Given at the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, Paddington, on 8 February 2015 at the Eucharistic liturgy on the Feast of St Maroun.
On a recent visit to Rome, my eye was caught by one of the new statues which adorn the outside wall of the Basilica of St Peter. In fact it is the newest of the statues, only unveiled by Pope Benedict XVI four years ago, almost to the day. It is, of course, the statue of St Maroun, your patron saint, whose Feast we celebrate today.
The statue depicts him wearing a priestly stole and holding a crozier in one hand, and in the other, a miniature church, in Maronite style. The inscription at the base of the statue reads ‘Pater et Fundatur’, Father and Founder. And that is why we celebrate him today. He is your Father in God and the founder of this rich tradition of Catholic Christianity.
You know his story well: born in the middle of the 4th century he became a priest and later a hermit, retiring to the mountain of Taurus near Antioch. He embraced the quiet solitude of the mountain. He lived, we are told, in the open air, exposed to the forces of nature – the sun, rain, hail and snow. His soul was so focused on the presence of God in all things that he was able to go beyond these forces of nature and all the hardships of this world and discover such a deep and intimate union with God. He knew from deep within himself that all was connected to God and God was connected to all. He actually used the physical world, and daily hardship, to deepen his faith and his spiritual relationship of love with God.
This remarkable testimony lies at the heart of the Maronite movement and indeed of your Church. It was, of course, a missionary testimony. St Maroun, from the solitude of the mountain, showed his faith by the daily actions of his life. And that is what we are called to do, too: to be witnesses to the faith remembering that every Christian is called to live out his or her faith in such a way that it becomes visible to others. No one should really be surprised to discover that any one of us is a follower of Jesus. Something of that faith should be clear by the way we live each day, by the way we respond to hardship, in our own lives and in the lives of others.
St Maroun’s holiness was well known. Even the famous Father of the Church, St John Chrysostom wrote to St Maroun around 405AD expressing his great love and respect and asking St Maroun to pray for him. Our presence here today is our letter to St Maroun, asking for his prayers and expressing our love for him.
St Maroun’s life was not only well known and loved. It was also effective. He brought about many cures of physical ailments that people suffered but he also had a great desire to bring other people to know the consolations of our faith. This came to fruition when, in the mountains of Syria, St Maroun was able to convert a pagan temple into a Christian Church. While he consecrated this temple to the true worship of God, his disciples were filled with the desire to bring others to this same faith. Then it was that his first disciple Abraham of Cyrrhus set out to do just that in the land we know as the Lebanon, starting the spread of your Church in that beautiful land which has seen, and still sees today, so much suffering and distress.
Let me return to the statue in Rome. There is another inscription on it which reads, in Syriac – so I need a translation – ‘The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon.’ What beautiful imagery: the palm tree – the bearer of fruit in the desert oasis; the cedar of Lebanon - a national symbol and a symbol of true beauty and plenty. This is our calling: to be a source of encouragement, nourishment, to all who are in distress, and, through our faith, to bring some light and beauty into our world, the light of the Lord and the beauty of the saints.
In my chapel in Archbishop’s House there is a cedar of Lebanon. It is the holder of a relic of another of your great saints – St Charbel. He too lived on a mountain fastness, dedicated totally to the prayer and praise of God and like St Maroun seeking God in the silence of a hermit and in the harshness of nature. He too was a great wonder worker, bringing God’s grace in miracles of healing to many who turned to him in their sickness and pain. He too is a witness to the richness of the Maronite tradition and the great gift it can be in the life of the whole Church.
May I ask of you, here in this Church, in this Diocese of Westminster, to bring this same richness into our life. Please do tell your story to other Catholics whom you meet, in whatever circumstance. Please do feel at home here in this Diocese and take part, whenever you can, in some of our initiatives and celebrations. Yours is such a rich and resilient life of faith that we can but be enriched by your contribution.
To finish may I tell you just a little of the Saint whose Feast we keep on this day? She is St Josephine Bakhita. She was born in Darfur, in the Sudan, in 1868. At the age of seven or nine she was captured and taken into slavery. Over twelve years in slavery she was mistreated and tortured, so that she ended up with 114 different patterns of wounds cut deep into her flesh and permanently disfiguring her. She suffered so much that she forgot her own name. She was given the name Bakhita from her slavers.
Eventually, in 1883, she was bought by a kind Italian consul who brought her to Italy and treated her well. Then, after much struggle and a long legal battle, she won her freedom and chose to enter the convent of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. That was in 1890, when she was baptised, at the age of 32, receiving the name Josephine Margaret. For the rest of her life she remained in the convent near Vicenza, praying and working in the kitchen and at the door. She died in 1947 and was canonised by Pope St John Paul II in the year 2000.
Today she is doing great work in the Church and beyond. She has been declared the patron saint of all caught up in modern slavery and human trafficking, which is the second most profitable crime in the world after the illegal sale of arms. From her hidden life of prayer, and from her intense suffering in this life, are coming great graces for many people, here in this city and across the world. Just like your great saints, Maroun and Charbel. In their lives we see our great traditions of the Catholic faith enriching each other.
As we rejoice today, let us learn again this greatest of lessons: the happiness for which we crave, for which we are created, will only be found when our lives are focussed on the Lord and when our hearts are turned to him in prayer. Then we will be generous and compassionate, forgiving and faithful. Then we will play our part in the great mission of the Church. A young man once, talking about his search for a wife, said he wanted a wife who loved God more than she loved him, because, he said, then she would be faithful to him and a wonderful mother. When God comes first, as in the lives of our saints, we too can do great things.
In this struggle to bring God’s goodness out of every difficulty we are accompanied by none other than Our Blessed Lady. We gather in this church dedicated to our Lady of Sorrows, reminding us of her presence even in our darkest moments, just as we think of Our Lady of Ilige. The beautiful image of Our Lady of Ilige radiates calm and peace. Before it so many holy Maronite women and men have prayed in the darkest hours of Lebanon’s history. They encourage us in our prayers today for all our brothers and sisters in the places known to St Maroun and indeed for Christians throughout the Middle East. United in prayer for them and with them, we ask they may always experience the motherly presence of Mary, bringing comfort and light of Christ, giving them strength and hope amidst the suffering and trials they endure.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols