Saint Charbel: A Lighthouse of Virtue in the Stormy Seas of Modern Catholic Life

Saint Charbel: A Lighthouse of Virtue in the Stormy Seas of Modern Catholic Life

In the vibrant tapestry of the Catholic Church, saints serve as shining threads, intertwining the divine and the human, the past and the present. They stand as timeless paragons of faith, inspiring generations with their heroic virtue and devotion. Among these luminous figures is Saint Charbel Makhlouf, a man whose life offers valuable lessons for the contemporary Catholic community.

Saint Charbel was born on May 8, 1828, in the mountainous landscape of Bekaa Kafra, Lebanon. From a young age, he felt a divine calling, ultimately joining the Monastery of Our Lady of Lebanon in Mayfouq at the age of 23. Later, he transferred to the Monastery of St. Maron near Beirut, where he continued to live a life marked by severe asceticism and profound contemplation until his peaceful passing.

It was during his canonization by Pope Paul VI on October 9, 1977, that the world truly grasped the depth of Saint Charbel's sanctity. The Pope's homily on this occasion was not merely a recognition of Charbel’s sanctity but a rallying cry for Catholics to seek inspiration from his life. As the Pope eloquently stated, "In a world largely fascinated by wealth and comfort, the austerity of his monastic life, the rigorous observance of the evangelical counsels, and the radiant power of holiness lived in simplicity...appears to us as a source of renewal and of invincible hope."

The first inspirational aspect of Saint Charbel's life lies in his choice of poverty. In the face of an era gripped by materialism, Saint Charbel chose a path of self-denial and simplicity. He reminds us, as Pope Paul VI stated, that "poverty is not an empty word, and that, like freedom and love, it has its source in God." Saint Charbel’s life calls us to focus on our spiritual wealth and detach ourselves from the superficiality of worldly possessions.

Secondly, Saint Charbel's devotion to prayer, fasting, and contemplation stand as an inspiring testament to the transformative power of faith. In a world rushing with the pace of digital communication and information overload, his life invites Catholics to pause, reflect, and engage in an intimate dialogue with God. As Pope Paul VI highlighted, "The silent and humble monk Charbel who emerges from the oblivion of his Lebanese mountain is, in the eyes of men of today, the man of absolute poverty, of perfect humility, the man of total abandonment to God, in the silence of permanent prayer."

Lastly, Saint Charbel's life illustrates the beauty of obedience, another virtue extolled by Catholic teachings. Despite the harsh monastic conditions, he faithfully adhered to his commitments, becoming a beacon of obedience and faith. He teaches us to embrace our duties, whether secular or religious, with the same unwavering fidelity.

In summary, the life of Saint Charbel, as aptly encapsulated in Pope Paul VI’s homily, provides an invaluable blueprint for contemporary Catholics. Through his devotion to poverty, prayer, and obedience, he illuminates a path of spiritual growth and constant dialogue with God. As we navigate the complexities of our modern lives, may we continue to draw inspiration from Saint Charbel, turning our hearts towards the heavenly, and finding in his example the courage to live our faith boldly and joyfully.

Kindly note that a complete translation of Pope Paul VI's homily, as delivered during the canonization of Saint Charbel, is provided at the end of this article. We believe that sharing this pivotal homily in its entirety will serve to enhance our readers' understanding of Saint Charbel's influence and his place within the Catholic faith. So, we invite you to stay with us through this exploration of Saint Charbel's life, knowing that the direct words of Pope Paul VI await you at the end of this enlightening journey.



Sunday, October 9, 1977

Dear Brothers and Dear Sons,

The entire Church, from East to West, is invited today to great joy. Our hearts turn towards Heaven, where we now know with certainty that Saint Charbel Makhlouf is associated with the immeasurable happiness of the Saints, in the light of Christ, praising and interceding for us. Our eyes also turn to where he lived, to the beloved land of Lebanon, whose representatives we are pleased to greet: His Beatitude Patriarch Antoine Pierre Khoraiche, along with many of his Maronite Brothers and Sons, representatives of other Catholic rites, Orthodox, and, at the civil level, the Delegation of the Lebanese Government and Parliament whom we warmly thank.

