Today is the feast day of a saint I would imagine many people have never heard of before – Saint Sharbel (Charbel) Makhluf. He was born in Northern Lebanon on May 8, 1828 and baptized with the name, Joseph Zaroun Mahkluf. His uncle raised him after his father passed away. He was raised in a good Christian home that taught him the importance of daily prayer.
At the age of 23, he followed his two hermit uncles into St. Antonious Kozhaya Monastery where he became accustomed to the monastic life. After spending time in this monastery, he left for Our Lady of Maifouk Monastery. After one year there, he left for St. Maron’s Monastery in Annaya, Lebanon and joined the Maronite Order. As he entered the monastic life, he took the name, Charbel, after one of the early church martyrs in Antioch. On November 1, 1853, he professed his ceremonial vows at St. Maron’s Monastery in Annaya.
On July 23, 1859, Saint Charbel was ordained a priest in Bkerky, the Maronite Patriarchate. From 1859 to 1898, he lived in St. Maron’s Monastery and then in the St. Peter and Paul Hermitage, which belonged to the monastery. He was an ordinary saint and hermit. He spent most of his time in prayer and celebrating the Divine Liturgy. Charbel really never left the hermitage for he loved the monastic life dearly. He was known for his holiness and humility. He had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The faithful would often come to him asking for prayers and blessings.
On December 16, 1898, as he was celebrating the Divine Liturgy, he came down with a terrible illness. Six days later, on Christmas Eve, he died and entered into Heavenly glory. He was buried in a grave at St. Maron’s Monastery in Annaya. Some time after his death, lights began to appear around his grave. His body was exhumed and placed in a special coffin, since the corpse had been exuding blood and sweat. Many pilgrims, both Catholic and non-Catholic, came to this site seeking prayers and miracles.
In 1925, Pope Pius XI opened his case for Canonization. In 1950, his grave was unearthed and examined by a committee of theologians and doctors. His body was found to be incorruptible. Immediately, miracles and healings began to occur again, as it was after his immediate death. Pilgrims once more began to flock to his grave seeking intercessions and special graces.
He was beatified on December 5, 1965 and was canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 9, 1977. In his homily during the Canonization Mass for St. Charbel, Pope Paul VI said,
“And indeed, who would not admire, in Charbel Makhluf, the positive aspects that austerity, mortification, obedience, chastity, solitude have made possible a degree rarely attained?…The quality of his inner life, to the elevation of his prayer, his spirit of worship demonstrated in the heart of nature and especially in the presence of the Holy sacrament, his filial affection for the Virgin, and all these wonderful promises in the Beatitudes and implemented to the letter to the saint: gentleness, humility, mercy, peace, joy, participation in this life, the power of healing and conversion of Christ.”
Since today is the optional memorial feast day for this great saint from the East, I think it’s appropriate to briefly explain the Eastern Churches (or Rites) of the Catholic Church. Within the Catholic Church, there are quite a few churches that have established their own traditions in the areas of theology, spirituality, liturgy, and government. The Eastern Churches are composed of the Maronite, Armenian, Syrian, Malankare (India), Malabre (India), Alexandrine, Coptic, Ethiopian, Chaldean/Assyrian, Melkite, and Byzantine.
Each of these differ quite a bit from the Latin Rite (Western or Roman Rite) of the Church. For many of us who grew up in the Latin Rite, the Eastern side of the Catholic Church might be a foreign concept. However, we must first understand that the Catholic Church was established in the Eastern city of Antioch. After the Apostles were forced out of Jerusalem because of persecutions, they found refuge in Antioch (read Acts 11:19-30). From Antioch, the Church then spread out through the known world.
As the Church began to spread, it encountered many different cultures. It adapted aspects of this cultures that were consistent with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. As the Church spread to Alexandria, it became more Egyptian; it took on a Jewish heritage in the city of Antioch, in Rome, the Church took on an Italian expression; and in Constantinople it took on the appearance of the Roman imperial court.
It has been said before that the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church are the Eastern Rites. Here in the United States, most Catholics have their roots in the Latin Rite since many of the immigrants that came to the US over the years were from Europe.
So how important are the Eastern Churches to the universal Church?
The Second Vatican Council document, Unitatis Redintegratio, states, “all should realize that it is of supreme importance to understand, venerate, preserve, and foster the exceedingly rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern churches, in order faithfully to preserve the fullness of Christian tradition” (15).
Still need more proof?
Blessed John Paul II, said in his document, Ut unum sint,
“In this perspective an expression which I have frequently employed finds its deepest meaning: the Church must breathe with her two lungs! In the first millennium of the history of Christianity, this expression refers primarily to the relationship between Byzantium and Rome…Her [the Church] unity during the first millennium was maintained within those same structures through the Bishops, Successors of the Apostles, in communion with the Bishop of Rome. If today at the end of the second millennium we are seeking to restore full communion, it is to that unity, thus structured, which we must look” (54-55).
For more information on the Eastern Churches, I would suggest the websites: The Light of the East, Catholic Radio International – Light of the East, Byzantine Catholic Church in America, and The Maronite Monks of Adoration.
This post is dedicated to the Weis Family in Austin, Texas. While I was Theology Department Chair at St. Dominic Savio, they invited me to the Our Lady’s Maronite Church in Austin. I have become such a fan of Eastern Catholicism because of their invite. Thank you!