Q&A: Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila witnessed resilient faith in visit to Lebanon

In June, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila traveled to visit persecuted Christians in Lebanon with a contingent of several other U.S. bishops. His visit was coordinated in part by St. Rafka’s Mission of Hope and Mercy, an apostolate founded by Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood. Read below to hear about Archbishop’s experience in his own words.

Denver Catholic: How did you come to have the opportunity to travel to Lebanon?

Archbishop Aquila: I was invited by Bishop Elias Zaidan, who is the Maronite Catholic Bishop of Our Lady of Lebanon Eparchy. His eparchy, which is the Eastern Rite equivalent of a Latin Rite diocese, is based in St. Louis but covers all the Maronite Catholics from Ohio to California. I have known him for a few years and he desired to take a group of U.S. bishops to Lebanon to see the needs of the faithful there and to understand the situation of Christians in the Middle East.

DC: What were some of the highlights of your visit?

Archbishop: There were so many moments over the course of the two weeks that made an impact on me. I was struck by how ancient the roots of the faith are in Lebanon, as well as the peaceful coexistence that is present between Christians and Muslims. Some of the highlights were: visiting the tomb, hermitage and monastery of St. Sharbel; celebrating Mass at St. George Church in Akoura and in St. Rafka’s Monastery; going to Our Lady, Mother of God Church, where I celebrated Mass on an altar from 600 A.D.; meeting Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun; praying with and meeting the various Catholic and Orthodox Patriarchs; visiting the Chaldean refugees from Iraq and helping distribute food and hygiene goods to them; and visits with the Catholic Relief Service team there, as well as with the Caritas Lebanon team.

DC: What struck you most about the Christians living there?

Archbishop: I was most impressed by their resilience in the face of persecution; the depth of their faith throughout the centuries. The Gospel reveals that Jesus visited Tyre and Sidon, which are in present day Lebanon, and that the Apostles preached there. The Christian faith in the land goes back to the very beginning of Christianity.

One Iraqi Christian refugee who introduced himself to me said that he was captured by ISIS and held for two months. His captors repeatedly commanded him to renounce his faith and become Muslim. If he refused, they said they would kill him. But he said he felt the infilling of the Holy Spirit and the voice of Jesus telling him, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” So, he responded, “I am Christian. God created me a Christian and I will not change my faith.” This witness gave me great encouragement about the faith of persecuted Christians.

I was struck, too, by the generosity of the Christians in Lebanon, who are helping refugees regardless of their faith.

DC: What do you want people to know about the situation Christians in the Middle East face?

Archbishop: Now that the military fight against ISIS is close to done, there is hardly any press coverage of what is happening to the millions of refugees who were displaced by the violence that has plagued Syria and Iraq. The reality is that the towns and cities that our Christian brothers and sisters fled are decimated. In the Nineveh Plain, where many Iraq’s Christians lived, numerous towns were completely emptied by ISIS. Only recently have Christian families been able to start returning with the help of organizations like the Knights of Columbus. But even then, they face the arduous task of rebuilding homes, churches and recovering from the trauma of what they experienced.

Lebanon needs help, as the situation there is far more complex than most Americans realize. The balance of Christians and the Sunni and Shia Moslems is delicate, and they are trying to recover from a war that severely damaged their country. They want to live in peace with each other, and yet outside influences, especially radical Islam, place all Christians in a tenuous position. Furthermore, Lebanon has a regular population of 4 million, yet has taken in 2 million refugees – 1.5 million Syrian and 500,000 Palestinians. One can only imagine how this has impacted the infrastructure of Lebanon and created a pressing need for the refugees to return to their home countries. The situation with the Palestinian refugees in Southern Lebanon and Hezbollah only complicates matters further. Peace is maintained on the southern border with Israel by the 40,000 U.N. peace-keeping personnel there. The country is truly beautiful, and the faith of the people is great, as is their desire to live with one another in peace.

The Christians in Lebanon and those we visited with from Iraq offer us a real example of heroic faith, and little of this is reported in the media, nor is the real situation in Lebanon presented well. The Christians in Lebanon most of all need our love, prayers and material support.

COMING UP: Surprised by joy: Archbishop Aquila’s encounter with Tanzanians’ deep faith

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For two weeks in January, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila witnessed the natural wonders of sub-Saharan Africa and the beauty of its people and culture when he visited Christ the King Church in Tanzania, the sister parish of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Northglenn. Father James Spahn, pastor of IHM, served as his guide.

Archbishop Aquila recently spoke with the Denver Catholic about his trip, which he described as an “intimate encounter with the joy-filled faith that is found in Africa.”

The interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Q: What did you do in Tanzania?

Archbishop Aquila: We visited Christ the King Parish and dedicated a new administration building and library for the high school that [Immaculate Heart of Mary] parish helped to build.

We also visited the Diocese of Geita to see Bishop [Flavian] Kassala. Then we visited an orphanage, some of the outposts and a hospital facility.

Q: What most struck you about the trip?

Archbishop Aquila: What was outstanding was the faith of the people and the depth of their faith. Many of them would walk an hour to two to get to Mass. Oftentimes, the Masses would last anywhere from two to four hours, with all the singing and the music and the offertory processions.

For the offertory processions, every person would come up and drop something into the collection basket. Then there would be a second offertory procession, where the people would bring gifts from their homes or from their farms. It might be a chicken or a goat, or bags of cement, or sugar cane. It might be a small bag of beans, but something. Not everyone would do that, but there would be over a 100 people who would.

Then there were people who would distribute it. Some of the livestock would go to the orphanage to feed the children. The cement might go to a project for an outstation or for the school or the parish. It was a fantastic experience.


Q: Tell me about the people’s lifestyle.

Archbishop Aquila: The people live very simply. They live in simple housing and many of them still have dirt floors. Some of them have electricity, but not all of them. The people still have to go to wells for their water.

Q: What did you learn on the trip?

Archbishop Aquila: I learned about the depth of the faith of the people, the beauty of their faith and about their love for the Church. Their willingness to walk one or two hours one way to Mass spoke volumes about their commitment to the Gospel and their real love for the Eucharist.

I got to celebrate the sacrament of confirmation with one group and also to visit one of their small faith communities. Listening to their witness talks and to learn how deep the faith really is there was just an incredible experience.

Q: What would you like people to know about Tanzania?

Archbishop Aquila: Certainly about the beauty of Africa, and the strength of family life there, the hospitality of the people, their warmth and their generosity—they are an extremely generous people.

Q: What are you taking away from this experience?

Archbishop Aquila: The experience of the universality of the Church. Also, the beauty of the African people—their generosity, kindness and personability—and the natural beauty of Africa itself. There is so much natural beauty one sees there. That always brings you to God.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

Archbishop Aquila: I would go back in a heartbeat. Africa is a wonderful place to visit, especially if you want to see the witness of strong family life and of a deeply lived faith, and of the way we are united in one faith as Catholics with another country very different from ours.

Q: What can Catholics here learn from their brothers and sisters in Africa?

Archbishop Aquila: They can learn from their example of living their faith out and making great sacrifices for it. One can see their commitment in a willingness to walk an hour or two to Mass. Also, their generosity with the very little that they have. Each person would come forward and every person would drop something into the collection basket—that was a real, living sign of them giving themselves to the Father.

The music during the Mass was absolutely spectacular. They sang with their hearts; that was just really, really powerful—just giving that praise and adoration to God. It was absolutely incredible.