Patriarch Sfeir Enters Eternal Life
His Beatitude Nasrallah Peter Cardinal Sfeir, the 76th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, passed away in the early morning of 12 May, after a brief illness, at Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Ashrafieh, Lebanon. He would have turned 99 on 15 May.
The patriarch was the spiritual leader of the Maronite Church with four million faithful all over the world. Lebanese religious and political figures visited Bkerke to pay condolences. The Lebanese government declared two days of mourning starting Wednesday with flags flying at half-staff. Patriarch Bechara Peter Cardinal Rai, Sfeir’s successor, called on churches to ring their bells on Wednesday. The patriarch headquarters at Bkerke declared, “The Maronite Church is orphaned, and Lebanon is in sadness,” in announcing the passing of Patriarch Sfeir. In the United States, Bishop Gregory J. Mansour and Bishop A. Elias Zaidan issued statements mourning the loss of this great man of the Church.
Born on 15 May 1920, in Rayfoun, Lebanon, the only son of the six children of Maroun and Hanee, Sfeir completed his elementary studies at Saint Abda School in Harharya-Aramoun, followed by secondary studies at the Maronite Patriarchal Seminary in Ghazir, and philosophical and theological studies at the Oriental Seminary Institute of Saint Joseph University.
Following his ordination to the priesthood on 7 May 1950, Father Sfeir was assigned as a parish priest in his hometown of Rayfoun, until 1953, when he was appointed secretary of the Maronite Patriarchate in Bkerke. His appointment as secretary was the first of what would become a lifelong series of leadership positions in the patriarchal see. During this time, Sfeir also taught Arabic literature and philosophy at the Marist Brothers (Frères Maristes) College in Jounieh. In July 1961, Sfeir was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Antioch and Titular Bishop of Tarsus for the Maronites by then Maronite Patriarch Paul Peter Cardinal Meouchi. Over the next 25 years, Bishop Sfeir would serve as the patriarchal vicar.
In the mid 1970s, Bishop Sfeir served as patriarchal administrator for Archbishop Antoine Kouraiche, the Archbishop of Sidon (Sfeir would eventually succeed Kouraiche as patriarch). During this time, he also served as president of the Executive Committee of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon, as a representative to Caritas-Lebanon, as a consultant on the commission to revise Eastern Canon Law, and as spiritual director of the Knights of Malta.
The Synod of Bishops of the Maronites elected him as patriarch on 19 April 1986. He was enthroned on 27 April and his election was confirmed by Pope John Paul II on 7 May 1986. Regarded by some as a compromise, his election was not enthusiastically received. However, it soon became apparent that he had the strength needed to guide the Maronite Church and provide leadership for Lebanon that was at the height of its 15-year civil war, which killed more than 150,000 people. On many occasions, it would be left to Patriarch Sfeir to compensate for the political paralysis and to seek to reconcile warring factions in order to rebuild a post-civil war Lebanon. As would be expected in any society that had undergone a civil war, he met with sometimes violent opposition.
The new patriarch had not traveled very far from Bkerke during his tenure as patriarchal vicar, so it was a surprise when he “took to the road,” consolidating the Maronite expansion on the five continents and telling the world of the tragedy that was taking place in Lebanon. In a 2011 interview with CNN, Patriarch Sfeir said, “Our message is that people must live among each other with respect and harmony, and that everyone must make every effort for peace and never for war.”
The patriarch was tireless in his efforts. Typical patriarchal visits to the United States might begin with a 17-hour plane ride, followed immediately by a visit to the United Nations, meetings with prominent political and religious figures, and a formal banquet with speeches that evening. Patriarch Sfeir was resolute in his efforts to learn English so that he might communicate directly with his faithful.
Pope John Paul II created Patriarch Sfeir as a cardinal on 26 November 1994.
Patriarch Sfeir initiated a liturgical reform in the Maronite Church that culminated in the publication of the Qurbono, containing eight anaphorae. The text in both Arabic and English was published as the Book of Offering.In order to provide for the pastoral needs of the faithful in the expansion, he collaborated in the appointment of bishops and the creations of eparchies and exarchies.
In 2011, the cardinal patriarch—despite his energy and alertness—resigned so that another could continue to guide the Maronite Church in the third millennium.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13) Patriarch Sfeir, during every moment of every day of his ministry, laid down his life for God, the Church, and Lebanon.
· Promulgation of the Lectionary
· Promulgation of the Qurbono
· Promulgation of the rites of ordination of a Priest and a Bishop.
· Promulgation of the Book of Ginnazat (Rites of Christian Funerals)
· Ordained 30 bishops
· Created and modified eparchies and exarchies
· Synod for Lebanon
· Visit of Pope John Paul to Lebanon
Construction and Renovation in Lebanon
· Construction of the south wing of the patriarchal residence in Bkerke for a library, archive, a hall dedicated to Saint John Paul II, and rooms for bishops, and of the north wing as a residence for nuns and staff, and a large hall for meetings of the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon
· Construction of a 20,000-seat plaza at the patriarchal residence in Bkeke for ceremonies
· Renovation of the patriarchal residence in Diman
· Renovation of the patriarchal seminary in Ghazir
· Construction of a dignified cemetery for patriarchs and bishops
· Construction of facilities for the Ecclesiastical Tribunal and the Maronite Social Fund
· Construction of a Medical Center in Rayfoun, Kesrouan.
Renovation Outside of Lebanon
· Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Paris
· Franco-Lebanese Dorm in Paris
· Our Lady of Lebanon Church and the Franco-Lebanese Dorm in Marseille, France
· Renovation of the Patriarchal Residence in Jerusalem
· Re-opening of the Maronite College in Rome
The article was written by Suzanne Tavani with contributions from Chorbishop John D. Faris