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Melto D’ Moronoyo: The Cardinal who loved Lebanon

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Cardinal Pell walks a track in the Qadisha Valley during a visit to Lebanon. Photos: private collection, Mr Joseph Assaf

Cardinal loved Lebanon

The more we shed light on the life and achievements of his Eminence George Cardinal Pell the more we realise that he was an exceptional churchman who offered a lot in many fields locally and overseas. Not many people would have had the opportunity to know about his particular affection for and special relationship with Lebanon and especially with the Maronite Church and community.

On a personal note I first met the then-Archbishop Pell in 2002 at a book event in Sydney. I was struck by his humility, wisdom and attentiveness. He had at the time been appointed Archbishop of Sydney and recently named President of the Vox Clara committee for the English translations to liturgical texts.

Since then I remained in regular contact with him but in 2008, following his successful bid for World Youth Day to be hosted in Sydney, our relationship developed further. I invited him to meet with the youth of St Charbel’s (Punchbowl) Parish, who alone had achieved more than 600 registrations for WYD 2008, the biggest number registered from a single parish.

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He was most impressed with the energy and dynamic of the Maronite youth, and he encouraged them – as people of faith – to consider serving in public office so that political parties which endorsed Catholic values can be strengthened by “our voice”.

He always did understand the strength of the Maronites, perhaps even more so than we ourselves do, calling us often the “backbone of the Catholic Church in Australia”.

Subsequently, following my own appointment as Maronite Bishop of Australia in 2013 and until the past year, I kept in regular contact with His Eminence. I found him to be, as so many others have, a fearless defender of the Catholic faith, and a strong believer in the teaching and mission of the Church. He was always keen to know the latest from our Eparchy and forthcoming with his views.

At the heart of him though was a palpable softness and readiness to assist with anything, especially when it came to the less fortunate.

In 2014 and ahead of travelling to Rome for his appointment as Prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See and the Vatican City State, he met with His Beatitude and Eminence Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Cardinal of the Universal Church, on his visit to Australia. It was a blessing as he had the opportunity to facilitate ecumenical dialogue during a session with the Maronite Patriarch, to help ensure it continued without compromise.

He always did understand the strength of the Maronites, perhaps even more so than we ourselves do, calling us often the “backbone of the Catholic Church in Australia”.
– Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay

One of the highlights of his trips overseas which he spoke a lot about, was his visit to Lebanon which took place following his appointment as Cardinal in 2003. The day after his elevation to become Cardinal in fact, he joined a mutual friend on a trip to Lebanon.

Mr Joseph Assaf and his family hosted the Cardinal for several days in their home village of Hardine where he also celebrated his first mass as Cardinal in the village square. Mr Assaf recounted that although Cardinal Pell was extremely fascinated with the area’s rich history dating back thousands of years including Phoenician and Roman sites. The Cardinal was especially surprised by Hardine’s rich Christian history as the first village to adopt Christianity in the region and of course its Maronite history.

The village has within its boundaries over 30 places of worship, including monasteries shrines and churches as well as the ruins of the first Maronite patriarchate, none of which was lost on the Cardinal.

Having written his (doctoral) thesis on the early Christians, every engraving of the fish symbol on the rocky paths and clay pot artefacts had deep significance for the Cardinal who recalled his earlier studies and just how they were coming to life for him on his trip.

And although he visited and met with religious and political leadership during his trip to Lebanon, it was his hike through the Holy Valley in the North of Lebanon that seemed to have impacted him the most. Weaving through Qadisha with hidden monasteries and places of worship behind the rock face, he stood on a path overlooking the valley and said, “now I understand why Jesus says we must build our house on the rock.”

He subsequently wrote about the Maronites as “the people with the unshakeable faith”, acknowledging at every opportunity, the great part they played in so many aspects of the life of the Catholic Church in Australia.

During the time of his persecution and accusations I, along with Maronites around the country, joined in prayer for justice to prevail. While his final years were marked with his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, he certainly accepted his cross with dignity and peace, and never wavered from concern for sexual abuse survivors and how we can all always do better.

With the announcement of his sudden death, Maronites joined the Australian Catholic Church mourning the loss of a courageous churchman and a great friend of the Maronite Church. Let our prayers go out to our God, whom Cardinal Pell wholeheartedly believed in loved and followed, that he may be welcomed into eternal life.

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