By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
After praying the Angelus on Sunday, Pope Francis said Lebanon has a particular identity, that it is the fruit of the encounter of different cultures, that has emerged over the course of time as a model of living together.
In an interview with Vatican News, Bishop Mansour, Maronite Eparch of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, which covers the eastern United States, explains how Christians outside of Lebanon were sustaining their country prior to the explosion, and how Lebanon’s "identity as a model of different cultures" is sustaining it in the aftermath of last Tuesday’s explosions.
Lebanon on the brink of failure
“Lebanon was really on the brink of becoming a failed state.” Such is the description Bishop Mansour gave of the situation Lebanon was in prior to the explosion. Since the government “has not been able to meet the needs of the people,” the Bishop said, "the Church, NGOs and families have been taking up the responsibilities of government for hospitals, schools, nursing homes, drug rehabilitation centers, and so on.” Many Lebanese Christians living outside of Lebanon have been contributing to maintain these structures in operation.
Beauty of the Church
What has been sustaining Lebanon is “the beauty of the Catholic Church, all the different rites, six different rites of the Catholic Church working very well together in Lebanon.”
This is the beauty that began to unfold in the aftermath of last Tuesday’s explosion, he says. It unleased “deep suffering and horror and tears and compassion for the people of Lebanon,” in Lebanese ex-patriots living in the United States.
Yet, despite the tremendous devastation, “The next day, not even 24 hours, you saw young people in the streets with brooms and shovels and Lebanese sandwiches and bandages working alongside with first responders. It was just beautiful.”
This showed Lebanese ex-patriots that “the idea of Lebanon, the passion, the beauty of Lebanon is still very much alive.”
‘Model of different cultures living together’
This is an echo of how Pope Francis described Lebanon, which, he said on Sunday, is often in his thoughts. He called on everyone, beginning with the Lebanese people “to work together for the common good of this beloved country.” He then said “Lebanon has a particular identity, fruit of the encounter of different cultures, that has emerged over the course of time as a model of living together.”
“We have heard it from the Popes for a long time,” Bishop Mansour says. Pope Paul VI at the end of Vatican II “spoke about Lebanon, spoke about the son of Lebanon, Saint Charbel, as the way to renewal in the Catholic Church.” That way is through “prayer by love.”
During the “darkest days of the Civil War,” Pope John Paul II referred to Lebanon as “more than a country.” Lebanon, Pope John Paul II said, is a “message of fraternity – east and west.”
Now Pope Francis has “reaffirmed that identity of Lebanon.”
“That's the Lebanon we see and love and share and work for. It's a profound, beautiful country and we don't want it to lose its identity or its mission.”
Roots of Lebanon’s identity
“Lebanon goes way back to the Old Testament,” Bishop Mansour explains. “The Phoenicians were great navigators of the world. They built commerce through friendliness, through warmth and friendship, not through military might.”
Just after World War I, the Maronite Patriarch went to Versailles “leading a group of Christians and Muslims,” including the Muslim Mufti, the Bishop continues. With the end of the Ottoman Empire, this delegation envisioned “Lebanon that would be a refuge of Christians and Muslims alike.”
The modern state of Lebanon was thus born.
“It was a Lebanon that included people, that brought them into a refuge, that took them out of the storm and allowed eighteen different confessions of Christians, Muslims and Jews to be a Lebanon that could be a model for plurality in the world.”
Hope for Lebanon’s future
Bishop Mansour hopes that Lebanon will one day prove wrong Samuel Huntington’s theory wrong that “Muslims and others could not get along.”
“I like to see Lebanon as Lebanon – as a contradiction to that dooming philosophy of life. And Lebanon has been that.”
He admits that the Lebanon “experiment” and its democracy are “fragile”. However, he has “great hope” that Lebanon will once again flourish, that with the interest now being shown by other nations, “especially those who have good intentions for Lebanon, Lebanon could make her way back to being that Switzerland of the Middle East, as it's sometimes called – the Paris – Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East."
"It's a cross of Western and Eastern cultures, Muslim and Christian faiths, and it's really an example, especially in her youth. And that's what we don't want to ever lose.”