Pope Benedict XVI meets with religious authorities in Beirut during his visit in September 2012 (Source: L’Osservatore Romano/AP)
A Story of Three Popes
As the leader of a Church with 1.3 billion members worldwide, Pope Francis has a unique ability among world leaders to focus attention on specific issues. At the same time, his multiple roles — as spiritual leader and apostolic successor to St. Peter, bishop of Rome, and head of state of the Vatican — mean that he has many different priorities at any given time. Additionally, the Pope has adopted a lighter travel schedule in recent years due to his advanced age (he is now 85), especially after recovering from a difficult colon surgery in July 2021.
For this reason, his commitment to visiting Lebanon means that he, and the Vatican, view the situation in the country as being of profound importance — as something worthy of international attention even in the midst of many other extremely pressing issues.
Why is the situation in Lebanon — home to a mere 6 million people, located at the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean, a country with no significant natural resources that is often overshadowed by its larger neighbors — so important that Francis has decided to make a personal visit?
To understand the answer to this question, we must return to the words of three Popes: Francis and his two immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
In their visits to Lebanon, Benedict and John Paul spoke of peace, unity, and coexistence. John Paul’s 1997 visit came two years after the Synod of Bishops that he had called in 1995 to discuss the precarious status of Christians in Lebanon, while Benedict’s 2012 trip took place in the wake of the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the devastating civil war in Syria, Lebanon’s northern neighbor.
1997: John Paul II speaks of “a new hope for Lebanon”
During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II’s great interest in Lebanon was well-known. His words about Lebanon in a 1989 letter to the Lebanese Catholic bishops remain a popular refrain for Lebanese of all faiths to this day: “Lebanon is more than a country… it is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for the East as for the West.”
John Paul’s 1997 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, A New Hope for Lebanon, was the result of many years of dialogue between the Vatican, representatives of the Catholic Church in Lebanon, and John Paul himself. This process culminated in the meeting of the Special Assembly for Lebanon of the Synod of Bishops in November and December 1995.
After a planned visit in 1995 was delayed due to the bombing of a church in Beirut, John Paul was able to travel to Lebanon in May of 1997 for the official signing of the Apostolic Exhortation.
The Apostolic Exhortation begins with a moving reflection on the history of Lebanon, its unique place within the Christian world, and the unique challenges that arise from the presence of many different faiths in one country [N.B.: this document is only available in French and Italian on the Vatican website; the translation is my own]:
Lebanon is a country towards which eyes often turn. We cannot forget that it is the cradle of an ancient culture and one of the lighthouses of the Mediterranean. Nobody can ignore the name of Byblos, which recalls the origins of writing. It is in this region of the Middle East that God sent his Son to fulfill the plan of salvation for all men; in this region, for the first time, Christ’s disciples received the name of Christians (cf. Acts 11: 19-26).
Thus Christianity quickly became an essential element of the culture of this geographical area and, in particular, of the Lebanese land, which today is rich in multiple religious traditions. It is home to Catholics who are members of different patriarchal Churches, as well as of the Latin Apostolic Vicariate. Because of this fact, right from the time he begins to reason, the young baptized Lebanese Catholic recognizes himself as a Maronite, or Greek-Melkite, or Armenian Catholic, or Syriac Catholic, or Chaldean, or Latin. It is therefore through this path that he opens himself to the Christian life and that he is called to discover the universality of the Church.
Christians from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities also live in Lebanon. The other important part of the population is made up of Muslims and Druze. For the country, these different communities constitute at the same time a wealth, an originality and a difficulty. But bringing Lebanon to life is a common task of all its inhabitants.
John Paul continues by acknowledging his own deep and abiding interest in Lebanon:
You know the bonds of affection that unite me to this “beloved land,” as I have been able to mention them in many circumstances, and in particular since the beginning of my Pontificate. All the Catholic faithful feel a strong attachment to their brothers in this country, which is dear to their hearts as disciples of the Lord, and to the land that our Lord has walked and made holy.
Later on, there is an assessment of the difficulties Lebanon faces. These words, written between 1995 and 1997, would not seem out of place today, in 2022:
It is evident that the Christians of Lebanon, like all their fellow citizens, hope to enjoy the conditions necessary for the development of the person, and of the family, while respecting their own cultural and spiritual traditions.
