Lebanon is a uniquely beautiful country and the city of Beirut is a revelation. The architectural reconstruction is a great success and there is a wonderful atmosphere amongst the restaurants, which spills out into the streets.
Many of the pilgrims will remember the inauguration of the Beth Myriam on Wednesday with the heat, the crowd and the tasty cakes! I wonder what the neighbors thought!
On Thursday morning we went to meet His Beatitude, Nasrallah Boutros Cardinal Sfeir, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and the Whole East. Some people never have the chance to have tea with their local bishop, but those who travel with Vassula and with Jesus, of course, find themselves in extraordinary places, meeting extraordinary people!
In his welcome address the Cardinal spoke of the importance of the ecumenical movement and reminded us that the Catholic Church has a special commission, headed by a Cardinal, studying and promoting ecumenism and working towards Christian unity. The Cardinal is a Maronite, who spoke clearly about the importance of the Maronite identity, telling us that there are Maronites in many different countries. In this way, the Cardinal reminded us of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church includes different Rites and spiritual traditions. He recognised the importance of True Life in God in these words:
"We know that Mrs. Vassula had come before to Lebanon and she is seeking that path to unity. We know that Vassula has presented her doctrine and thoughts to the Apostolic Chair (Holy See: Vatican) and they have published writings concerning this subject. I hope and pray that we will be one in the faith of Jesus Christ who is our Redeemer and Saviour."
The Cardinal spoke about the divisions between Christians, saying, "I ask God to forgive us all our offenses and to bring us back to unity. We urgently need Christian unity." He reminded us that Lebanon has a special significance in the work for unity.
Continuing, the Cardinal said, "In our country, as you know, we have eighteen denominations with six different groups of Catholics (different Rites), five Orthodox groups, and the rest Muslims. These are divided into Sunni and Shiite and Druze and so forth, and that is why Lebanon is considered the melting pot for all peoples."
Our first TLIG Liturgy took place in the majestic Basilica of Harissa, dedicated to the Immaculate Mother of God. Some newcomers to TLIG pilgrimages were impressed with the sense of unity, which was already present. At the end of a sweeping nave, carrying us upwards as if to Heaven, the Sanctuary contained bishops and priests of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Syriac, Melkite, Maronite and Anglican communities. We were aided by a wonderful choir and encouraged by the presence of some local people who joined in our Mass. What a great beginning to an eventful pilgrimage!
Later, some of the pilgrims went with Vassula to the Armenian Orthodox Palace where a meeting had been planned with His Holiness Aram I Catholicos of Cilicia, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch who is also a moderator in the World Council of Churches in Geneva. In fact, he was abroad, so they were invited to meet His Excellency Bishop Kegham Khacherian, Primate of the Orthodox Armenians in Lebanon.
This was followed by an audience with the President of Lebanon, Mr. Emile Lahoud. In one day, some of us met a Cardinal and a President. Back home we may not even get to meet the Mayor, but Jesus takes us through many doors, into many palaces and places of worship, only to remind us later that we are all God’s children and that all those who seek God must also visit the poor. In the end we simply ask where Jesus wants to take us next, and we understand that, because of Him, the whole world is a palace, and everyone is extraordinary.
President Lahoud recognised the importance of True Life in God worldwide and said that our presence in Lebanon shows that this country is special because of how all denominations live together in the spirit of solidarity, forgiveness and cooperation, and so Lebanon is, as the late Pope (John Paul II) said, more than a country; it is a message, and this small country is now and will continue to be a witness to the world. The President thanked Vassula for the work of True Life in God in supporting the poor (a reference to the Beth Myriams). Read more here
In this world of many words, each word is more important than we think. Formal words of welcome, polite, politically correct speeches are often sincerely meant; the host is often concerned to put his/her guests at their ease and the generosity expressed by the words is often real. What we heard in the words of both the Cardinal and the President was the sincere longing for both peace and unity. We also heard other things, perhaps deeper than the words themselves, because, in a special way, Jesus was present, and the Holy Spirit moved amongst us, and there were echoes of the concerns of the Heart of Christ. These meetings were important, perhaps more than we know.
More than once we were told of the number of Christian denominations existing in Lebanon alongside other faiths, especially Islam. We were reminded again at times of the words of Pope John Paul II that "Lebanon is a message," and with the goodness of the people we sensed a readiness for change and a longing for peace.