Your country, dear friends, has already been hailed with admiration by the biblical poets, impressed by the vigor of the cedars that have become symbols of the life of the righteous. Jesus himself came there to reward the faith of a Syrophoenician woman: a harbinger of salvation destined for all nations. And this Lebanon, a meeting place between the East and the West, has indeed become the homeland of diverse populations, who have bravely clung to their land and their fruitful religious traditions. The turmoil of recent events has etched deep lines on its face and cast a serious shadow on the paths of peace. But you know our constant sympathy and affection: with you, we maintain firm hope for renewed cooperation among all the sons of Lebanon.

And today, we venerate together a son of whom all Lebanon, and especially the Maronite Church, can be proud: Charbel Makhlouf. A very special son, a paradoxical artisan of peace, since he sought it away from the world, in God alone, whom he was intoxicated with. But his lamp, lit at the top of the mountain of his hermitage, in the last century, shone with an ever greater brightness, and unanimity quickly formed around his sanctity. We had already honored him by declaring him blessed on December 5, 1965, at the close of the Second Vatican Council. Today, by canonizing him and extending his cult to the whole Church, we present to the entire world this valiant monk, the glory of the Maronite Lebanese order and a worthy representative of the Eastern Churches and their high monastic tradition.

It is not necessary to recount in detail his biography, which is otherwise quite simple. It is important, however, to note to what extent the Christian environment of his childhood rooted young Youssef - that was his baptismal name - in faith and prepared him for his vocation: a family of modest, hardworking peasants, animated by robust faith, familiar with the liturgical prayer of the village and devotion to Mary; uncles dedicated to eremitical life, and above all, an admirable mother, pious and mortified to the point of continuous fasting. Listen to the words attributed to her after the separation from her son: "If you were not to become a good religious, I would tell you: Come back home. But now I know that the Lord wants you for his service. And in my sorrow at being separated from you, I say to him, resigned: Bless you, my child, and make you a saint" (P. PAUL DAHER, Charbel, a man intoxicated with God, Saint Maron Monastery of Annaya, Jbail Lebanon, 1965, p. 63). The virtues of the home and the example of parents always form a privileged environment for the blossoming of vocations.

But the vocation always entails a very personal decision of the candidate, where the irresistible call of grace interacts with his tenacious will to become a saint: "Leave everything, come! Follow me!" (Ibid. p. 52; cf. Mark 10:32). At twenty-three years old, our future saint indeed left his village of Beka-Kafra and his family, never to return. Thus, for the novice who became Brother Charbel, a rigorous monastic formation began, following the rule of the Maronite Lebanese Order of Saint Anthony, at the monastery of Our Lady of Mayfouk, then at the more secluded one of Saint Maron in Annaya. After his solemn profession, he pursued theological studies at Saint Cyprian in Kfifane, was ordained a priest in 1859, and spent sixteen years of community life among the monks of Annaya and twenty-three years of completely solitary life in the hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul, dependent on Annaya. It was there that he surrendered his soul to God on Christmas Eve 1898, at the age of seventy.

What, then, does such a life represent? The assiduous practice, pushed to the extreme, of the three religious vows, lived in the silence and monastic simplicity: first, the strictest poverty in terms of lodging, clothing, and the only frugal daily meal, hard manual labor in the harsh mountain climate; a chastity surrounded by legendary intransigence; and above all, total obedience to his superiors and even to his fellow monks, to the rules of the hermits as well, expressing his complete submission to God. But the key to this seemingly strange life is the pursuit of holiness, that is, the most perfect conformity to the humble and poor Christ, quasi-continuous communion with the Lord, personal participation in the sacrifice of Christ through fervent celebration of the Mass, and rigorous penance combined with intercession for sinners. In short, the incessant search for God alone, which is characteristic of monastic life, accentuated by the solitude of eremitic life.

This enumeration, which hagiographers can illustrate with numerous concrete facts, presents the face of a rather austere sanctity, doesn't it? Let us dwell on this paradox that perplexes, or even irritates, the modern world. One may still accept in a man like Charbel Makhlouf an extraordinary heroism, before which one bows, especially recognizing his firmness beyond the norm. But is it not "foolishness to the eyes of men," as the author of the Book of Wisdom already expressed? Even some Christians might wonder: Did Christ really demand such renunciation, he whose welcoming life contrasted with the austerities of John the Baptist? Worse still, won't certain proponents of modern humanism suspect this unyielding austerity of contempt, abuse, and traumatizing of the healthy values of the body and love, of friendly relations, of creative freedom, of life in a word?