In particular, they aspire to tranquility, prosperity, a real recognition of fundamental freedoms, those which protect every human dignity and which allow the practice of faith; they aspire to sincere respect for their rights and those of others; finally, they count on a justice that consecrates the equality of all before the law and allows everyone to assume their share of responsibility in social life.
They are well aware that this project is largely conditioned by the years spent in war and by the serious situation that hangs over this region of the Middle East. I am aware of the current major difficulties: the threatening occupation of southern Lebanon, the country’s economic situation, the presence of non-Lebanese armed forces on the territory, the fact that the refugee problem has not yet been fully resolved, as well as the danger of extremism and the impression of some that they are frustrated in their rights. All this feeds the passions, as well as the fear that the values of democracy and civilization represented by this country could be compromised. From this, the temptation to leave insinuates itself more and more among the Lebanese, especially among the young.
In order for a more serene future to materialize, I know that many sacrifices are necessary, a constant personal ascetic practice by virtue of which each demands of himself before demanding of others, an active, courageous and persevering presence in the affairs of society; but we must also trust in the grace of the Most High, who transforms hearts and wills, orienting them towards good. The past and present experience that the faithful of Christ have of themselves and of others, around them and everywhere, is sufficient to convince them of the power of the forces of evil, always present and capable of obscuring intelligences, hardening feelings and posing a threat to the future.
But despite everything, hope remains alive in them. They have not lost their faith in themselves, nor their attachment to their country and its democratic tradition. The enthusiasm for life that characterizes them, and the spirit of fraternity among all people that manifests itself above all in difficult times, which they so often must endure, relentlessly revive their will to collaborate actively in the building up of their country on the basis of the human values that form the wealth of their national heritage.
John Paul’s visit to Lebanon was, in some ways, a culmination of several decades of intense efforts to prevent the country from splintering. In his book Dévastation et Rédemption, Fady Noun, a journalist for the Lebanese daily newspaper L’Oriente-Le Jour, offers a little-known account of how the Polish pontiff’s dedication to Lebanon originated.
As this story provides a fascinating window into an important chapter of the shared history of Lebanon, the Vatican, and the Catholic Church, I thought it worth quoting from at length (the selection that I am sharing can be found in this article from Asia News):
It is a fact that after his election in 1978, John Paul II became closely involved in Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). The extraordinary attention he paid to us led him to organise a special assembly Synod of Bishops about our country. All this has an explanation. Remembering this can help us see how the work of providence weaves itself into our daily actions, almost without our knowledge.
Some historians have said that the Lebanon set up in 1943 under the national pact agreed by Christian and Muslim communities could have simply disappeared from the map under external pressures or circumstances, or that it might have disintegrated under the weight of internal factors and the heterogeneous nature of its society. Many factors explain why this explosion did not happen.
If we actually gave John Paul II and Vatican diplomacy their due, we would have to devote more than an article to their role in Lebanese affairs.[…] No one has stressed more the Lebanese vocation to unity than the great Pope. He did so repeatedly and insistently, addressing message after message to Lebanon, going so far as to oppose the aspirations of some of Lebanon’s Christian political parties, who were tempted by partition.
However, for those wondering who might have encouraged John Paul II to be so involved in Lebanese affairs, there is a surprising story, one that might be anecdotal but also quite revealing. The story begins with Gilberte Doummar, a woman member of the Focolari movement, who for many years was Lebanon’s representative on the Pontifical Council for the Laity. As such, she visited the Vatican on several occasions where she met the Pope and his closest aides.
Here is what she said. “It was 1984, during the first assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. We met in the Sala Clementina. Card Pironio, then president of the Council, introduced me to the Pope. I thanked him for what he was doing for Lebanon. He answered me saying, ‘Yes, Lebanon is at the centre of my concerns and prayers.’ The same night, I met one of the Pope’s old friends, writer Stephane Vilkanovitch, and I told him, ‘The Pope has a special love for Lebanon. But why?’ ‘I am meeting him tonight; I’ll ask him,’ he told me.
