St. Sharbel visits Denver as Year of Mercy begins

The priest-monk lived a life of prayer and silence

Karna Swanson

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: Q&A: Cardinal Stafford: “The Eucharist has been the center of my life”

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On the dawn of his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, archbishop emeritus of Denver, reflects on the origins and fruits of his vocation. He will celebrate a Mass in thanksgiving with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m.

DC: What were your desires as a young man and how did God call you to the priesthood?            

Cardinal Stafford: Images of God arose very early in my life. From my parents’ encounter with Jesus in the confessional, concrete impressions developed into images. Those images spoke to me of God’s holiness and beauty. I understood that He was great and forgiving.

Reality became complex with more birthdays. The brutality of the 20th century… insinuated itself into my world-view. I was bewildered by the horror of that era… A few years later I also discovered St. Augustine’s joy in reflecting upon the beauty of the Creator of the world in his Confessions… I learned that the love of Christ transforms our unloveliness into God’s beauty.

Both the beauty of the Ancient One and the rub of evil have coexisted in my faith and experience. Jesus’s invitation, “The laborers are few”, resonated in my soul.  The fact that the priestly vocation is totally given over to the “ministry of reconciliation” became the North Star of my life.

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford blesses the altar of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Aurora, Colo. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: What practices have helped you remain faithful to your vocation during these 60 years?

Cardinal Stafford: When awakening each morning, I recite a single verse from Psalm 51, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Three times it is repeated. Thereafter, the grace of God sets the day on the right track. It becomes a song of praise to God. With hard practice it daily gathers momentum. It places front and center the most beautiful mystery of the Christian faith: The Triune God. The love and beauty of the Most Holy Trinity light up the whole day even when God appears more distant than near.

The psalmist has been a great catechist. He has taught me that human beings are doxological (people of praise) by nature especially in the Dark Night – not only as individuals, but also within community… Doxological prayer has led me to appreciate why St. Augustine wrote, “The goal of all Christian watchfulness and all Christian progress is a pious and sober understanding of the Trinity.”

Cardinal James Stafford holds a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta during a Mass celebrating her feast day at St. Joseph’s Parish on September 5, 2016, in Denver. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

DC: What have been some of the challenges and highlights of your priesthood?

Cardinal Stafford: The challenges: Christians in Europe and North America are struggling with the “juggernaut” of secularization… Generally, its roots are found in the fact that most Europeans and Americans today find themselves thrust into the universe without any foundation for living. Most imagine themselves in a free-fall through space with unintelligible entrances and exits. The challenge is how to confront this unprecedented reality. The pastoral solutions have seldom been forthcoming.

The highlights of my priesthood: Visiting the home-bound. They are the hidden pillars of every local Church. Beyond the home-bound, I have always felt that Colorado’s response to the invitation to celebrate the 1993 World Youth Day was the measure beyond all measure. In other words, the event was from God… [and] God was delighted with Coloradans.

Pope John Paul II thanks Cardinal Stafford for his leadership in organizing World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Who have been your greatest role models and how have they impacted your vocation?

Cardinal Stafford: My mother and father have been my greatest Christian role models. Their love and friendship were life-long and mutual. The two were the best of friends. Their life together, ten years after their marriage, was tested severely… [Tuberculosis] struck [my mother] with extreme severity.

She required prolonged hospitalization that included three major surgical operations over a period of nearly three years. Throughout that time her faith, courage and love remained ever-present signs along the road. My father’s love for his wife never faltered during her hospitalization… His presence to her was reassuring, quiet, and unassuming.  The grace of the sacrament of marriage sustained both of them and was an enormously important witness for me.

Cardinal Stafford celebrates Mass during World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by James Baca/Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Reflecting on your priestly experience, what practices are essential to the Catholic priest of the New Evangelization?

Cardinal Stafford: The Eucharist has been the center of my life… Over the years, I learned that priestly celibacy was related to the eschatological nature of the Eucharist.  In 390 AD bishops at the Council of Carthage underlined this connection, “That holy bishops and priests of God…. observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor to keep.”

I’ve reflected for over four decades over the forthrightness of their statement. I still ask myself why the ancient bishops chose the phrase “in all simplicity.”  Their choice was related to the priest’s acting “in the person of Christ”. That’s Eucharistic and the Eucharist is doxological. Their assertion that clerical celibacy had apostolic origins surprised me.

Finally, a lay friend taught me one of the greatest graces of these sixty years, “Gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to make one fruitful,” from Meister Eckhart. That is my prayer in celebrating my 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.