By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – More than 1,000 delegates and family members attended the National Apostolate of Maronites Convention at Philadelphia’s Sheraton Center City Hotel July 6 to 10, and one of the most striking features about it was the relatively high number of young people participating.

“We’ve made strides in that,” said Mike Naber, executive director of the group. “We have a national youth organization for those who are 12 to 18 years old and a group from 18 to 35 years old.”

But one of the challenges facing the Maronite Church is making the liturgy more meaningful to a younger generation that does not speak Arabic or Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the principal languages of Maronite worship. {{more}}

“Our purpose is to unite all Maronites throughout the country in one location to celebrate our religion, to celebrate our identity and to evangelize who we are and what makes us special in the Catholic faith,” said Kristel Dow, the youth director for the convention, whose parents Basam and Najwa Dow, of St. Sharbel Maronite Parish in Newtown Square, were convention co-chairs.

Most Maronites are from Lebanon, but others are from Jordan, Syria and Iraq. “We are from all over the Middle East,” Dow said.

Maronites, one of the ancient Middle Eastern branches of Catholicism, bring a distinct flavor to the Church. Dow estimates there are about 2 million people in the United States who are Maronite, or of Maronite descent, with about 500,000 in parishes. Because they are scattered, many do not have a Maronite congregation near them and attend a Roman rite Church.

Unlike most of those at the convention, Naber is not Maronite by birth. “My family was Melkite, I was baptized Roman Catholic but became Maronite. I was drawn to the mysticism of the liturgy,” he said, adding, “We are all Catholic.”

There are just two eparchies (dioceses) in the United States, said Bishop Gregory Mansour, who is the ordinary for the Brooklyn Eparchy. It includes the two Maronite parishes in this area, St. Maron in South Philadelphia and St. Sharbel, the hosts for the convention. The Brooklyn eparchy covers the Eastern seaboard, “states along I-95,” Bishop Mansour said. “We have 40 parishes in 16 states.”

The other Maronite eparchy, Los Angeles, has 40 parishes in 34 states. There are also five seminarians studying for the priesthood at the Maronite Seminary in Washington, D.C., and while that is good, “we need more,” Bishop Mansour said. “We are opening four new missions this year. If I had 10 more priests we could open 10 more.”

The Maronites are unique among the Eastern Catholic Churches in that they never separated from Rome. The others are mostly Catholic Churches that broke away from orthodoxy in recent centuries and recognize the supremacy of the Pope, but kept their own rituals.

“I think it is because we had a spanerse history tied to monks and nuns, living in a Muslim milieu and an Orthodox milieu,” Bishop Mansour said.

But many Maronites like other Christians are fleeing the Middle East because of religious bigotry. Most are settling in Australia, Canada and Europe instead of the United States because of strict immigration laws in this country.

Those who do come tend to be professional, unlike past generations. “When my grandfather’s generation came they were seeking a better life,” Bishop Mansour said. “Our Church has had a presence here since the 1880s.”

One of the final highlights of the convention was a Sunday Pontifical spanine Liturgy, held at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul at which Cardinal Justin Rigali preached. This was only the second time the convention was held in Philadelphia in the almost half-century it has been conducted.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.