“‘I have the answer,’ he said when we met the next day. ‘Here it is. When in October 1978, after his election, he went out to greet the crowds in Saint Peter’s Square, at a time when posters and banners were not allowed, he saw one being raised that said, “Holy Father, Save Lebanon!’ just before it quickly disappeared. Like an arrow, that message struck his heart. At the end of the celebrations, after greeting everyone, he came back inside and went to kneel before the Almighty. He asked Jesus, present in the Eucharist, to let him live long enough to save Lebanon.'”
Such a simple deed can influence the course of events. In 1978, John Paul II had already decided that Vatican diplomacy would focus on preventing Lebanon from breaking up. Not only did God allow John Paul II to live long enough to “save Lebanon,” but he also saved him, the Pope thought, in the assassination attempt against him on 13 May 1981 so that he could fulfill his mission, which, of course, is part and parcel of a broader design for the world.
“What mattered the most to the Pope,” Gilberte Doummar said, “was the country’s unity. He wanted Christians to work for Lebanon’s unity.
“On his urging, the Holy See in March 1986 launched a plan to end the civil war. Card Achille Silvestrini, one of the foremost Vatican diplomats during his pontificate, was charged with the task. He tried in particular to organise a Muslim-Christian summit; however, he was not however to breach the wall that divided the Lebanese. Previously, the Vatican had tried many times to stop Christian militias from arming themselves but to no avail, insisting that the paths of peace were better than those of violence. He chided officials in some monastic orders for forgetting their vocation when they supplied weapons to Christians.”
“In 1987,” Gilberte Doummar noted, “after the failure of the Silvestrini mission, a sad Pope, gesturing with his hand, told me, ‘Pray and make others pray for Lebanon.’ When he called Lebanon a ‘message-country,’ he prophetically saw what Lebanon could offer, how far its influence could go and what a great mission it could have. Lebanon was made for unity, and the Pope had a gift to see what we could not see.”
The Pope saw in Lebanon many commonalities with his home country of Poland, and he believed that sustained dialogue and diplomacy could achieve a dramatic breakthrough for Lebanon, similar to the cascade of events that had followed his 1979 visit to Poland — which included the founding of the “Solidarnosc” Trade Union in 1980 and the eventual fall of the Iron Curtain.
In Bring Down the Walls: Lebanon’s Post-War Challenge, Lebanese journalist and author Carole H. Dagher describes the sky-high expectations that preceded John Paul’s visit:
In Lebanon, Christian expectations of John Paul II’s historic trip were high. The parallel with Karol Wojtyla’s first trip to Poland was irresistible. People had in mind the changes it brought about and the demise of the Soviet empire a few years later.
Once again, prominent figures such as former Foreign Minister Fouad Boutros preached a realistic outlook: “Lebanon is not Poland,” he observed,“even if the Pope told me in 1979 when I met him: ‘Your country reminds me of Poland.’ In Poland, the Americans and the CIA were involved in the transformation process and the Pope’s visit was a catalyst that accelerated the process at the popular level. This is not the case in Lebanon.”
Still, at the minimum, John Paul II’s visit was expected to reinvigorate the Christians and invite them to remain attached to their land. It would be, at least,“a blast of fresh air,” as many a journalist wrote.
Despite the pontiff’s vision for Lebanon, progress in Lebanon was not destined to take the form of sweeping, dramatic changes like glasnost, perestroika, or the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but rather slow, incremental advances like the signing of the 1989 Taif Agreement and the disarmament of various militias.
The 2005 Cedar Revolution and the peaceful withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon — a year after John Paul’s death — seemed to validate the Vatican’s “long game” diplomatic approach. However, enormous sectarian tensions remained, especially around the question of Hezbollah. Then the 2011 “Arab Spring” upended the Middle East and brought a fresh wave of challenges to Lebanon.
2012: Pope Benedict speaks of maintaining peace between Christians and Sunni and Shia Muslims
John Paul’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, arrived in Lebanon in 2012 at a time when the entire region of the Middle East stood once again at the brink of violence.
In neighboring Syria, a civil war had begun in 2011 — a war that would plunge the country into more than a decade of bloodshed, and result in more than 1.5 million Syrians — many of them Syrian Christians — fleeing into Lebanon as refugees.
