and special occasions]. The Lectionary was composed in the fifth century in the West Antiochene tradition,” Father Gary said.

“The liturgy structure and theology is different,” Father Gary said, comparing it with other practices.

But, because there is no fasting on Sundays, the season of Lent began for the Maronites on Ash Monday, Feb. 4. Lent ends on Hosanna Sunday, March 16, which is Palm Sunday in other Christian traditions.

“On that day, we process with palms and branches around the church,” Father Gary said. It’s called shanini, the Arabic word for procession with branches.

“Holy Week is all on its own,” Father Gary said, noting it is not considered part of Lent. “It’s about prayer, abstinence and almsgiving.”

Father Gary devised the prayers around the cross that make up a service held at 7 p.m. Fridays during Lent. “I developed these prayers myself and they’re based on the monastic tradition,” he said. “They originated from the Good Friday prayer at the cross. We find ourselves at the foot of the cross … home of repentence, compassion and mercy.”

This service and other also includes hymns, and 90 percent are based on psalms.

On Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week, there will be prayers of repentence and confessions. Wednesday brings the Rite of the Lamp. “Candles are placed in a big tub of dough. The dough symbolizes the bread of life, the yeast represents us and the candles symbolize the Eucharist,” Father Gary said.

Thursday of the Mysteries features the ceremony of the washing of the feet, recalling when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. “There is great ceremony to this,” Father Gary said.

On Great Friday, Father Gary said the corpus is removed from the cross and buried in a tomb at the altar. “The perfect offering is under the altar. On Easter, the tomb is opened and we rejoice with the risen cross,” he said.

Saturday mimics the “silence of the tomb” with no liturgical celebration. The church is quiet, Father Gary said.

Easter Sunday is the Service of Great Light. “The focus is on the opened tomb and Mary Magdalene seeing the apparition of the Resurrection,” he said.

Prayers, hymns and parts of the Mass in the Maronite tradition are in Syriac, the liturgical language; Aramaic, the language Jesus would have spoken; and Arabic, the language of the people of Lebanon. “English also is used to adjust to the language of the people,” Father Gary said.

These languages are part of the cultural tradition of the majority of Maronite believers, most of whom are of Lebanese and Arabic descent. Father Gary said he is a Maronite by birth … his grandparents were from Lebanon and he was born and reared in South Africa. He has served at St. Maron since 1999.

Father Gary is a monk in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, popularly known as the Redemptorists. The congregation follows the example of Jesus Christ announcing the good news to the poor and the most abandoned. St. Alphonsus Liguori of Italy founded the congregation in 1732.