(An earlier version of this paper was presented at the first Maronite Diocesan Assembly in Australia)
I cannot take credit for the term “Our Liturgy, Our Spiritual Homeland”. The first I heard it was when my Bishop, Antoine Charbel Tarabay, the Bishop of the Maronites in Australia used it. I have attended many lectures, taught classes, listened to speakers, read books and written articles. In the end I would not have learnt anything about my faith if I could not live in my spiritual homeland, the Maronite liturgy. This article will offer my thoughts on four aspects of the spiritual homeland.
This Spiritual Homeland is Distinctive
The Maronite liturgy, the spiritual homeland, is on a constant journey, ever-growing and ever adapting.
At Vatican II, in his decree to the Eastern Churches, Pope Paul VI promulgated:
“All members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life,”
Much has been done in the Maronite Church since Vatican II to achieve that goal, to rebuild, reinvigorate and return to our spiritual homeland. However, I do not think we can sit back and say that journey is complete. It is only in our uniqueness that we will survive. While united in the bonds of love, if we look to copy our Roman Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox brothers and sisters, we will just melt away into the boredom of sameness.
A reinvigoration of our spiritual homeland requires us to look deep into our hearts, back to our Antiochene Syriac roots and immerse our minds in the spiritual minds of our ancestors. It requires us to live in our homes the harmony of our liturgical seasons and to follow with sensitivity the seasons of the Church’s liturgical life. It requires us to read the great minds of our own traditions, and to listen to the words of our own liturgy. We only need to go back to basics and look at the natural world around us. God uses the physical to make known the intelligible, that is, God the Son clothed himself in humanity so we may come to know him. In the same way, we need a liturgy and a spiritual homeland that through the physical, raises the mind to the spiritual realities. Like the Incarnation in which the invisible Word of God became visible, our Liturgy must inspire us and others in its own unique way to deepen the spiritual dimensions of our lives.
We must have the “courage to be ourselves”, those are not my words, they are the words of Archbishop Tawil in the seminal pastoral letter of the same title. It is only in our distinctiveness that we as the Maronite Church in Australia will make any kind of contribution to the larger society. “We must know that we have something to give, otherwise we have no reason to be.” We must develop and maintain a liturgy that we know is capable of enriching all Australian life and not succumb to the pressure or the ease, that comes both from within and outside the Church– to be like others.
This Spiritual Homeland is its own Nation
The Maronite spiritual homeland does not belong to any single nation or country because it is its own nation. I am part of the Maronite Church in Australia, not the Australian Maronite Church. That is an important distinction. The Maronite Church transcends ethnicity, race, and geography and sets a path for anyone who wishes to know Christ. The first place those searching for Christ will look to, is the liturgy. We must always remind ourselves of that. The liturgy must be the primary actor for outreach and evangelisation.
That does not mean we forget our history or where we have been before, those things are inseparable from us being able to understand ourselves. But we also should not become cultural ghetto’s only looking backwards and focused on maintaining cultural traditions. We must also look forward to an organic and authentic adaptation of the liturgy in this land and for the people who we live amongst.
The Spiritual Homeland Speaks to all People
The Maronite spiritual homeland speaks many languages. The roots of the Maronite Church have spread like the Cedars of Lebanon. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Act 2:1-1) allowed each of us to hear the Word of God in a language that we understand. In my professional life in law I have been an advocate of allowing people to understand the law in their own language. There have been times when it has been said to me “they should learn English.” Then I come to my Church and advocate the same thing and have been told “they should learn Arabic.”
If the liturgy is our spiritual homeland, then the liturgy must meet the people in the language that they understand. If that language be Arabic, then we must accommodate for those in Arabic and if that language be English then we must accommodate for those in English.
We need interpreters, not just translators. A primary focus for Maronite’s in the English-speaking world must be to support and encourage interpreters who are sensitive to the tradition. In some cases that will require a revision of what we already have. It may also require some revision of the available translation from Syriac to Arabic before we work off the available Arabic translation. I don’t suggest we in Australia can have the final say on these issues, but we can advocate for them. The field of academic research into Syriac has developed greatly in the past decades. Such work requires a dedication of money and resources and a prioritisation. It requires the input of people, including clergy and laity, with varying talents in language, theology and music. It should never be the work of a single person. It requires revisions, reflection and discussions. This work can be polarising and requires people whose hearts are open to discernment and listening to each other.
We also need liturgies that are in one language or another – not mixed. PowerPoints’ in the other language are a must. I recently attended a mixed language liturgy, on what happened to be the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. The Gospel was read in Arabic and the congregation was told to follow it on the PowerPoint in English. The young children behind me were whispering as they read it off the PowerPoint. But it was too fast for their young reading and they could not keep up. They gave up. It is impossible to expect a child under 10 to follow the Gospel in English on the PowerPoint. It is also more difficult to find ways to bring youth back to the Church when they have drifted away as teenagers because they never understood what was happening. We need to look for ways to keep them from drifting from the very beginning. Like the friends of the Paralytic we must tear down the roof so that everyone can hear the Word of God and experience his salvation. (Luke 5:18-25)
Parishes need to avoid an “us” vs “them” mentality based on linguistic or cultural lines. We must all recognise we are one body that has many parts and that
“God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honour to the parts that didn’t have any. In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)
The Spiritual Homeland is the Road to Salvation
The liturgy must be given the priority it deserves. Organising the liturgy should not be neglected because a festival is being organised for afterwards. Talks should not be scheduled to clash with the liturgy. The liturgy is our ladder to salvation and at its summit is the life-giving Eucharist. It is the door to the soul of the Church. The liturgy is our spiritual homeland.
Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Decree on The Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, promulgated by His Holiness
¹ Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964 http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_orientalium-ecclesiarum_en.html
² The Courage to be Ourselves: Archbishop Joseph Tawil’s 1970 Christmas Pastoral Letter https://melkite.org/faith/faith-worship/the-courage-to-be-ourselves