To reason thus, in the case of Charbel Makhlouf and so many of his fellow monks or hermits since the beginning of the Church, is to demonstrate a serious misunderstanding, as if it were merely a human performance; it shows a certain myopia in the face of a much deeper reality. Certainly, human balance is not to be despised, and in any case, superiors and the Church must ensure the prudence and authenticity of such experiences. But human prudence and balance are not static notions, limited to the most common psychological elements or to human resources alone. It is primarily forgetting that Christ himself expressed equally abrupt demands for those who would be his disciples: "Follow me... and let the dead bury their dead" (Luke 9:59-60). "If anyone comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Ibid. 14:26). It is also forgetting, in the spiritual realm, the power of the soul, for which this austerity is primarily a simple means, forgetting the love of God that inspires it, the Absolute that attracts it; it is ignoring the grace of Christ that sustains it and makes it participate in the dynamism of his own Life. It is ultimately misunderstanding the resources of the spiritual life, capable of leading to a depth, vitality, mastery of being, and balance that are all the greater because they have not been sought for themselves: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and the rest will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:32).

And indeed, who would not admire, in Charbel Makhlouf, the positive aspects that austerity, mortification, obedience, chastity, and solitude have made possible to a degree rarely achieved? Think of his sovereign freedom in the face of difficulties or passions of all kinds, the quality of his inner life, the elevation of his prayer, his spirit of adoration manifested in the heart of nature and especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, his filial tenderness for the Virgin, and all those wonders promised in the Beatitudes and fulfilled literally in our saint: gentleness, humility, mercy, peace, joy, participation, even in this life, in the healing and converting power of Christ. In short, austerity, in him, put him on the path to perfect serenity, true happiness; it left ample room for the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, it is impressive how the people of God did not mistake this. During Charbel Makhlouf's lifetime, his sanctity radiated, and his compatriots, Christians and non-Christians, venerated him, flocked to him as the physician of souls and bodies. And since his death, the light has shone even more above his tomb: how many people, in search of spiritual progress, or distant from God, or in distress, continue to be fascinated by this man of God, praying to him fervently, while so many others, so-called apostles, have left no trace, like those mentioned in Scripture (Wisdom 5:10; Letter to the Mass).

Indeed, the kind of holiness practiced by Charbel Makhlouf carries great weight, not only for the glory of God but also for the vitality of the Church. Certainly, in the unique mystical Body of Christ, as Saint Paul says (cf. Romans 12:4-8), there are many and diverse charisms; they correspond to different functions, each of which is indispensable. We need shepherds who gather the people of God and preside over them wisely in the name of Christ. We need theologians who delve into doctrine and a Magisterium that watches over it. We need evangelizers and missionaries who carry the word of God on all the roads of the world. We need catechists who are skilled teachers and educators of the faith - this is the purpose of the current Synod. We need people who dedicate themselves directly to helping their brothers and sisters... But we also need people who offer themselves as victims for the salvation of the world, in freely accepted penance, in ceaseless intercessory prayer, like Moses on the mountain, in a passionate search for the Absolute, bearing witness that God is worth being adored and loved for himself. The lifestyle of these religious, monks, and hermits is not proposed to all as an imitable charism, but in its purest form, in a radical way, they embody a spirit in which no follower of Christ is exempt, they fulfill a function without which the Church cannot do without, they recall a salutary path for all.

Allow us, in conclusion, to emphasize the particular interest of the eremitic vocation today. It also seems to be experiencing a certain resurgence of favor, which is not explained solely by the decline of society or the constraints it imposes. It can, moreover, take adapted forms, provided that it is always conducted with discernment and obedience.

This testimony, far from being a survival of a bygone past, appears to us to be very important, for our world as well as for our Church.

Let us bless the Lord for having given us Saint Charbel Makhlouf to rekindle the forces of his Church through his example and prayer. May the new saint continue to exert his prodigious influence, not only in Lebanon but also in the East and the entire Church! May he intercede for us, poor sinners, who too often do not dare to risk the experience of the beatitudes that lead to perfect joy! May he intercede for his brothers of the Maronite Lebanese order and for the entire Maronite Church, whose merits and trials everyone knows! May he intercede for the beloved country of Lebanon, helping it to overcome the difficulties of the moment, to heal still fresh wounds, and to walk in hope! May he support and guide it on the right and just path, as we will sing shortly! May his light shine above Annaya, uniting people in harmony and drawing them to God, whom he now contemplates in eternal bliss! Amen!

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