On arriving in Lebanon, Benedict acknowledged the shadow of the war, saying, “I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men.”
He also offered Lebanon as an example for Syria and other countries in the region where sectarian violence was erupting: “The successful way the Lebanese all live together surely demonstrates to the whole Middle East and to the rest of the world that within a nation there can exist cooperation between the various churches and at the same time coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions.”
While the years following the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 had been punctuated by wars between Israel and Hezbollah and political struggles and assassinations within Lebanon, the Arab Spring was seen as an even more pivotal moment, one in which tensions between Christians, Muslims, and other sectarian communities such as Alawites and Druze had the potential to boil over into a wider war, and ultimately even threaten the continued survival of Christians in the Middle East.
An article written at the time of Benedict’s visit in 2012 reinforces this sense of a shifting balance of power, and of events building towards an imminent catastrophe:
“The Christians of Syria are looking for someone to get them some peace,” said Mariana, a 26-year-old Christian from Aleppo who moved to Beirut a month ago and asked that only her first name be used because of concerns for her safety. “Overall they are happy with the pope’s visit because they want someone to support them. They’re scared of the Islamic rise to power.”
Benedict, like many others in the Vatican, was observing the situation in Syria deteriorate into chaos, and likely saw the disastrous consequences for the Christian community that this chaos would bring — including the genocide of Christians in Iraq that would come about several years later after the rise of ISIS in Syria.
In this sense, his visit to Lebanon was an attempt to reinforce the country, allowing it to stand as a kind of “stronghold” that would remain stable and at peace, no matter how much the rest of the region spun out of control.
The article from the time of Benedict’s visit gives some context on the situation that Lebanon was facing at that time:
Christians in Lebanon are wedged between the Shiite militia and political party of Hezbollah on one side and Sunni conservatives who have felt empowered by the rise of the Sunni opposition in Syria on the other.
“Christians in Lebanon are, politically, what is keeping the peace between Sunnis and Shiites,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Many Lebanese, regardless of their religious background, have welcomed the pope.
“The pope’s visit is to confirm that the Christian presence in the Middle East is important,” said Mustafa Dylani, a 55-year-old teacher who is Sunni. “He is using love as a weapon before a civil war starts between Christians and Muslims. Those who burn churches and make films about the prophet Muhammad are seeking to encourage this bloodshed.”
Like John Paul before him, Benedict released an Apostolic Exhortation on the occasion of his visit to Lebanon: Ecclesia in Medio Oriente (The Church in the Middle East). In it, he spoke of the impact of “two new realities”: the “opposing trends” of “secularization, with its occasionally extreme consequences,” and “a violent fundamentalism claiming to be based on religion.”
Both of these trends, Benedict believed, ran counter to (and could be countered by) what he termed “religious freedom” and “healthy secularity”:
There is a need to move beyond tolerance to religious freedom. Taking this step does not open the door to relativism, as some would maintain. It does not compromise belief, but rather calls for a reconsideration of the relationship between man, religion and God. It is not an attack on the “foundational truths” of belief, since, despite human and religious divergences, a ray of truth shines on all men and women.
We know very well that truth, apart from God, does not exist as an autonomous reality. If it did, it would be an idol. The truth cannot unfold except in an otherness open to God, who wishes to reveal his own otherness in and through my human brothers and sisters.
Hence it is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: “I possess the truth”. The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift which calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love. […]
A healthy secularity… frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres.
No society can develop in a healthy way without embodying a spirit of mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds.
The basis of a constructive relationship between politics and religion is, first and foremost, human nature – a sound understanding of man – and full respect for inalienable human rights.
A sense of this correct relationship should lead to the realization that relations between the spiritual (religious) and the temporal (political) spheres should be marked by a kind of unity in distinction, inasmuch as both are called, while remaining distinct, to cooperate harmoniously in the service of the common good. […]
The challenges raised by the relationship of politics and religion can be met patiently and courageously through a sound human and religious formation.
Constant emphasis needs to be put on the place of God in personal, family and civic life, and on the proper place of men and women in God’s plan.
Above all, greater prayer is required for this intention.