Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Looking to fill Patriarch Sfeir’s shoes

Patriarch Sfeir
Guest post by veteran Middle East publisher F. Najia

The process to elect the 77th leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, the largest Catholic Church in the Middle East, kicks off later today, March 9. The process may take up to 18 days.

Electing a successor to Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir is by a two-thirds majority of the Synod of Maronite Bishops. The Synod comprises 40 Maronite bishops presiding over dioceses throughout the world.
Sfeir, who is 91 but still going strong, was elected Patriarch for the Maronites in 1986. He asked to be relieved of his post because of his age, saying it was “time” to take leave.

“God, in his inscrutable love, shaped you and set you apart with the indelible mark of a particular election to his service. [. . .] You have chosen to resign from your office as patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites in this special circumstance, and I accept your free and magnanimous decision as an expression of great humility and profound detachment. I am sure that you will always accompany the journey of the Maronite Church with your prayers, your wise counsel and your sacrifice.” With such moving words of praise, Pope Benedict XVI accepted Sfeir’s resignation last month on the sidelines of his visit to the Vatican to unveil a statue of the Maronite Church founder Saint Maroun on the outer wall of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Synod of Maronite Bishops will gather in a spiritual conclave in isolation from the world at the seat of the Maronite patriarchate in Bkerke. It will start a maximum period of 15 days of morning and afternoon rounds of voting for a new patriarch once it concludes three days of prayer and meditation. 

What do Maronites, who make up about one-third of Lebanon’s resident population of three-to-four million, expect of their new patriarch?

A statewide opinion poll using a random sample of 386 Lebanese Maronites by Global Vision shows an overwhelming 71.5 percent majority wants the new patriarch to mainly unify Maronite and Christian ranks.

Other findings, featuring in the March 8 edition of the authoritative Beirut daily an-Nahar, show 75.6 percent of Lebanese Maronites believe their Church plays a role in Lebanese politics. But only 51.8 percent are supportive of the Church’s meddling in politics, with most of them wanting such intervention aimed at defending the Maronite sect and its basic tenets.

The four qualities they like to see in the 77th patriarch are: education and learning (69.2 percent), strong personality (68.1 percent), humility (64.8 percent) and piety (64.8 percent too).

The big question though is if the 77th patriarch will be able to fill Cardinal Sfeir’s shoes.

There are no frontrunners for the post – only guesses in the local press. None matches five of my own – namely, bishops Antoine Nabil Andari (aged 61), Georges Bou-Jaoudé (67), Nabil Hajj (68), Mansour Hobeika (69) and Elias Nassar (51).