The Maronites are an Eastern rite of the Catholic Church. They take their name from St. Maron, a 4th century monk who lived as a hermit in current-day Syria. More than half of the world's approximately 3 million Maronites live in Lebanon, making them that nation's largest Christian group.
Maronites are full, recognized members of the Catholic Church. They stand in union with the pope and are recognized by the Vatican. They celebrate the same sacraments and profess the same apostolic faith as all Roman Catholics across the world. Maronites can fulfill their Sunday obligations in any Roman Catholic church, and any Catholic can do likewise in a Maronite church. Maronites do, however, have their own unique theology, spirituality, liturgy and code of canon law.
The native language of the Maronites, like that of Jesus Christ, was Aramaic. The Maronites were isolated from the larger church for hundreds of years, and were only "discovered" when Crusaders entered Lebanon. Therefore, the Latinization of the church largely bypassed the Maronites, leaving them intertwined with Aramaic culture and dialect. They maintained it as their spoken language until Mount Lebanon was conquered by the Arabs at the beginning of the 14th century. Just as traditional Catholics revere the Latin tongue, Aramaic is a sacred part of Maronite religious history and is still used in some church ceremonies and songs.
The early Maronites were the direct descendants of the people who received Christianity from the Apostle Peter, who became the church's first bishop after founding it at Antioch. The Divine Liturgy of the Mass celebrated by the Maronites can be traced to Antioch, where “the disciples were called Christians first.” (Acts 11:26). The Antioch Liturgy still exists in the Maronite rite, blended with part of the ancient liturgy of the Old Testament. For instance, at the Consecration, the priest tips the chalice in all four directions, symbolizing that Christ shed his blood for the entire Universe, which mirrors the tradition of sprinkling the four corners of the altar with the blood of the sacrificial lamb.
The Maronites feel a special kinship with three saints in particular. Saint Rafka was a nun who entered the Lebanese Maronite Order and lived and worked at the Convent of St. Simon. St. Sharbel lived for 16 years at the St. Maron Monastery in Lebanon, but then became a hermit for the rest of his life after being called to solitude by God. St. Nimatullah Al-Hardini was a Lebanese priest who spent most of his life in monastic solitude. His feast day is celebrated by Maronites on Dec. 14.
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