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.

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COMING UP: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.