An Aramaic Antiochian Catholic Church
Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
Who are the Maronites? By way of introduction, these
of Near Eastern origin grew out of the ancient Aramaic Antiochian Church.
Maronite Catholics are the followers of St. Maron, a monk of the fourth century,
and gathered under his leadership in northern Syria as a particular Church.
Like each of the Eastern Christian Churches, the Maronite Church is a particular
Church having its own distinctive liturgy, spirituality, and system of government
while adhering to the one true creed. The Eastern Churches are not
identified simply by special liturgical rites.
The Maronite heritage and traditions were shaped by the Apostolic See of
Antioch, established by St. Peter, its first bishop. From this ancient center
St. Paul launched the evangelization of the Gentiles. It was at Antioch
that Christ’s followers were first called Christians.
The Maronite Liturgy is modeled on the original, monastic liturgy formed
at Antioch from the second century using the Aramaic language spoken by Christ
and the Apostles. It traces its roots to the Apostle St. James the
Younger, first Bishop of Jerusalem. This liturgical tradition is shared
with the Syrian, Chaldean, Malabarese, and Malankarese Churches.
Unlike the other Eastern Catholic Churches the Maronite
Church does not have a dissident counterpart (non-Chalcedonian and Orthodox
Churches). In addition it is the only particular Church to be named
for the person who brought together its adherents into a community of the
After the death of St. Maron around 410, the hermits,
monks, and faithful who followed his leadership gathered and organized.
They built a monastery in his name between Hama and Aleppo in Syria in 452.
The famed monastery became known as Beit Maroun (House of Maron).
Eventually other monasteries were established and became centers of Maronite
life, and strongholds of resistance to the heresies of the day. Especially
were they noted proponents of the Council of Chalcedon (451) explaining that
Jesus Christ is True God and True Man, one Person with two natures – divine
and human. In 517, heresy was rampant and 350 monks were martyred in
defense of that council’s teachings.
Eventually many faithful around Antioch, now a Patriachate,
settled near those monasteries, and the Maronite community grew under the
leadership of these priests and monks, and their bishops. Among their
teachers and writers are the Fathers of the Aramaic Antiochian Church, notably
Ephrem and James of Sarug.
When violent persecutions erupted toward the end of the
seventh century, many Christians were forced to abandon their homes, possessions
and fertile farm land and take refuge in the protective mountains of Lebanon.
The Maronites were led by their first patriarch, St. John Maron, all the
while preserving their Aramaic culture and Catholic faith. Through
their efforts Lebanon became and still remains the land of multiple Christian
Churches who maintain their distinctive identities and traditions in total
freedom. Eventually the Maronites spread from Lebanon to Cyprus, Egypt,
Palestine, Iraq, and Rhodes. In the Middle Ages they assisted the Crusaders
and offered them refuge after their defeat.
Over the centuries the Maronite hierarchy met in many
synods to adapt and renew their Church’s particular laws and customs.
The most renowned meeting was the Patriarchal Assembly of Mount Lebanon held
in 1736. The second major Patriarchal Assembly will be concluded in
2005. Ordinary synods are convened annually. Especially since
the Second Vatican Council there has been a sweeping renewal movement to
overcome the Latinization of European influence and to return to the original
traditions, while adapting to contemporary advances.
Pope Gregory XIII established in 1584 a Maronite seminary
in Rome. Later another Maronite seminary flourished in Salamanca, Spain.
As Maronite families, clergy, and religious emigrated to Europe, they produced
many outstanding scholars whose teaching and influence at universities and
royal courts introduced the culture and learning of the East.
Maronite saints of modern times (nineteenth century) include
the beatified Massabki brothers martyred in Damascus, Syria, and the Lebanese
saints: St. Sharbel Makhklouf, St. Rafka (Rebecca), and St. Nimatallah Hardini.
The seed sown by St. Maron along the banks of the Orontes
River in Syria has evolved into a gigantic and majestic tree, like the famed
cedar of Lebanon, and still flourishes. Today the Maronite Church is
expanding on all populated continents of the world with native clergy and
The Maronite Patriarchal See is located in Bkerke, Lebanon,
not far from the historic Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa.
From their beginnings, the Maronites were known for their special devotion
to our Blessed Mother, and all the various residences of their patriarchs
have been dedicated to her. Many Maronite churches also bear her name,
and replicas of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon are found in several countries
across the world.
N.B. Author’s note to editor:
You may wish to add at the end of this article a paragraph of information
about the Maronite Church in your country: see and name of eparchy, when
eparchy was established, bishop, number and location of parishes and institutions,
number of faithful, etc.