St. Sharbel visits Denver as Year of Mercy begins

The priest-monk lived a life of prayer and silence

Karna Lozoya

As Pope Francis opened the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy this week, which he hopes will be “a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective,” St. Rafka’s Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood brought to Denver one such example.

The bone relics of Lebanon’s St. Sharbel Makhlouf, a Maronite Catholic priest, monk, and hermit, are on display at St. Rafka’s from Dec. 8 through Dec. 10, the first few days of the Year of Mercy.

If you don’t know who St. Sharbel is, you are not alone. The monk lived in complete obscurity, spending the last 23 years of his life as a hermit.

If you do know who he is, it’s probably because you heard about the bright light that emanated from his grave for 45 consecutive nights after his death in 1898. His body was found to be in an incorrupt state, and a sweet smelling liquid, which appeared to be a mix of blood and sweat, exuded from his body.

However, Father Sharbel became a saint through a long life of dedicated prayer, manual work, rigorous asceticism, contemplative silence, and a great devotion to the Eucharist. It is said that he spent two hours preparing for the Divine Liturgy (the Eastern-rite term for Mass), and another two hours post-Divine Liturgy were spent in giving thanks.

Born in 1828 in the mountains of northern Lebanon, Yussef Antoun Makhlouf began to pray as a young child while he cared for the family cow in the fields and pastures near his village.

At 23, Yussef left home to become “Brother Sharbel,” taking the name of a second-century martyr at Antioch. After two years, he took his monastic vows, and was eventually ordained a priest. Some 19 years later, the priest-monk was granted permission to live in solitude in a nearby hermitage dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul.

On Dec. 16, 1898, at the age of 70, Father Sharbel suffered a stroke while celebrating the Divine Liturgy of the Maronite Catholic Church, an Eastern-rite Church in union with Rome. He spent the Christmas novena in agony, until his death on Christmas Eve.

Pope Paul VI presided at the beatification of Father Sharbel just prior to the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, on Dec. 5, 1965, and he expressed the hope that the example of the “hermit of Mount Lebanon” would help the Christian people “understand, in a world largely fascinated by wealth and comfort, the paramount value of poverty, penance and asceticism, to liberate the soul in its ascent to God.”

What greater example could there be at this time of year—characterized more and more by frenzied shopping and endless “to do” lists—than this saint of prayer, silence and devotion to the Eucharist?

But there is even more to this story, as the visit of the relics of St. Sharbel to Denver also serves as a grim reminder of the dire situation currently facing the monk’s native Lebanon.

Living in the midst of relative peace and exceptional comfort, it’s easy to forget the needs of those living half a world away.

According to Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka’s, there are currently over two million refugees in Lebanon who have escaped the violence of ISIS, and they are “seriously taxing all systems in this small country.”

In October, Father Mahanna launched St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy as a response to some very basic and urgent needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, such as blankets, food, and clean clothes.

The mission has a team on the ground in Lebanon serving the needs of refugees, and they are contacted almost on a daily basis for assistance.

In addition to the basics, there are medical costs.

According to Father Andre, the mission owes $35,000 in hospital bills since May. That money, however, has paid for cancer surgeries, and treatment for serious chronic diseases. A little goes a long way.

Speaking of which, while the above examples of Christian witness in prayer and works of mercy are extraordinary, sometimes the most effective witness is the little one we give in ordinary circumstances.

In any case, no matter who you are or what your situation, let us all attempt during this Year of Mercy to find a way to make our witness of faith “stronger and more effective.” And I bet a quick prayer to St. Sharbel for some help wouldn’t go unanswered.

St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy will hold a Christmas Dinner and Concert on Dec. 18 at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Centennial. Proceeds will fund the needs of refugees this Christmas.

For more information, visit http://www.savechristianmiddleeast.org

COMING UP: Swole.Catholic helps people strengthen body and soul

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St. Augustine once said, “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

Humans are both body and soul and both must be strengthened. This is the reason for the existence of Swole.Catholic, a group of people who dedicate themselves to nurturing their soul while strengthening their body, and through their ministry, motivate others to do the same.

According to Paul McDonald, founder of Swole.Catholic, they focus on encouraging faithful fitness. “We must take care of our temple of the Holy Spirit, because our bodies are one of God’s greatest gifts to us,” he said.

McDonald solidified the idea of faith and fitness when he was a sophomore in college. While “going through a huge moment in my life, at the same time I was really learning about the gym and learning ethical statements on my own. Both things clicked together,” he told the Denver Catholic. As a young guy, he started bible studies, and in those studies, he always had an analogy back to the gym.

He decided to make shirts for him and the guys in the bible study during his senior year. The shirts ended up becoming good conversation starters, and he decided he needed to do something with it — evangelize and motivate others to take care of their body and soul.

Thus Swole.Catholic was born. “Swole” is a slang term for bulking one’s muscles up from going to the gym, and of course, the Catholic part is self-explanatory — not only because of the Church but also for our faith and how it defines us in all we do. Swole.Catholic launched officially in Jan 2017.

The ministry consists of a website which provides resources to helps people with Catholic gyms, Catholic workouts, Catholic trainers, podcasts as well as workout wear.

The workout wear works as an evangelization tool. The word “Catholic” is printed on the front of the shirts and a bible verse is placed on the back.

“This raises questions or interest in others. It also works as a reminder of the purpose of the workout,” McDonald said. He added, “Most of the gyms we are going to have mirrors and all that, making you focus into yourself.” But the real purpose of the workout, as the members of Swole.Catholic say, is to strengthen your body and soul to live a healthy life.

Swole.Catholic also has rosary bands, a simple decade wrist band that people can wear while they workout and be flipped off at any time to pray a quick decade.

“Because everyone’s faith journey is different and everyone’s fitness journey is different, what we are trying to do is connect people with people [for them] to be able to have the correct support with their faith and fitness,” McDonald said.

That is why Swole.Catholic now has outposts around the country, with passionate Catholic members who love to help and inspire others in the fitness world while pursuing God in everything they do.

“Each one has its own flavor,” McDonald said. “In Florida we have a rosary run group where a bunch of girls meet up and pray rosary while they go for a run.” Among the outposts, there is also a group of guys in North Dakota who do a bible study and lift together. Similar to these two groups, members from other states have formed their own Catholic fitness groups and are now part of Swole.Catholic, including in Texas, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Wyoming and more.

“We encourage faithful fitness,” McDonald concluded. “We think your fitness fits in your faith as much as faith fits in your fitness. We are body and soul and we need to be building both.”

To join a group or a workout, visit swolecatholic.com or find them on Facebook.