Fr. George William Rutler’s homily podcast.
There are saints whose lives were inconspicuous and whose canonizations surprised some who thought they were unexceptional. There are others whose mystical gifts were so prodigious that they made every effort, sometimes amusingly as in the instance of Philip Neri, to distract attention from themselves. In recent centuries these would certainly include John Vianney, Padre Pio and Charbel Makhlouf, canonized in 1977, whose feast we celebrate on July 24.
He was born in 1828 in the northern Lebanese village of Biqa-Kafra. He became a monk at the age of twenty-three and was ordained a priest in 1859. After sixteen years in the Monastery of St. Maroun, Charbel was allowed by rare exception to live on his own as a hermit. For the next twenty-three years he lived a harshly mortified life. Given the rigors he endured, and neglect of any comfort, is it remarkable that he lived to the age of seventy. He wanted to be forgotten, and it was assumed that he would be, despite his quiet reputation for giving inspired spiritual advice to many who went to him. But for forty-five nights after his burial, an intensely bright light shone from his grave, attracting the devout as well as curiosity-seekers and even Muslims. Since then, an astonishingly long list of seemingly miraculous cures have been attributed to his intercession.
The Maronite Church to which Saint Charbel belonged uses the ancient West Syrian liturgy, with the consecration prayers in the Eucharist retained in the Aramaic that our Lord spoke. The Maronites, whose vernacular is Arabic, are in full communion with the Pope. Their origins as a distinct rite go back to Saint Maron in the late fourth century, and Saint John Maron, patriarch of Antioch from 685 to 707, who led a successful military resistance against the invading Byzantine armies of Justinian II, enabling the Maronites to be fully independent.
The Maronites preserved their identity during the Muslim caliphate (632-1258) and the Ottoman rule, and have maintained their presence since Lebanon became an independent state in 1943. The Maronite diaspora increased after the Muslim-instigated massacre of 1860. In 1902 a fourteen-year old Maronite named Khalil Salim Haddad Aglamaz emigrated to Mexico and started a dry goods business. One of his sons is Carlos Slim, who lives a relatively modest life for a man Forbes magazine declared the world’s richest in 2014.
At Sunday Mass we pray to our Patron, Saint Michael the Archangel, for our fellow Christians in the Middle East in these trying days. While Lebanon is safer for Christians than most regions in that part of the world, and by law its president must be a Maronite, its Christian population is shrinking. The Maronites have a tradition of hospitality, and bid visitors welcome: Ahlan wa sahlan. And now we also know why Saint Charbel is such a popular saint in Mexico, far from Biqa-Kafra.